The Florida Keys: Wild Creatures Great and Small

Fishing at sunset in the Florida Keys

Sublime sunsets, off the grid fishing, and decadent key lime pie…just a few reasons why travelers love The Florida Keys. But did you know The Keys are home to nature lovers who rescue, rehabilitate, and release wildlife? I spent a few days exploring the Keys, meeting folks who give their hearts and souls to wild creatures, great and small.

The Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key has an important mission: “To promote peaceful coexistence between marine mammals, humans, and the environment we share.” The Center receives 50,000 global visitors yearly, who enjoy 19 gregarious Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins exhibiting fascinating behaviors.

“Besides our daily guests, we’re also blessed with volunteers who come to visit and often stay for months,” says Mary Stella, Media Relations Coordinator. “They’re involved with medical assists, caring for our dolphins, sea lions, and birds, and helping the staff in so many wonderful ways. I visited here myself as a young girl, and fell in love with this place. Now lucky me, I work here.” Mary escorts us to a seawater lagoon for the noon “Dolphin Fun Facts” session. Molly the dolphin leaps joyfully in the air, then smiles, showing us her 72 cone-shaped teeth. Caloosa stands on her head and flaps her tail. As crowds applaud, the dolphins giggle like girls at a pajama party.

Girl shakes the flippers of a dolphin at the Dolphin Research Center

“Dolphins are amazingly intelligent, powerful, and social,” says their trainer, Jody Skjegstad. “We feel close to them because they’re warm blooded mammals who care for their families, just like humans.” Many visitors want to interact closely with the Center’s dolphins and enjoy swimming with them. Others sign up as “Researcher for a Day,” helping collect data and analyze current studies. Creative types, try this class: “Paint with a dolphin,” where artistic dolphins create a T- shirt souvenir. For dolphin lovers, this Center is fabulous and educational.

Adventurers who dream of encountering wild dolphins should book an excursion with Captain Victoria in Key West. A wilderness guide for over thirty years, with a degree in Marine Science, Captain Victoria takes lucky travelers out in the glorious Gulf of Mexico where wild dolphins play. After a 45-minute high-speed ride aboard her powerboat, Captain V. throws out her anchor, plays classical/pop music, and voila! A pod of curious wild dolphins appears. Shimmering emerald water, dreamy cobalt sky, dancing with dolphins. Magic.

At the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Tavernier, founder Laura Quinn and her team are saving hundreds of birds. Just last year they rescued, rehabilitated, and released double-crested cormorants, brown pelicans, laughing gulls, common grackles, screech owls and broad-winged hawks. Walking through the beautiful natural habitat, you’ll observe hundreds of recovering birds flying happily among the mangroves. Every afternoon, several hundred pelicans gulp fish snacks doled out by the devoted staff. This Center is accomplishing miracles, bird by bird.

A great white heron at the Wild Bird Center

The best way to get outstanding bird photographs is from a kayak. On No Name Key, we meet Captain Bill Keogh, author of “The Florida Keys Paddling Guide.” Living in the Keys for two decades, this Captain is a highly regarded nature guide, science educator, and professional photographer.

“Ready for our kayak adventure?” Captain Bill asks. “I’m taking you to the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge.” In the Refuge, we slide our kayaks through a narrow tunnel of giant tangled mangrove roots. Blue crabs scuttle in the shallows, great white herons and bald eagles flap overhead.

“Welcome to my special place,” Captain Bill says quietly. “Home to dolphins, sea turtles, tarpon, snook, barracuda…and an incredible number of birds.” Sitting among the mangroves, enjoying the fresh air and quiet, we don’t have a clue where in the world we are. No one cares. We’re just grateful that pristine magnificence still exists on Planet Earth.

“I know you don’t want to leave,” Captain Bill says, “but back on shore I want you to meet someone very special.” Maya Totman, Director of the Florida Keys Wildlife Rescue Organization, waits for us, holding a large pelican in her arms. “We rescued this bird a month ago, and treated her with medicine, fluids, and love,” she explains. “Today she’s ready to fly home.” Maya gives the fuzzyheaded beast one last hug and gently tosses her into Florida Bay. Massive wings unfold. A gentle wind carries the pelican out to sea. “I love you,” Maya calls out. “Go home. To the sky. Never come back.” One more bird enriches planet Earth. Lucky pelican. Lucky us.

A turtle treated at Marathon Turtle Hospital

More dedicated wildlife organizations and parks in The Florida Keys await your visit. Applaud a sea turtle recovering from tumor surgery at The Turtle Hospital. Watch stranded whales receive medical treatment from doctors and hugs from local citizens at the Marine Mammal Conservancy. Dive or snorkel among parrotfish and goliath grouper at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Then gorge on decadent key lime pie and celebrate a Florida Keys sunset.

Visit and support these wildlife organizations and parks:
Marine Mammal Conservancy
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
World Parrot Mission
Florida Keys Wild Bird Center
Dolphin Research Center
The Turtle Hospital
Captain Bill Keogh
National Key Deer Refuge
Captain Victoria Dancing Dolphin Spirit Charters
Eco-Discovery Center
Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservancy

Where to Stay and Dine:

Islander Resort
Cypress House

Kona Kai Resort

I recommend these outstanding restaurants:
The Fish House, Key Largo
The Island Grill, Islamorada
Morada Bay Café, Islamorada
Bob’s Bunz, Islamorada
Keys Fisheries, Marathon
Green Turtle Inn, Islamorada
Midway Café & Coffee Bar, Islamorada, 1-305-664-2622
Half Shell Raw Bar, Key West
Blue Heaven, Key West
El Meson de Pepe, Key West

Sunset in the Florida Keys