Exploring National Marine Sanctuaries: Florida Keys

By guest writers Rachel Pawlitz, communications coordinator, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and Elizabeth Weinberg, social media coordinator and editor/writer, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

For more than 40 years, national marine sanctuaries have worked to protect special places in America’s ocean and Great Lakes waters, from the Hawaiian Islands to the Florida Keys, from Lake Huron to American Samoa. Backed by one of the nation’s strongest pieces of ocean conservation legislation, the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, the sanctuaries seek to preserve the extraordinary beauty, biodiversity, historical connections and economic productivity of our most precious underwater treasures. And — lucky for you — most of these places are accessible to recreational divers. Sanctuary waters are filled with unique ecosystems, harboring a spectacular array of plants, animals and historical artifacts, all waiting to be explored. National marine sanctuaries belong to everyone, so dive in.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

In the crystal-clear waters of the Florida Keys, angelfish and butterflyfish dart among the corals of North America’s only living barrier reef. Scattered wrecks lie in testament to the risks the reef once posed to shipping. Rachel Carson called the Keys “America’s only coral coast,” and Ernest Hemingway famously fished its bounty. This unique region is protected by Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, designated in 1990 to preserve the coral barrier-reef ecosystem and these historic shipwrecks.

Today, the sanctuary encompasses 2,900 square nautical miles, including most of the Florida reef tract and surrounding seagrass beds, sand flats and backcountry mangroves. These stunning habitats support more than 6,000 marine species, from gentle manatees to mountain star coral.

Parrotfish and grunts are a common sight on spectacular spur-and-groove reefs found at Sanctuary Preservation Areas such as Carysfort, Molasses, and Looe Key. Patch reefs, such as Coffins Patch and Cheeca Rocks, are interspersed with coral and seagrass, supporting yellowtail, grouper and other fish that feed each night in seagrass beds. In the sanctuary’s Western Sambo Ecological Reserve, healthy stands remain of the once-abundant elkhorn coral. The sanctuary uses a network of zones with specific regulations to preserve the ecosystem’s health, so when planning your dives, check the rules on the sanctuary website for each location.

The reefs of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary are home to more than 500 species of fish, including young French angelfish like this one. (Photo credit: NOAA)
The nine historic ships of the Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail provide sanctuary visitors with an on-site history lesson. The remains of the City of Washington, which ran aground and sank on July 10, 1917, lie on Elbow Reef. Divers can explore the 325-foot-long wreck site and follow the contour of the ship’s hull. (Photo credit: NOAA)
Bursts of color are a common sight in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, as corals, gorgonians, sponges, fish and other marine species cluster in the sanctuary’s barrier reef. Here, a spotfin butterflyfish flits through the reef’s menagerie of colors. (Photo credit: Bill Goodwin/NOAA)
Extensive seagrass beds within sanctuary waters are home to sea stars and manatees alike. (Photo credit: NOAA)
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects more than 50 species of coral, including the federally-protected staghorn coral. Divers in the sanctuary can help protect these threatened corals by avoiding contact with the reef: even a minor brush with hands or fins can damage these delicate animals. (Photo credit: NOAA)
Large, branching elkhorn corals support a diverse assemblage of other marine life within the sanctuary. These special corals are particularly susceptible to damage from sedimentation, so when diving, take extra care to keep from stirring up sand with your fins. (Photo credit: Todd Hitchins/NOAA)
Nurseries can help regrow coral fragments from certain coral species, allowing corals damaged during events like ship groundings to be rescued and used for restoration projects. Floating freely in the water while hung on “trees” made of PVC pipes improves water circulation between the corals, which helps prevent predators such as fireworms or snails, and increases their survival rate. (Photo credit: Mitchell Tartt/NOAA)
The topographic relief formed by stony corals, whose rigid carbonate skeletons build up the reef’s vertical structure, makes coral reefs excellent habitat for fish. Here, a school of French grunts seeks refuge from predators. (Photo credit: NOAA)
Pillar corals grow upward, forming what looks like fingers or columns. Swimming by these you might get to glimpse their polyps: extended during the day, these polyps give the coral a fuzzy appearance. (Photo credit: NOAA)
The remote coral reefs of the Tortugas Ecological Reserve are the crown jewel of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Clean, clear water and powerful ocean currents fuel the diversity of life in this region, from abundant coral to more than 400 species of fish. (Photo credit: Jiangang Luo)

The sanctuary also features the Shipwreck Trail, a series of nine shipwrecks dating from the Spanish Armada-era San Pedro off Indian Key to the scuttled Coast Guard cutter Duane off Key Largo.

When you dive in the Florida Keys, you can take care of this special place by using the sanctuary’s mooring buoys to prevent anchors from damaging coral and other sensitive habitats. If you are booking a charter, look for the sanctuary’s Blue Star certification and know that you’re selecting an operator dedicated to education and coral reef conservation. With over 700,000 divers and snorkelers hitting Keys waters annually, a little bit of extra care goes a long way. To preserve this unique area, the sanctuary is in the midst of modernizing its zones and regulations to ensure the Keys’ ecology remains intact for the next generation.

Experience the wonders of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and other national marine sanctuaries via more photos here.   

Cover image credit: Steve Lonhart/NOAA


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