Florida Keys Marine Life

Lighthouses and The Reef

October 18th, 2017

The danger of the Florida Reef to shipping became a critical matter in the mid 1850’s. Near Sand Key alone, 8 vessels 8 vessels were run aground in a 16 month period, causing a loss of millions of dollars in modern terms. Construction of lighthouses to mark the dangerous reefs became a governments priority.

Lieutenant George G. Meade supervised construction of Sand Key Light. Ten years later, in 1863, he led Union troops to defeat Robert E. Lee in the second battle at Gettysburg.

Poor navigational signals helped to foster the growth of the wrecking industry. Key West’s “Wreckers” sailed out to grounded vessels, saved any survivors and salvaged cargo.

Keeping the light burning was a tedious task before George Meade introduced this hydraulic lamp of his own design at Sand Key. It was the first dependable lamp to burn through the night without needing tending. It is shown here inside a First Order Fresnel Lens, about 6 feet in diameter, which looks like a large glass pineapple.

Screw-pile Construction was used on the iron reef lights. 8-inch diameter piles with 2-foot wide screw bases were slowly driven into the reef and sand below. They are anchored 10 feet deep in the reef, and cross-braced with wrought iron ties above.

The lighthouses along the Florida Reef shine their lights as far as 9 miles, warning ships of the hidden danger below. They also serve as guardians to the reef– saving the reef from the severe damage that would be caused by boats running aground.

Screw-pile Lighthouses certainly damaged the reef when they were first constructed. But the long-term result of the lighthouses is that they protect the reef from much greater damage to its living organisms over decades and even centuries.

Sea Turtle Conservation

October 4th, 2017

Our mission here at the Key West Aquarium is to educate the public about the dangers of these turtles face on a daily basis. The sea turtles in this facility would not be able to survive out in the wild with their injuries. By educating and making the public aware, our hopes are to minimize these senseless encounters and allow the sea turtle population to thrive as they once did.

Some of  the Sea Turtles in our care at the Key West Aquarium are:

Spike the Loggerhead Sea Turtle. Spike was found at roughly 9 inches in length with 3 of her 4 flippers eaten off by an unknown predator. She was treated for her wounds and has resided with us ever since. Loggerheads are an endangered species that inhabit the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian Oceans, and the Mediterranean Sea. They can reach a size of 8-9 feet in length, weigh 900-1000 lbs. and live an average of 60 years.

Lola the Kemps-Ridley Sea Turtle. Lola was found twice entangled in fishing line. The second time the line was so tight on her right front flipper that it had to be amputated. The Key West Aquarium has had her fitted with a prosthetic that she swims with during the day. Kemps-Ridleys are a critically endangered species that inhabit warm waters in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. They are the smallest of the sea turtles and only nest on one beach in Mexico. They average thirty inches in length, weigh up to 100 pounds and the average lifespan is unknown.

Lola trying on her prosthetic flipper she received in 2015.

Rocky the Green Sea Turtle. Rocky was struck by a boat early in his life. This caused the loss of his right front flipper and damage to his shell buoyant. The weights mounted to his shell help him to swim and lie flat when he chooses. Green Sea Turtles are an endangered species that inhabit the worlds tropical and subtropical oceans. They can reach a size of 5 feet, weigh an average of 400 pounds and live up to 80 years.

Hector the Hawksbill Sea Turtle. Hector was part of a head start program during the mid to late 1980’s. Head starting of the sea turtle hatchlings in captivity allowed the sea turtles to acheive a size large enough to avoid most predation. Hector was and remains a part of our educational program here at the Key West Aquarium. The hawksbill is a small to medium-sized marine turtle having an elongated oval shell with overlapping scutes on the carapace, a relatively small head with a distinctive hawk-like beak, and flippers with two claws.

Hunter the Loggerhead Sea Turtle. Hunter, an adult male loggerhead was originally admitted to the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, FL on August 8, 2o12. Hunter was emaciated with lockjaw, 5 fishing hooks were noted on the radiograph. After extensive rehab Hunter was released to the wild December 14, 2013. Hunter was rescued again on November 22, 2015. He had lockjaw and healed prop wounds from a boat strike. Hunter is fully recovered, eating and swimming well and a healthy body weight. He had surgery to remove a partial hook from his shoulder. The remaining two hooks are in areas that are too risky for surgery. Hunter is now placed here at the KWAQ where he can be closely monitored and will hopefully be released one day to the wild once the fishing hooks have degraded and are no longer an issue.

Hunter testing the waters of his new home in 2015.

Confiscated Marine Life

September 20th, 2017

The Key West Aquarium, along with NOAA and The Florida Wildlife Commission, are working hard to protect our environment. Illegal collection and transport of marine  tropicals for the aquarium trade is widely spreading. Without proper permits and transportation documents, marine tropicals are seized by government officials. The seized property is placed in facilities like this one until trial, as part of evidence until the case is settled.

Green bird wrasse, percula clownfish, sailfin tang, yellow tang, blue damsel, bamboo shark, bicolor parrotfish, banded eel, blue chromis, coral beauty angel, brown tang, and orange anthias are all commonly confiscated marine life. You can see these fish at the Key West Aquarium and learn more about them.

Jellyfish

September 6th, 2017

They key to the jellyfish’s 500-million-year uninterrupted reign on this earth is its adaptability. Jellyfish can range from infinitesimal sizes to sizes larger than freight carriers! The 200 classified species can be anything from the fingernail-size star-shaped stalked jellyfish,which is native to northern Pacific waters, to the giant Lion’s mane, which lives in arctic waters and can grow up to eight feet in diameter, with tentacles spanning 100 feet. Some jellyfish are luminescent, others live upside-down, and some possess stings that can cause excruciating pain for ages.

Soft Coral

August 16th, 2017

Soft corals are members of the phylum cnidaria, a group of stinging celled animals that include anemones, jellyfish, hydroids, sea-pens, the the true corals and other coral-named groups. Soft corals acquired their name from their fleshy and flexible forms which are constructed of a bizarre assembly of structural elements that help the corals to keep their shapes and support their form. As you can see, the lack of the external hard, calcareous skeleton hte small and large polyp stony corals possess make it easy to distinguish the soft corals from the stony corals. Soft corals are found worldwide, more in tropical than temperate reefs, mainly in depths of 5-30 meters.

 

Zooanthids

August 2nd, 2017

Zooanthids are an order of cnidarians commonly found in coral reefs, the deep sea and many other marine environments around the world. These animals come in a variety of different colonizing formations and in numerous colors. They can be found as individual polyps, attached by a fleshy stolon or a mat that can be created from small pieces of sediment, sand and rock.

Zooanthids feed both by photosynthesis, aided by the zooxanthellae they contain, and by capturing plankton and particulate matter. Although photosynthesis aids in their nutrition, even species that do not actively capture plankton cannot live through photosynthesis alone. Zooanthids can eat meaty foods such as brine shrimp, krill, and bloodworms.

Gorgonians

July 19th, 2017

a gorgonian, also known as a sea whip or sea fan, is an order of sessile colonial cnidarians found throughout the oceans of the world, especially in the tropics and subtropics. Gorgonians are similar to the sea pen, another soft coral. Individual tiny polyps form colonies that are normally erect, flattened, branching, and reminiscent of a fan. Others may be whip-like, bushy, or even encrusting. A colony can be several feet high and across but only a few inches thick. They may be brightly colored, often purple, red, or yellow.

Examples of an encrusting gorgonian are the briareum sp. It has long, grass-like polyps which are normally extended continuously, retracted only when disturbed. Briareum sp. can have multiple forms including encrusting, flat or knobby crusts, or upright branches.

Gorgonians are found primarily in shallow waters, though some have been found at depths of several thousand feet. The size and shape, and appearance of the gorgonians tend to populate shallower areas with strong currents, while the taller thinner, and stiffer gorgonians can be found in deeper, calmer waters.

Living With Alligators in Florida

Florida, the 27th state, is the most southeasterly state in the entire United States. As locals and tourists continue to flock to the region to live, retire and vacation, more and more homes and resorts spring into action. As the population increases, the swamplands, once patrolled mostly by reptiles and nature’s creatures, become less and less and the possibility of animal encounters increases. The state of Florida presently has over 20 million people and over one million alligators. When it comes to encounters with alligators, the best possible advice is to try your best not to have those encounters by staying a safe distance of at least 50 feet away. If one bites you, the advice is to make the most noise possible and work hard to get away. Use force if necessary. Don’t approach to take selfies; don’t approach to check if it’s alive; and if you’re headed into any of Florida’s many fresh water streams, lakes or springs, take great care – alligators are often around even if you can’t see them.

Alligator Facts

  • American alligators were once considered almost extinct
  • By the 1950s, endless hunting had almost wiped out the population
  • By the 1980s, the population managed to recover; gators were removed from the endangered species list
  • Although confrontations occur, attacks on humans by alligators are still considered rare
  • Homes and communities now lie on edges of alligator habitats or have water that alligators seek
  • Alligators are often drawn to storm water ponds of all sorts
  • Regardless of whether it’s natural or man-made, if there’s a body of water in Florida, there could be an alligator in it
  • Alligators have a preference for fresh water and sometimes brackish water
  • Statistical data suggests that the probability of being killed by an alligator is low
  • Since the early 1970s, there have been 23 fatalities and under 400 unprovoked bites by alligators in Florida
  • Mating season for alligators is late April through early June
  • Females build their nest and lay on average 20-45 eggs in June/July
  • Eggs traditionally hatch from the middle of August through the beginning of September
  • Egg, hatchling and nest survival is often stunted by predators (like raccoons) and flooding
  • Alligators rely on external heat sources in order to regulate their body temperature (which is why they can often be found lying in the sun or on a hot surface)
  • 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit is the range of temperature when gators are most active
  • Limited feeding takes place during temperatures less than 70 degrees Fahrenheit
  • The hibernation or dormant period for gators is often when the temperature is below 55 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Alligator classification: reptiles (direct ancestors: dinosaurs)
  • An alligator’s heart has four chambers (most reptiles have 3)
  • The American alligator is known as the largest reptile in North America
  • Alligators are the official state reptile of Florida
  • The alligator is the mascot of the University of Florida

 

Advice From The Experts

Photo Courtesy of Jack Hanna

Jack Hanna (Director Emeritus of Columbia Zoo/Aquarium)

  • Alligators can go six months a year without eating
  • Alligators migrate far distances (they walk on roads, crawl through pipes, slug through swamplands)
  • It is difficult to keep alligators contained to one space
  • Alligators mostly ignore humans and are often unsettled/frightened by them
  • If hungry, and humans are in the water, alligators may go for the ankles of that nearby human (regardless of age, weight or size)
  • An alligator is able to outrun all human creatures within the first 20-30 feet of exiting the water – making it very difficult for humans to outrun alligators
  • It is difficult to spot an alligator in the water or on land if it’s in a secluded area
  • Alligators watch from above the water but they listen and feel vibrations of prey from below the water
  • Alligators are known to lie on tar roads due to the hot surface
  • Alligators are prevalent all over Florida
  • If bit by an alligator, make a lot of noise, use force, poke eyes
Photo Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation

According to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation

  • Alligator diet includes prey that is easy to find and available often
  • Adult alligators eat snakes, turtles, smaller mammals, small birds, large/rough fish
  • Young alligators eat mostly insects, smaller fish, other amphibian creatures/invertebrates
  • Alligators have been known to eat other alligators and dead animals
  • Female alligators typically remain under 10 feet long
  • Male alligators can be much larger than females and over 10 feet in length

Tips

  • Do not feed alligators
  • If taking a photo or looking at an alligator, remain at least 50 feet away in distance
  • Do not swim in areas where it’s a known alligator community
  • Never go near an alligator nest
  • Never touch or go near an alligator on a road even if it looks dead
  • Stay away from water at night and definitely stay away during the breeding season
  • If you’re in fresh or stagnant water (natural or man-made) in Florida, know that alligators could be anywhere

 

Clownfish

July 5th, 2017

Clownfish are also known as anemonefish, which is a genus of the pomacentridae family and consists of 29 recognized species. They primarily inhabit coral reefs in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They are also found as far north as the Red Sea and inhabit the Great Barrier Reef off the east coast of Australia. They are not native to the Atlantic/Caribbean Oceans or the Florida Keys.

You can find a clownfish exhibit at the Key West Aquarium. The clownfish in the exhibit were aquacultured at ORA (Oceans Reefs and Aquariums) in Ft. Pierce, FL. Farm raising is a common practice for this species due to the increase in their popularity. Aquaculture reduces the collection of wild caught marine specimens in high demand and diminishes our impact on the environment.

Caribbean Reef Octopus

June 14th, 2017

The Caribbean Reef Octopus lives in warm waters around coral reef environments and grassy and rocky sea beds. There are more than 300 different species of octopus that have been identified. Considered the most intelligent of all invertebrates, the octopus is found in the tropical and temperate waters of the worlds oceans. They prey on crabs, crayfish, and mollusks, and will sometimes use their ink to disorient their victims before attacking. Its first line of defense is its ability to hide in plain sight. Using a network of pigment cells and specialized muscles in its skin, the octopus can almost instantaneously match the colors, patterns, and even textures of its surrounding. Predators such as sharks, eels, and dolphins swim by without even noticing it. When discovered, an octopus will release a cloud of black ink to obscure its attackers view, giving it time to swim away. The ink even contains a substance that weakens a predators’ sense of smell, making the fleeing octopus harder to track. Fast swimmers, they can jet forward expelling water through their mantles. And their bodies can squeeze into impossibly small cracks and crevices where predators can’t follow.

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