Key West Attractions

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.

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.

Odd-Shaped Swimmers

January 18th, 2017

Fish that are considered “odd-shaped swimmers” have a tendency to be quite slow and awkward which should naturally present them as easy prey. However, their distinctive defenses help compensate for their slow locomotion. A favorite among divers and hobbyists alike, the pufferfish  is full of personality and charm. They have excellent eyesight and powerful jaws for crushing shells in order to feed on mollusks and smaller invertebrates. The pufferfish moves by combining efforts of its pectoral, dorsal, and caudal fins. While they are slow moving, they maneuver quite well and use the caudal fin for a sudden burst of speed if a quick escape is needed. If they are unable to flee they will draw large quantities of water into their elastic stomachs, ballooning up to several times their normal size. All puffers have pointed spines so the predator may find itself choking on the inflated fish rather than swallowing it. This species also has neurotoxin and tetrodotoxin in the ovaries and liver that can have a lethal effect if consumed. Two popular dishes in Asian Cuisine, puffer soup, and raw puffer meat often cause intoxication, light-headedness, nad numbness of the lips and is often eaten for these reasons. However, if these dishes are improperly prepared they can cause death.

Boxfish, including trunkfish and cowfish are notable for the hexagonal or “honeycomb” patterns in their skin. Their plate-like scales are quite heavy and as a result the fish is slow moving. They have adapted to these obstacles by using their pectoral fins in a rowing manner for movement. While their slow nature should make them an easy prey item, few fish are able to consume them. Many boxfish secrete poisons through their skin when threatened, fouling the surrounding water and protecting them from predation.

Lionfish Invasion

May 31st, 2016

The lionfish, a relative of the scorpion fish, is naturally distributed throughout the western Pacific from Southern Japan to Micronesia, Australia, and the Philippines. The lionfish inhabits reefs form about 10 to 175 meters in depth. The  most probable explanation for the arrival of the lionfish population in the Atlantic Ocean is via the aquatic pet trade and their careless release. In the U.S., the lionfish has rapidly increased in population abundance from the first reports as little as 5 years ago. Lionfish are now as abundant as many native grouper species in the Atlantic Ocean. They are relatively quick to adapt to new prey types and rapidly learn to avoid deadly prey. Feeding primarily on small reef fish and crustaceans, lionfish may also compete with native piscivores by monopolizing this important food resource.  The reduction of coral reef fishes suggests lionfish have the potential to decrease the abundance of ecologically important species such as parrotfish and other herbivorous fishes that keep seaweeds and microalgae from overgrowing corals.

In an effort to control the lionfish population the “Lionfish Derbies” were introduced in 2009. A lionfish derby is a team competition to collect as many lionfish as possible. Teams have between dawn-to-dusk and can use a variety of capture methods while either SCUBA diving, free diving, or snorkeling. Prizes are awarded to the teams the most, biggest, and smallest lionfish caught. Derbies have been held in the Bahamas, Florida Keys, and throughout South Florida and have resulted in the removal of thousands of lionfish.

The blue tang is typically found on reefs in high current areas so that they can feed on zooplankton. Blue tangs are easy to spot due to their bright coloration. They are typically a vibrant blue with a yellow tail. They have two black lines. One lines the fish form the eye, along the back, and atop the tail. The other lines the fish from the gills to the back of the tail. Their pectoral fins can have some yellow coloration on them. Their body is oval shaped and flat. Read the rest of this entry »

Key West Marine Life

One of Key West’s biggest draws is the tranquil, aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean that surround the island. The astounding natural beauty found here fosters a unique and diverse marine ecosystem. In the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the Florida Straits stretch from Miami past Key West, making it the third largest barrier reef in the world. Not far from there, the legendary Gulf Stream, a cold and fast-moving current attracts enormous pelagic fish, making it a dream for anglers. To the west, the shallow sand flats of the Gulf of Mexico harbor turtle grass and mangroves, which are the nesting and feeding grounds for a critical population of juvenile fish and migratory birds. There are many ways to explore Key West’s marine life and underwater habitats, both in the water and on land. Read on for a few of the best ways to experience Key West’s abundant marine life.

Grab a Snorkel Mask

What better way to encounter Key West’s coral reef than by diving right in on a snorkeling excursion? The reef is located seven miles offshore and you can set sail with various watersports companies located around the island. Aboard a snorkeling trip, you’ll swim amidst coral canyons made of colorful varieties of brain coral, Elkhorn coral, Staghorn coral, purple sea fans and more. Be on the lookout for yellowtail snapper, damselfish, rainbow parrotfish, angelfish and a wide variety of other tropical species, in addition to loggerhead sea turtles, stingrays and even sharks.

Feed a Stingray
The Key West Aquarium, located in the heart of Mallory Square, is a great way to learn about marine life that thrives in the Key West waters. With touch tanks and daily feedings, you can get up close and personal with stingrays, sea turtles and sharks. The aquarium’s exhibits and guides offer an informative, engaging and interactive introduction to Key West’s marine life.

Key West Aquarium Stingray

Lounge on a Sandbar
The only excursion in Key West that allows you to experience both the coral reef of the Atlantic Ocean and the shallow backcountry of the Gulf of Mexico is Fury Water Adventure’s Island Adventure trip. This half-day excursion will take you snorkeling at the reef, followed by kayaking through mangroves and relaxing on an idyllic sandbar beach. You’ll come away completely relaxed and with a true understanding of the diverse ecosystem that surrounds the island. Snacks and cold beer are provided.

Learn About Key West’s Delicate Ecosystem

Located on the bike ride to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, you’ll find the Florida Keys Eco Discovery Center. This immersive and hands-on science center is a collaboration between the National Marine Sanctuary and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Spanning 6,000-square-feet, its mission is to increase awareness of the need to protect and conserve South Florida’s delicate ecosystem. Here, visitors can explore Mote Marine Laboratory’s living reef exhibit featuring a 2,500 gallon reef tank, learn about the variety of marine life found throughout the ocean’s depths and tour a mock up of Aquarius, the world’s only underwater ocean laboratory.

Grab a Towel and Hit the Beach

When you’ve finished touring the Eco Discovery Center, continue your journey to Fort Zachary. There, you can spend the afternoon bird watching on nature trails winding amidst Australian pines, sunbathing on the rocky shore and snorkeling along the jetties. There’s nothing like spending a day in Key West’s natural beauty to truly appreciate it.

Fort Zachary Park and Beach

Look out the Windows of the Sea
For those who want to encounter Key West’s coral reef without actually diving in the water, a Glass Bottom Boat trip is an excellent alternative. Learn about the coral reef and its inhabitants as you view the underwater world of Key West through the boat’s “windows to the sea.”

Take a Journey to a Remote National Park
For a truly unique beach experience, devote an entire day to a trip to the Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson, found 70 miles west of Key West. The Yankee Freedom III ferry whisks passengers to this remote destination in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico where you’ll experience some of the most unspoiled snorkeling on the planet. You can even opt for an overnight trip with camping under the stars.

Yankee Freedom Dry Tortugas Ferry

Book a Fishing Charter
The Florida Keys are a major draw for anglers, both experienced and brand new to the sport. Whether it’s flats fishing for bonefish and permit or deep-sea fishing along the Gulf Stream for mahi mahi and giant tuna, there are countless charter boat captains to choose from. Head to Charter Boat Row or give the Key West Information Center a call to connect you with a guide.

Dive Right In
SCUBA diving is an extremely immersive way to experience the coral reef. In order to do this, you’ll need to be PADI certified, which you can do while on vacation in Key West. For both certification and dive trips, seek out Captain’s Corner and their Sea Eagle dive boat. Most of their daily dive trips will have you in waters between 25 and 40 feet deep, discovering all of the thriving marine life around you.

Dolphin Watch Tours

There’s a good chance that you’ll spot a pod of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins on any offshore excursion in Key West. That’s because these marine mammals breed in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico in an area that’s become known as the Dolphin Playground. On a Dolphin Watch Tour you’re practically guaranteed to spot these graceful and playful porpoises surfing in the boat’s wake and splashing around nearby. Dolphins in the wild are always a thrilling sight!

Standup Paddleboarding & Kayaking

For a chilled out approach to experiencing Key West’s marine life, consider a standup paddleboard or kayak rental from Lazy Dog at Hurricane Hole Marina. From there, you’ll wind through mangroves in the shallow waters of the backcountry. Keep your eyes peeled for conch shells, starfish, Cassiopeia (upside down jellyfish) and maybe even a friendly manatee.

When touring the Atlantic Shores exhibit of the Key West Aquarium, you will notice a large tank off to the side housing juvenile American Alligators and some Red Slider friends.































































































































Where Did These Alligators on Exhibit Come From?














































The juvenile alligators are on loan from the Everglades Alligator Farm located in Homestead, Florida. Every September we adopt 3 juveniles from the farm for this educational exhibit. After a year we return them to the farm and adopt a new trio of juveniles.













































































The average size for an adult female American Alligator is 8.2 ft and the average size for a male is 11.2 ft. Large males can reach weight of half a ton or 1,000 lbs. Both males and females have an “armored” body, with the skin on the back covered with embedded bony plates called osteoderms or scutes. Alligators have a long snout with upward facing nostrils at the end; this lets them breathe while the rest of the body is underwater.

















































































































































































Both males and females reach sexual maturity when they are about 6 ft long, a length attained at about 10-12 years. Breeding takes place during the night, in shallow waters. Males roar to attract females and to ward off other males. Courtship starts in April, with mating occurring in early May. Then, around late June and early July, the female lays 35 to 50 eggs. Some females lay up to 90 eggs. The sex of the juveniles is determined by the temperature of the nest: above 93ºF all are male, below 86ºF all are female, and temperatures in between will produce both sexes. Toward the end of August, the young alligators begin to make high-pitches noises from inside of the egg. This lets the mother know that it is time to remove the nesting material. When the alligator hatches it measures about 6 to 8 inches.




















































































































































How to Distinguish a Crocodile From an Alligator:






























AC teeth


















































The easiest way to distinguish an alligator from a crocodile is by looking at the teeth. The large fourth tooth in the lower jaw of an alligator fits into a socket in the upper jaw and is not visible when the mouth is closed. This does not happen in crocodiles. Alligators have between 74 and 80 teeth in their mouth at a time. As teeth wear down they are replaced. an Alligator can go through 2,000 to 3,000 teeth in a lifetime.



AC shape











































































































































Distribution and Habitat:





































































Crocodilians are carnivorous. They eat fish, snails and other invertebrates birds, frogs, and mammals that come to the water’s edge. They use their sharp teeth to seize and hold prey. Small prey is swallowed whole. If the prey is large, crocodilians shake it apart into smaller manageable pieces. If it is very large, crocodilians bite it and then spin on the long axis of their bodies to tear off easily swallowed pieces.












































Did You Know?

Although alligators have no vocal cords, males bellow loudly to attract mates and warn off other males by sucking air into their lungs and blowing it out in intermittent, deep-toned roars.















The alligator became the official state reptile of Florida in 1987.

Red-bellied sliders may sometimes deposit their eggs in alligator nests.

Crocodilians are unusual among reptiles in providing maternal care to their young.

The greatest threat to the American alligator is not hunting or poaching, it is currently destruction of habitat; this includes water management systems and increased levels of mercury and dioxins in the water.

Learn About Key West Dolphins

December 30th, 2015

Bottlenose dolphins can reach speeds of over 18 miles an hour. They surface often to breathe (two or three times a minute).

Bottlenose dolphins travel in groups and communicate with each other by a complex system of squeaks and whistles, and track their prey through the expert use of echolocation. They can make up to 1,000 clicking noises per second. These sounds travel underwater until they encounter objects, then bounce back to their dolphin senders, revealing the location, size, and shape of their target.

The bottlenose dolphin often feeds on bottom-dwelling fish, and sometimes eat shrimp and squid.

Dolphins are threatened by commercial fishing for other species, like tuna, and can become mortally entangled in nets and other fishing equipment.

Stingrays are some of the most mystical creatures in the sea and they thrive in the waters of the Florida Keys. At the Key West Aquarium Stingray Bay exhibit, guests can get up close and personal with the cow nose ray variety of stingrays by petting and feeding them. That’s right! These sometimes feared creatures are safe to touch. While stingrays have venomous spines at the end of their tails for self-defense, these barbs have been safely removed from the cow nose rays at the aquarium.

For those of you that want to learn more about stingrays in the wild, here is a guide for everything you should know about stingrays in the Florida Keys.

Stingrays are misunderstood
Maybe it’s because they have the word “sting” in their name. Or maybe it’s because of the untimely death of the Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, who approached an eight-foot wide stingray in shallow water and was lashed out at in self-defense. The reality is, stingrays are docile creatures who don’t go after humans aggressively. If you happen to come across a stingray at the reef in Key West, you should have no problem keeping a safe distance and admiring the creature from afar.

They’re bottom dwellers
One of the reasons seeing a stingray at the reef shouldn’t be scary is because they’re typically on the seafloor while you’re floating at the surface. These animals burrow under the sand, leaving only their eyes and tails visible while feeding on mollusks, crustaceans and sometimes small fish.

Stingrays are related to sharks.
Both are cartilaginous fish and hunt for prey using their sense of smell and electroreceptors, rather than eyesight. Ironically, sharks are also the main predator to stingrays.

Stingrays vary in size
The cow nose rays at the Key West Aquarium grow to be about 35 inches (about three feet), while manta rays can grow to a width of 23-feet. Can you imagine?

Spotted eagle rays will jump above the water’s surface
This is a pretty incredible sight to see. These rays perform dips or jumps while swimming through the water. Sometimes it’s just a single jump and other times, they’ll jump repeatedly.

There are eight families of stingrays. In the Florida Keys, it’s common to see these types:

Southern Stingray
Southern stingrays have large, flat, diamond-shaped disks without distinct heads. Their dark-brown upper bodies and white or whitish underbellies are ideal camouflage for animals that spend their days well buried in sand. From above, only their eyes and huge spiracles are visible. Although southern stingrays aren’t aggressive, they have venomous spines with serrated barbs on the bases of their tails. The spines are only used for defense, but if threatened or stepped on, a ray raises its tail overhead, scorpion style, and drives its spine into the intruder. For humans, the pain is intense, and the jagged wound takes time to heal.



Cownose Stingray
Cownose rays have a unique feature—long, pointed pectoral fins that separate into two lobes in front of their high-domed heads. A crease in the lobes and a notched head create a cow-nose likeness that gives these rays their name. Cownose rays use their flexible fin lobes to probe the seafloor for prey, like clams. After detecting buried prey, they dig deep depressions in the sand by flapping their pectoral fins and, at the same time, sucking sand through their mouths and out their gill slits. As they forage, large schools of rays can stir up huge clouds of silt over a large area. The rays have large, flat tooth plates on both jaws that they use to crush hard-shelled prey. The rays spit out crushed shells and eat the soft body parts. Cownose rays have poisonous stingers, but even in large groups they’re shy and not threatening.




Yellow Spotted Stingray
They inhabit shallow inshore waters, where they are typically found foraging in sandy or muddy flats near coral reefs or rocky formations. They utilize sandy flats and areas of sea grass in order to forage for small crustaceans and mollusks, while also using the deep sand and sea grass for protection from larger predatory fish species. Yellow stingray are able to adjust their colors and patterns very rapidly to match their current surroundings, which helps them blend into their environment to avoid predators and trick prey. This species is Venomous, and should be handled accordingly as these animals have an extremely painful sting. If you do get stung immediately soak it in hot water and call a doctor.


With the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week gaining in popularity, it’s raised a lot of questions about sharks, their behavior and their habitat. For those afraid of the water or who live in landlocked cities and don’t experience the ocean every day, it seems to only amplify the fear and mystery surrounding sharks and their threat to mankind. Every summer, news watchers are alerted of shark attacks at local beaches that further stoke the hysteria. While there’s no doubt that sharks are the apex predator of the sea, they’re often misunderstood and unreasonably vilified.

Key West is a small island surrounded by both deep and shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s home to the third largest barrier reef in the world with a thriving marine ecosystem that makes for exciting snorkeling adventures. The ocean is a shark’s natural habitat, so this creature can be found in the waters of Key West. But before you go running back to shore with the Jaws theme song playing in your head, slow down and learn about the sharks of Key West and how to stay safe while having fun.

Types of Sharks Found in Key West

The most common type of shark in Key West is the nocturnal, docile nurse shark. If you’re out on a snorkel or dive trip, you have a good chance of spotting one of these sharks snoozing on the seafloor underneath a coral ledge. Although they may appear sluggish, nurse sharks slurp up bottom-dwelling organisms in their bellows-like mouths with amazing speed. They feed mostly at night on spiny lobsters and other crustaceans, small stingrays, sea urchins, squid and bony fishes.

They’re not predatory or aggressive. They are light yellowish-brown to dark brown in color and sometimes with small dark spots. It has a flattened body and a broad, rounded head with two conspicuous barbels between the nostrils, which are used to help find food. The mouth is filled with rows of small, serrated teeth for crushing hard-shelled prey. If you spot one while in the water, enjoy the view from a safe distance before they swim away from sight. Their strong jaw can certainly do some damage though, so don’t do anything that would make it strike out in self-defense.

The sandbar shark gets its common name from the sandy and muddy flats, bays and estuaries in which it’s commonly found. The sandbar shark can be recognized by its large first dorsal fin, large pectoral fins and mid-dorsal ridge.

The diet of a sandbar shark typically consists of small bony fishes like menhaden, croaker, snapper, mojarras, as well as crustaceans such as crabs and shrimp.

Sandbar Shark

The blacknose shark has a greenish-gray colored body with a white/ yellow colored belly. Tips of dorsal fin and upper lobe of caudal fin are black or dusky colored and it has black spot below the snout, which give it the name “blacknose shark.” Blacknose sharks are quick swimmers that feed on pinfish, porcupine fish, box fish, puffer fish, anchovies and even octopus.

The lemon shark is yellow in color which is where the name derives from. They mainly stay close to the surface of the water. Because of their poor eyesight, lemon sharks depend on the magnetic sensor in their nose which allows them to attract prey and to find others to mate with.

Lemon sharks mainly feed on small prey that aren’t able to put up much of a fight. When meat can’t be readily found, the lemon shark will feed on mollusks and crustaceans. They don’t require a large volume of food due to their small size so they can go quite a while without feeding.

Lemon Shark

Know the Facts

In Key West, there has never been a fatal shark attack. And there’s only been one incident reported in the record books since the 1800s. And for those who like statistics, you’re 45,000 times more likely to die from a car accident than from a shark attack.

Make Friends at the Aquarium

At the Key West Aquarium, you’ll learn more fun facts about Key West’s sharks at the exciting Shark Feeding exhibit. Join the 20-minute show, which occurs four times daily, for an up close and personal experience with the feared predators. Aquarium staff feed the sharks while debunking myths about the creatures and providing you with helpful and interesting information. At the end of the talk, you’ll even have the opportunity to touch a juvenile nurse shark near its tail to see what these creatures feel like. It’s the thrill of a lifetime and an educational experience not to be missed.