Genya Yerkes has been a member of the Key West Aquarium staff for almost 17 years.

Title: Assistant Curator/Operations Manager

  1. What brought you to Key West?

I originally moved here in the summer of 2000 to attend FKCC for their Marine Environmental Technology degree. I also started working for the aquarium that summer and it was my very first job in the zoological industry.

  1. What is your favorite sea animal? Why?

Eek! So many to choose from but my favorite would have to be the octopus. You only have a short time with them because of their short life span but their problem-solving skills are truly mind blowing. It’s fun to create puzzles and enrichment challenges for them. A close second would be giraffe; the time I spent with them at Busch Gardens was an amazing time in my career.

  1. What would be your ideal day out on the water?

Solid breeze, good friends, plentiful drinks, and good tunes.

  1. When did you first become interested in Marine Biology?

I can’t even remember when; anything to do with the water has always been a passion of mine. However, my love and respect for nature was instilled in me by my father.

  1. What do you enjoy most about the KWAQ?

I love that we are a piece of “Old Key West”; there aren’t many left so that truly provides a special experience for our guests.

Get to know the Curator!

December 6th, 2017

Greg Gerwin has been the General Manager/Curator of the Key West Aquarium for 14 years.


  1. What brought you to Key West:


I lived in the keys with my parents six months out of the year since I was two months old because of my father’s work. I guess you could say I have always thought of the Keys as home and knew nothing else. We would visit Key West from Marathon on the weekends and of course I would have to visit the aquarium each time. Once I became an adult I knew this is where I needed to be. Shortly after my parents passing in 1993 I worked in cooperate America, far from my studies as a marine biologist and future career. I remained there for a few years when I decided to follow my career and move down to Key West in 2003.


  1. What is your favorite sea animal? Why?


Sea turtles are by far my favorite sea animal. Sea turtles, unlike other marine animals have this great ability to return back to the same beach in which they were hatched to lay eggs. They are world travelers and still seem to manage their way back home. I have a hard enough time finding my way around the mainland without a GPS!


  1. What would be your ideal day out on the water?


Sometimes sitting out on the boat on a calm day by yourself with only your thoughts and the occasional passing of sea turtles and dolphins.


  1. When did you first become interested in Marine Biology?


From birth! I was raised around sea a good majority of my life, making it an easy career choice and one that I’m passionate about.


  1. What do you enjoy most about the KWAQ?


It’s never lost its charm in over 82 years. From opening day up to current, the Key West Aquarium has continued to fascinate all types of people. It charmed me over a half a century ago and I feel that allure each day I come into work.

Whale Shark Awareness

August 24th, 2016

Though Whale Sharks are the largest fish on the planet, these “gentle giants” are filter-feeders and therefore are harmless to humans. Being a filter-feeder means these large creatures (which can reach over 40 ft.) feed on tiny ocean organisms- plankton. These fish have skeletons made entirely of cartilage, rather than bone like the majority of sea animals. The pattern of spots around the gill area on a Whale Shark are unique to each individual allowing researchers to identify individual sharks. The mouth of the whale shark can reach a width of approximately 3 feet.

Whale sharks can be found in waters of over 100 countries, but typically stay in tropical and warm temperate seas, both in oceanic and coastal waters.

Status: Vulnerable

Whale sharks live long lives and therefore mature late- doesn’t produce offspring until 30+ years of age.

Current threats to the whale shark include: habitat loss, coastal development, collision with boats, and disturbance by boats/divers engaged in irresponsible tourism activities.

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 »

  • Decide beforehand which fish are to be kept and immediately release all others.

  • Fish with barbless hooks or crimp and remove the barb. There’s no significant difference or mortality between catching fish with barbed/barbless hooks. The advantages of barbless hooks are: reduces time needed to dehook the fish, and less physical damage to the fish from hook removal.

  • Avoid the use of landing nets made of hard polypropylene or nylon- they tend to remove the protective slime from the scales.

  • Cut the leader close to the hook when releasing large fish( jewfish, tarpon, sharks) or other fish that are gut hooked that you do not plan to keep. *Do not lift a gut-hooked fish out of the water by the leader; this can increase hook damage.

  • Wet your hands or gloves to handle the fish so that you remove as little slime as possible. To keep the fish calm, place it on its back or cover its eyes with a wet towel. Do not injure the eyes or gills. Control the fish at all times- the fish could fatally injure itself against the boat.

  • If the hook is difficult to remove by hand, use long-nosed pliers or a de-hooking tool. To avoid tearing additional tissue, back the hook through the original injury. If this fails, cut the leader and pull out the hook through the injury.

  • If your fish is in good shape, put it back into the water head first.

  • Revive the exhausted, but otherwise healthy fish by placing one hand under the tail and hold the bottom lip with the other. Move the fish into the shade, either alongside the boat, under the edge of a dock, or to the bottom- cooler water contains more oxygen and will help the fish will revive faster. If the fish is in fair to good shape, hold it headfirst into the current. If it is severely lethargic, depress the bottom lip to cause the jaw to gape and gently move the fish forward.  At the first sign of the fish attempting to swim away, let it go, but keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t tire and die.

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.

Time to get Crabby

November 18th, 2015

Hermit Crabs: There are at least 9 species of “hermit crabs” in the Florida Keys. As with many species in Florida, the hermit crab grows quite large due to the warm waters and mild winters. Hermit crabs are “mobile home” dwellers using abandoned sea shells as their home. As they grow, a new larger home must be found to accommodate its larger body size. Hermit crabs can be very competitive when it comes to finding a new, empty shell. Usually the largest will win the new home, abandon his shell for the larger, then the next biggest will occupy his former home, and down the line a swapping of homes occurs.

Horseshoe Crab: This fascinating, prehistoric looking creature has been around for over 400 million years. They are usually shunned by most who think they are dangerous, but they do not sting or bite! Horseshoe crabs are found all over Florida and are not seen often because they are nocturnal feeders. You can find their molted carcasses scattered on the beaches year round.

True Crabs: There are at least 17 species of “true crabs” in the Florida Keys. True crabs are decapod crustaceans and belong to a group called the “Brachyura”. They have a very short projecting “tail” and their small abdomens are completely hidden under the thorax.  All crabs have one pair of pincers and four pairs of walking legs. They are the first pair of legs on a crab and are used for holding and carrying food, digging, cracking open shells and warning off would be attackers. The carapace protects the internal organs of the head, thorax and gills. The eyes are on the ends of short stalks and the mouth parts are a series of pairs of short legs, specialized to manipulate and chew food. The abdomen is small and tightly held under the body. The size of the abdomen distinguishes whether the crab is male or female.


The Florida Manatee is one of two subspecies of the West Indian manatee. Manatees are well represented in Florida’s fossil record. Their remains date back to prehistoric times and they are one of the more common vertebrae fossils known from ancient marine deposits. Manatee remains are also found in Native American rubbish heaps in Florida, sites that pre-date the arrival of the early Spaniards. The early colonists described how these natives hunted the manatee and were quick to appreciate the intristic value of the species. In 1893, the state of Florida passed legislation that prohibited killing manatees. The West Indian manatee, including both Florida and Antillean sub species, was further protected in 1972 and 1973 with the passage of both the Federal Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, respectively. Florida allowed suit, further protecting the Florida manatee through state endangered species legislation and subsequently through the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act in 1978 As of 2010 the highest number of manatees counted in a statewide survey was 5,076. Collisions with boat hulls and propellers of personal watercraft account for 25% of all manatee deaths since 1974. Manatees frequent shallow sea grass beds to graze leaving them vulnerable to boat strikes. Seasonal speed limits are posted in areas where manatees dwell searching for warmer waters and food and it is crucial to follow them. Responsible boating can also help to keep their habitat intact and protect their main food source. Sea grass is a dietary staple of Florida manatees and Green Sea Turtles. Due to the sensitive, interconnected root system of sea grass just one long drag of a boat propeller can cause a large area to die. The Florida manatee is a significant part of the State’s natural, cultural, and historic heritage. By working together, we can ensure that manatees are a continuing part of our heritage and our future.


Our Macaws and Hawk

November 29th, 2014

Fortunately, blue and gold macaws have faired better in captivity as pets. Originally from Central and South America, blue and gold macaws can grow up to nearly 35 inches and can weigh up to 3.3 pounds. In addition to their bright and alluring colors, the macaw also has a very sturdy beak that it often uses to break open nuts and clams for consumption.

Speaking of which, our red-shouldered hawk Nela is pretty skillful with her beak as well. These kinds of hawks watch for potential prey while perched in a discrete location or flying over forests. They use their beaks to catch prey and then they kill it by dropping it from the air. With impeccable eyesight and sharp hearing, its no wonder this species can catch prey equal to their size. The most common prey for red-shouldered hawks are rodents, such as rabbits, reptiles, such as snakes, and even large insects.

A Visit From BlueZooTV

September 8th, 2014

We recently had the pleasure of hosting BlueZooTV and thought we would share their visit with you!