Part of what makes the Florida Keys such a fascinating place to visit is the abundant natural beauty and wildlife unique to this region. With the Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Florida Keys are at the confluence of two subtropical ecosystems that are distinctive to the area. If you’re a nature lover hoping to spot unique wildlife while visiting the Florida Keys, here’s what to look for.
In the Sea
Whether you’ve come to fish, snorkel or simply take a dip in the crystal clear waters surrounding the Florida Keys, there’s an abundance of fascinating marine life to discover. The Florida Straits barrier reef stretches 170 miles up the coast and much of it is designated as a protected nature preserve. This is where you’ll find colorful subtropical fish and coral formations.
If you go snorkeling, keep your eyes peeled for yellowtail snapper, blue tang, rainbow parrotfish, angelfish and more. You also have a good chance of spotting sharks and sea turtles, as well as some of the more deep-water, pelagic fish that anglers are trolling for, like grouper, tuna and mahi-mahi. Hiding within the coral formations are the Keys’ own spiny lobsters. The region is also home to a healthy population of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins who often traverse the water in pods. It’s possible to spot them from land and sea.
In the Air
The Florida Keys are a true birder’s paradise. After all, John James Audubon discovered many of the bird species unique to the Florida Keys during his travels in the 1830s. The shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico’s backcountry are characterized by mangrove islands, turtle grass and sandbars, which are ideal nesting and breeding grounds for a wide variety of both fish and birds. Some of the Keys birds are migratory, like pelicans, and others live in the area year round, like kingfishers.
In the backcountry, you’re likely to spot cormorants diving for their lunch or sunbathing on a branch, while frigate birds sail on the air currents high above. Herons, cranes and even flamingos are sometimes found wading through the backcountry. The Keys are home to a wide variety of hawk species, including the bald eagle, but the osprey is the most common. On land, you’ll also spot seagulls, green parrots and pretty pink ibis pecking around for food or flying from one tree branch to the next.
A simple stroll down the sidewalk in the Keys can lead to some unique wildlife encounters. The Lower Keys are home to Key Deer, a specific breed with unusually short legs. You’ll also spot neon green iguanas in abundance. While they seem to fit into the scenery nicely, they’re actually an invasive species.
If you’re in Key West, there’s no shortage of chickens and roosters roaming freely, as well as cats. They’re part of the history and character of the island. You can also visit attractions like the Key West Aquarium and the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory to discover unique wildlife that’s typically found under the sea or fluttering through the air. Both destinations are excellent places to learn more about these fascinating animals.