Florida’s reef tract is the third largest barrier reef in the world and the only living barrier reef system in North America. Florida is also the only state to have extensive shallow reef formations near its coastline. These reefs extend from near Stuart, in South Florida, to the Dry Tortugas, roughly 70 miles west of Key West. There are approximately 6,000 coral reefs between Key Biscayne and the Dry Tortugas. The coral reef formations of the Keys are typically “spur and groove” formations, a series of ridges and channels found in shallow waters, and are home to more species of marine life than any other environment. One third of Florida’s endangered species live within the coral reef ecosystem for at least part of their lifespan.
The ideal conditions and easy accessibility for divers and snorkelers have made Florida’s reef tract the number one dive destination in the world. Our tropical setting attracts millions of visitors per year and the reefs are an invaluable resource for recreation, scientific research, and education. Despite its sturdy appearance coral is extremely fragile. Even the lightest touch can cause damage leaving the coral susceptible to infection or disease. Coral is easily broken and the estimated growth ranges from one to sixteen feet every 1,000 years.
All coral is protected and it is illegal to harvest or sell Florida corals in state and adjacent federal waters. To protect our marine ecosystem the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act was enacted by Congress and signed into law November 16, 1990. The marine sanctuary is 3,801 miles of area which includes waters of Florida Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is one of the most complex ecosystems in existence that includes mangrove islands, sea grass meadows, hard bottom habitats, patch reefs, and the coral reef tract.
The Key West Aquarium is home to twelve live coral reef tanks which display a variety of stony corals, soft corals, gorgonians, octocorals, and tridacna clams. It is our hope to further the public’s interest in the conservation of our fragile coral reef and surrounding ecosystems.
The reef is not our only marine friend in need. Our waters are the home to five species of sea turtle: The Loggerhead, Green, Hawksbill, Kemp’s Ridley, and Leatherback. All sea turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The Key West Aquarium is proudly associated with several organizations dedicated to the survival of the sea turtle, such as the Marathon Sea Turtle Hospital and Save-A-Turtle. We house five sea turtles permanently at the Key West Aquarium that are not releasable, predominately due to the substantial injuries they have sustained. We include our sea turtles in the guided tours and feedings to continue awareness regarding safe boating practices, proper garbage disposal, and the effect of unnatural lighting during nesting season.