The Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center provides a journey into the on-land and underwater world of the native plants and animals of the Keys. The Center features over 6,000 square feet of interactive and dynamic exhibits including a mock-up of Aquarius, the world's only underwater ocean laboratory. With FREE ADMISSION, the Eco-Discovery Center offers the entire family a close up look at the many inhabitants of the Keys. Interactive exhibits show the locations of shipwrecks and a free 17 minute movie details the journey of marine life from the sanctuary of the mangroves to the security of the seagrasses to life on the coral reef and open ocean. Resource Protection and Habitat Restoration exhibits show how water enthusists and governing agencies work together to safeguard and maintain coral reefs.
The Eco-Discovery Center opened in January 2007 and reveals some of the resources and management efforts that cover the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, two national parks, and four national wildlife refuges. The center was developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the South Florida Water Management District.
Stretching from the Treasure Coast to the Florida Keys, Key West and the Dry Tortugas, Florida coral reefs offer water enthusiasts of all ages the opportunity to enjoy the natural beauty of the 3rd largest coral reef system on the planet.
Coral reefs are the breeding, birthing and nuturing gounds for wildlife from the air, land and sea. Likewise they have tempted mariners throughout the ages, from pirates and buccaneers to merchants and traders. Many a ship met its watery fate alongside uncharted (or purposefully ill-marked) reefs and sand bars. Some of the 1000 shipwrecks are marked on this map. There is even a Shipwreck Trail in the National Marine Sanctuary where snorkel and scuba divers can explore.
The Eco-Discovery Center offers not just a portrait of sea life. The island portions of the Florida Keys teem with birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals. These protected areas provide both annual habitats as well as winter sanctuaries for the real snow birds that fly in from the mid-Atlantic and Northeast states and Canada.
One of the most noteworthy inhabitants of the hammock areas is the fawn-like Key Deer. This endangeered deer lives only in the Florida Keys, is a subspecies of the white-tailed deer and is the smallest deer in North America.
There is a mock-up of the undersea laboratory Aquarius. Sealab Aquarius sits in 60' of water, 4.5 kilometers offshore of Key Largo, Florida, on a sand patch adjacent to deep coral reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Through saturation diving techniques, Aquarius allows scientists to live and work underwater 24 hours per day for missions that typically last 10 days. Living underwater allows scientists to conduct research and observe life that would be difficult to observe if diving from the surface.
Sealab Aquarius is part of the Florida International University Marine Education and Research Initiative.
Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium is an independent, 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the science of the sea. The MOTE Marine facilities in Sarasota and Summerland Key, Florida specialize in Coral Reef Restoration, Marine Aquaculture Research and Ocean Acidification.
The aquarium in Summerland Key hosts a variety of marine animals and fish, including two touch tanks and a 135,000 gallon shark habitat. Oh by the way, Mote Aquarium is proud to be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).
Every Protect Our Reef gift or license plate provides a $25 donation to MOTE and its research, education and outreach programs. Since inception, this simple gesture has raised nearly $7M for protecting and restoring Florida's coral reefs.
There's a lot of hubbub, noise and pricey things to do in Key West. Despite the glitz and occasionally sordid history of Key West, first and foremost the entire area is water and sanctuary. A brief visit (did I mention its FREE?) to the Eco-Discovery Center will give you a sense of what surrounds you. There is also a 17-minute FREE movie so you can see the beauty of the Keys if you don't have the opportunity to see them first-hand.
All in all, the Eco-Discovery Center is a pleasing experience and should be in your Top 5 places to visit in Key West. Open 6 days a week and you can book school and group tours as well.
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