Wildlife and seafood
in the Florida Keys

Miami is the entryway to the Florida Keys, a string of pearls off America’s south-east point, where wildlife encounters are part of everyday life.


Text by Wif Stenger
Photos by Sinimaaria Kangas

Like most of Florida, the Keys have their share of kitsch, tourist traps and development. Thankfully there are also four wildlife refuges totalling 170,000 hectares.

The Keys are laid-back and small-scale, home to a mix of artists, Cuban immigrants, ageing hippies, beach bums and fishers – as well as an amazing array of wildlife.
Within an hour by bus or rented car from Miami Airport, you’re on Key Largo, largest of the 1,700 islands that make up the archipelago.

Wilder areas lie further south, such as the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key. It is home to more than 20 threatened or endangered species, many found nowhere else. The freshwater Blue Hole is populated by turtles and alligators.

Wilder areas lie further south, such as the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key. It is home to more than 20 threatened or endangered species, many found nowhere else. The freshwater Blue Hole is populated by turtles and alligators.

The star of the show, the Key Deer, stands just 75 cm at the shoulder. With dainty hooves and black “masks” around their big eyes, they’re endearing – yet were almost hunted to extinction by the 1950s. Their numbers have recovered from just 27 to around 700. New fawns arrive in April and May.

The Dolphin Research Center funds its scientific work with demonstrations and encounter sessions for visitors.

Hippies and herons

Just as gentle, tame and endangered are manatees, which sometimes hang around docks where people squirt fresh water for them (please don’t). Raising money to protect them and educate boaters is the Save the Manatee Club, co-founded by singer Jimmy Buffett.

Buffett, owner of the Margaritaville Restaurant, is a quintessential Keys character. His tongue-in-cheek hits such as “Fins” celebrate hedonism, the pirate lifestyle and wildlife.

So did Ernest Hemingway, whose To Have and Have Not tells of a fisherman-turned-smuggler who evades storms and officials by hiding his rum-laden boat among tiny mangrove Keys.

Carl Hiaasen carries on the tradition in Stormy Weather, which recounts a tale of large predators on the prowl after a hurricane frees them from a wildlife park. The baddie ends up being eaten in Key Largo’s Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

For most visitors, animal encounters are far less dramatic. A Key deer may wander close as it nibbles grass and bougainvillea. Rays – usually harmless – float near beaches in Bahia Honda State Park.

Pelicans soar in unison like fighter jets. Shorelines and wetlands are alive with herons, egrets, ibis, spoonbills and occasionally flamingos.

According to Florida Keys Hawkwatch, ospreys, peregrine falcons and kestrels are the most common birds of prey. Four species of kites have been spotted at Curry Hammock State Park.

Left: Deer may wander close as they nibble grass and bougainvillea.

Top: Brown anole lizards, originally from Cuba and the Bahamas are among the Keys'many non-native species.

Bottom: Manatees are gentle, tame and endangered.

Learning from dolphins

Nearby on Grassy Key, the Dolphin Research Center is home to 23 bottlenose dolphins, most of them found orphaned and injured. Comparative psychologists study their cognition and behaviour, with research funded by activities where visitors can swim with dolphins or even help them to “paint.”

The dolphins live in enclosed lagoons in the Gulf of Mexico, but remain inside even when the water rises above the fences. Just as well, since they lack the skills to survive in the wild.

Along the beaches, wading birds feed on tiny amphipods in the rotting seagrass that gives the shoreline its distinctive aroma. In the water, seagrass feeds conchs, sea turtles, urchins, lobster, shrimp and fish. These include lionfish, an aggressive invasive species with bright spikes, which is now being caught and served as sushi – a win-win for both diners and native fish.

Bahia Honda State Park offers one of Florida's finest beaches – and a wide array of wild flora and fauna.

Catch fresh seafood

Coco’s Kitchen, Big Pine Key
Close to the Key Deer Refuge Visitor Center, this mother-and-daughter Cuban café serves fried fish and shrimp, beans and rice, plantains, yucca fries, and the best Key Lime pie – all with big smiles and low prices.

Mangrove Mama’s, Sugarloaf Key
This funky, slightly eccentric rural hideaway dishes up conch, mahi mahi and grouper in a semi-outdoor compound fringed by palm trees. Live bands on weekends.

Castaway Waterfront Restaurant, Marathon Key
With tables right on the dock, this authentic local dive has been luring diners since 1951. Sea scallops, clams and stone crabs are washed down with craft beers and live music. Don’t miss the nearby Turtle Hospital, or the Marathon Seafood Festival, March 14–15. marathonseafoodfestival.com

On the edge

Threated and endangered species

  • Key Deer
  • Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit
  • Key Largo Cotton Mouse
  • Key Largo Woodrat
  • Sea Turtle
  • American Alligator
  • Manatee
  • Schaus Swallowtail Butterfly

Rehab animals

Dolphin Research Center, Grassy Key

Turtle Hospital, Marathon Key

Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center, Tavernier, Key Largo

This article was first published in the January 2015 issue of Finnair's monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.