key west eco-experience

Key West's Best


florida keys sanctuary

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and The Key West Wildlife Refuge

Journey with Key West Eco Tours through the pristine tropical wilderness of Key West's mangrove islands. Visit the Sanctuary on our Geiger Key Paddle Tour or explore the Refuge on Java Cat.

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Created in 1990, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s purpose is to to protect the region’s fragile, unique ecosystem. Surrounding the islands of the Florida Keys, the Sanctuary covers 2,900 square nautical miles of waters. It stretches from south of Miami down to the Dry Tortugas and includes parts of the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. As soon as you dip a toe into the waters of the Florida Keys, you are in the Sanctuary.

Residing within the Sanctuary’s borders is the Key West Wildlife Refuge. Established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, it is one of the nation's first areas designated specifically to protect native birds. In the early 1900s, large feathers were prized adornments in women’s hats leading to the slaughter of many beautiful birds like egrets and herons. Fortunately for all of us, these exquisite birds are now protected and thrive in the Refuge where you can admire them in their natural habitat.


Mangroves serve as a nursery and home for many of Florida Keys marine life. While there are numerous varieties of mangrove trees throughout the tropics, the most common in Key West are red mangrove, black mangrove and white mangrove trees. Their distinctive tangled roots above and below the water line provide shelter for many species of fish and wildlife while reducing shoreline erosion. Some mangrove islands hold precious sandy beaches and dunes that provide critical nesting habitat for endangered sea turtles. While paddling on the tours, glide along mangrove islands and pass through mangrove tunnels to see how marine life, birds and animals thrive in this unique environment.

Over 6,000 species of marine life and 250 species of birds can be found in the Sanctuary and the Refuge. Living coral, colorful sponge gardens, thick mangroves and lush seagrass beds are an essential part of Key West’s tropical paradise. Together, they create an extraordinary world beckoning you to visit and expand your senses.

key west marine life

Learn About the Abundant Marine Life

The Florida Keys is teeming with marine life. Come learn, explore, discover and even touch some of its unusual inhabitants. On Key West Eco Tours trips, there is the opportunity to see so much.

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Whether you explore the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary on our Geiger Key Paddle Hut Backcountry Tour or the Key West National Wildlife Refuge on our half-day Java Cat Eco Tour, you will be in the middle of a spectacular marine life nursery.

With so many areas of the Sanctuary receiving special protection, there is an abundance of animals residing in the Sanctuary and Refuge. Shallow, clear, warm waters provide an ideal environment for all kinds of critters including dolphins, endangered manatees, spectacular Queen conch, rare sea turtles, stone crabs, spiny lobster, pink shrimp, blue crabs, graceful rays, star fish, sea slugs, sponges, snapper, puffer fish and colorful parrot fish.


You never know what you may find in the water. On a kayak tour of the Refuge’s backcountry, one of our guides assisted in the rescue of an injured 230 pound loggerhead turtle. “Waffles” was taken to Marathon’s Turtle Hospital for rehabilitation.

The novice paddling through the quiet, calm, clear waters of the Refuge’s backcountry or the Sanctuary’s deserted mangrove islands may only spot the larger inhabitants such as fish, turtles or rays. But your guide knows this area well and they introduce you to unusual marine life that normally goes unnoticed.

While each experience is different, your guide may find and pass around for you to touch large, colorful lettuce slugs, shells inhabited by hermit crabs, graceful starfish, or even a squirting sea cucumber. At first you don’t notice the Cassiopea, or upside-down jellyfish, on the bottom of the water and then your guide points one out. Suddenly you see a whole carpet of them. Same for the one crab making his way across protruding mangrove roots or an iguana sunning on a tree limb.

You begin to appreciate the incredible diversity of marine life and marvel at how much you didn’t see before. With your eyes opened to a new world, you return to shore already looking forward to your next Key West vacation.

key west bird life

Marvel at the Wide Variety of Birds

World class Key West birdwatching includes birds that are only found in the tropical climate of the Florida Keys. There are many opportunities to see birds in their natural habitat on both the Java Cat and paddling through the Geiger Key Backcountry.

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Bird watching varies with the season and weather conditions as many species, like people, escape the snowy north for our Key West tropical winter. Optimal seasonal sightings of migratory birds are in the Spring (March, April and May) and in the Fall (September, October and November). A highlight of the migratory season is watching hawks, falcons and even the Northern Gannet pass through the Florida Keys. The US Fish and Wildlife Service provides a handy Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Bird List for birders to track their numerous sightings.

Just a few of the species that can be seen in the Refuge and Sanctuary include Ospreys, Roseate Spoonbills, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Egrets, Herons, Bald Eagles, White-Crowned Pigeons, Mangrove Cuckoo, Merganser Ducks, Cormorants, Black Whiskered Vireo, Belted Kingfishers and Terns. If there is a particular bird of interest to you, let your guide know and they can watch for one on your tour.


For the truly avid birder, you can charter your own custom Key West Eco Tour to search for your bucket list bird. A number of our guides are also avid birders and if you let us know in advance, we will do our best to set you up with a fellow birder.

A great way to advance your birding knowledge is to combine one of our tours with the annual Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Festival. This Festival is held in September to take advantage of the amazing autumn bird migration through the Florida Keys. A highlight of the festival is an excursion to the Dry Tortugas National Park where many unusual birds are sighted. On a recent excursion, George Bellenger, one of our avid birder guides, took his son along to the Dry Tortugas. As luck would have it, his son spotted a very unusual bird - the Townsend Warbler!