Florida Keys,
09:13 AM

Connect & Protect: Discover Keys Birds, Marine Life and Flora at Four Nature Attractions

Inviting environmental attractions await visitors to the Florida Keys & Key West, whether they're interested in learning about marine mammals, sea turtles, wild birds or the plant species that add color and lushness to the island chain's landscape.

Among the most notable attractions are the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center in Tavernier, the Turtle Hospital and Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters in the Middle Keys, and the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden just outside the southernmost city in the continental United States.

Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center. Located at mile marker (MM) 93.6 in the Upper Keys, the facility is both an avian hospital and a sanctuary - a humane, natural and protected refuge with acres of wetlands that shelter injured birds that cannot safely return to the wild. All wild birds living in the aviary have permanent injuries or disabilities that prohibit their release. Bird lovers can stroll the sanctuary's boardwalk and view these beautiful creatures, read each inhabitant's story and expand their knowledge about wild birds and their protection - or help support the place through volunteer opportunities and adopt-a-bird programs. Visit keepthemflying.org/.

The Turtle Hospital. Visitors can "meet" rescued sea turtles during behind-the-scenes tours of the planet's first state-licensed veterinary hospital specializing in the fascinating creatures, located at MM 48.5 in Marathon. A dedicated team at The Turtle Hospital rescues, rehabilitates and nurtures sick and injured turtles and, whenever possible, releases them back into the ocean. Since it opened more than 30 years ago, the hospital has treated and rehabilitated nearly 2,000 injured sea turtles and assisted scores of hatchlings gone astray after leaving their nests. Occasionally it's possible to witness the release of a rehabilitated turtle - a truly heartwarming experience. Visit turtlehospital.org.

Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters. Marathon's Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters, at MM 53, spotlights marine conservation and the underwater habitats of the Keys. Visitors can enjoy an immersive experience with reef fish, invertebrates, stingrays and even sharks - without entering the ocean. They can also feed reef fish, which isn't allowed while snorkeling or diving in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary because it disrupts the animals' natural behavior. The facility's signature feature is a coral reef exhibit and shark habitat housed in a gigantic 200,000-gallon interconnected saltwater aquarium. Even people without prior scuba experience can enjoy the in-water opportunity with supervision from professional dive instructors. They also can view exhibits; snorkel in a shallow protected lagoon; explore touch tanks with starfish, conchs and horseshoe crabs; or feed debarbed stingrays and mellow baby nurse sharks. Visit floridakeysaquariumencounters.com/.

Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden. Known as the only frost-free botanical garden in the continental United States, this haven for nature lovers contains trees and plants native to the Florida Keys, Cuba and the Caribbean. Situated at 5210 College Road, just across Cow Key Channel from Key West, the 15-acre garden also is a paradise for bird watchers. Sometimes described as a living museum, it features two wetland habitats, a 1-acre butterfly habitat, a native plant nursery, a waterfall wall of tropical plants and two of the last remaining natural freshwater ponds in the Florida Keys. Exploration is encouraged via eight self-guided tours. Visit keywest.garden/.

These are just a few of the countless Florida Keys spots where visitors can discover the island chain's natural beauty, unique ecosystems and living things. Experiencing one or all four, and forging a connection with the environmental aspects they showcase, adds meaning and memories to a Keys vacation.

Florida Keys green travel information: fla-keys.com/greentravel
Florida Keys visitor information: fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS
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