Connect & Protect: Living Reefs

Encouraging environmentally responsible behavior is a crucial element of the Florida Keys' commitment to protecting the region's natural resources.

Home to the continental United States' only living coral barrier reef, the Florida Keys also have an array of artificial reefs that provide alternative structures for scuba divers to explore and additional habitats for marine life.

Structures used to create artificial reefs, such as the behemoth ship Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg that was intentionally sunk in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary a decade ago, attract multitudes of marine life.

Properly prepared shipwrecks like the Vandenberg provide a platform for education and research, while preserving the history and heritage of the vessel.

Invertebrates and plants have attached to and colonized the wreck. Mobile invertebrates and reef fish are growing the food chain in and around the wreck, providing an ideal feeding and breeding environment as well as a haven from water currents.

Late spring and summer are the best times to explore the undersea world of the Florida Keys, but it's important to practice some important reef etiquette.

Before divers and snorkelers hit the water, they should apply environmentally safe sunscreens to avoid introducing harmful chemicals such as oxybenzone to the water that can poison corals.

Avoid contact with the ocean bottom; scuba divers should practice properly weighted buoyancy control. Sandy areas that appear barren may support new growth if left undisturbed.

If you dive or snorkel on your own, use the reef mooring buoys instead of dropping an anchor. Many dive and snorkel sites are located within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and anchoring in these Sanctuary Preservation Areas is prohibited.

Protection of this truly unique natural system is essential for enjoyment today and for the benefit of future generations. Not everyone knows how sensitive corals are to being touched, anchor damage and sunscreen.

That's why the Nature Conservancy is asking anglers and divers who treasure Florida's reef to respect it, preserve and protect it, and help spread the word about seven tips in its recently launched #RespectOurReef campaign.

Tips include anchoring well away from coral heads; avoiding touching corals on a reef; using nontoxic sunscreen; not leaving unwanted fishing line on docks or in the water; and taking a pledge to protect the environment and sharing that intention with social media buddies who also dive, snorkel, fish or enjoy the water. 

Even visitors who are not active on or in the water can still enjoy the underwater world in the Florida Keys.

At the comprehensive new Coral Reef Exploration exhibit at the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center in Islamorada, families of all ages can explore three aquariums, educational storyboards, interactive kiosks and video monitors focused on providing a beautiful and educational view of the Keys' unique coral reef ecosystem and the challenges it faces.