How to Become a Steward of the Keys


Florida Keys residents are as deeply rooted in the island chain as the surrounding mangroves, choosing to live among the Keys' natural wonders and striving to preserve their satisfying lifestyle.

Florida Keys residents are as deeply rooted in the island chain as the surrounding mangroves, choosing to live among the Keys' natural wonders and striving to preserve their satisfying lifestyle.

Inhabitants of the 125-mile-long island chain are surrounded by azure-hued waters - the Atlantic Ocean to the east and Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico to the west - and seem to instinctively absorb rhythms of the tides and subtle seasonal changes marked by swaying palms, gentle breezes, stiff cooling winds and the color and strength of the sun.

The Keys are paralleled by the continental United States' only living coral barrier reef, an environmental treasure that's protected within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Sarah Fangman, superintendent of the sanctuary, is a Minnesota native whose impressive career as a marine scientist and deep-sea diver has spanned the country. Under her leadership, the sanctuary developed and launched "Mission: Iconic Reefs," an unprecedented $100 million, 20-year-long project to restore seven Keys reefs.

Like Fangman, people who live in the Keys forge personal connections to the region's unique natural world. They are connected to - and motivated to protect - the island chain's fragile, precious environment.

Scores of Florida Keys locals enrich their days with eco-activities and experiences. Many are stewards, passionate and protective, of the Keys' natural world and way of life.

Stewards include sustainable fishing and dive charter operators, hoteliers and innkeepers who oversee green-focused properties, coral restoration innovators, leaders in "voluntourism," wildlife rehabilitation experts and those guiding on-the-water eco-tours and outdoor cultural excursions.

Travelers to the Keys can enjoy a remarkable variety of earth- and sea-friendly options, guided by residents who cherish their close-to-nature lifestyle, work to preserve it and can share intriguing real-life stories. For example …

Honest Eco Tours' Captain Billy Litmer built Key West's first electric-powered charter boat for sustainable dolphin-watching excursions.

Jeanne Selander oversees the Monroe County Sheriff's Office Animal Farm, the country's only facility of its kind on jailhouse property, located on Stock Island.

Captain Bill Keogh, owner-operator of Big Pine Kayak Adventures, takes clients on guided kayak eco-tours of the pristine Lower Keys backcountry.

Bette Zirkelbach at Marathon's Turtle Hospital - the world's first state-licensed veterinary hospital for sea turtles - inspires visitors touring the hospital to discover their own passion for the endangered reptiles.

Lionfish harvester Rachel Bowman captures thousands of pounds of the invasive fish annually, contributing to the "conservation through consumption" movement. (You might find her tending bar at Keys Fisheries in Marathon.)

Artist Michelle Nicole Lowe is known for her vivid creations of indigenous fish, birds and sea turtles - underscoring the need to care for them and their habitats - that can be found in her Islamorada gallery.

Jordan Budnik oversees Tavernier's Florida Keys Wild Bird Center, which protects and rehabilitates injured indigenous seabirds, shore birds and raptors.

You can discover the islands' unique environment - and meet the people who are its stewards - during eco-travel experiences, paddleboard treks, explorations of wildlife refuges and rehabilitation centers, soft-adventure activities and visits to environmental attractions throughout the Keys.

You can learn about coral restoration through nonprofit educational facilities such as Reef Renewal USA, the Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo, Islamorada's I.CARE or Mote Marine Laboratory's Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration on Summerland Key.

These organizations teach people how to become "citizen scientists" to help preserve the living coral barrier reef.

You can snorkel, dive or fish with a sanctuary-certified Blue Star operator, increasing your awareness about environmentally responsible snorkel and dive techniques and catch-and-release fishing.

Throughout the Keys, opportunities abound to bask in nature's richness, immerse yourself and loved ones in eco-experiences, enjoy opportunities for volunteer and learning vacations, and discover why Keys locals are so passionate about protecting their environment and lifestyle.

You can easily make (or deepen) your own connections with the Keys' fascinating natural world and start adopting practices and activities to help preserve it. Find a voluntourism activity and search out green travel options.

Once you do, you too can become a steward of the Keys.

For ways to get started, visit, and