Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s 25th Birthday! 

By: Heather Leonard

  When you hear people talk about attractions and places to visit in Florida, most of the time you’re probably thinking Disney, Daytona Beach, Busch Gardens, and the Everglades. What if there was a place where you could go diving, snorkeling, and see old shipwrecks. What if you could see some of Florida’s most treasured sea creatures like manatees and the Queen Conch? Maybe it even has a facility with a visitor’s center and interactive exhibits. To some this may be more fun than an amusement parks.

A photo of one of the reefs in the FKNMS. Photo courtesy of FKNMS (http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/about/welcome.html?s=about)

A photo of one of the reefs in the FKNMS. Photo courtesy of FKNMS (http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/about/welcome.html?s=about)

          Well that place is real, and is known as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Eco-Discovery Center.  You “enter the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center and take a journey into the world of the native plants and animals of the Keys, both on land and underwater. Leave with an increased awareness and appreciation of the need to protect and conserve the ecosystem of South Florida” (FKNMS 2014). The sanctuary’s mission is to protect the natural resources and the cultural heritage of the Florida Keys.

         In doing research for this article I got the opportunity to speak with one of the people who works at the the Eco-Discovery Center and for NOAA, Rachel Pawlitz. She provided me with a broad view about what goes on at the Eco-Discovery Center and what they are all about. Her responses to my questions are pieced together throughout the article.  So let’s dive in!

History of the sanctuary

            The Florida Keys sanctuary has a long and exciting history behind it. In 1963, the John Pennekamp Coral Reef state Park became the first undersea park in the United States, which was only a fraction of the size that the sanctuary is today.  Then on December 18, 1975, President Gerald Ford approved the designation of the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary off the Florida Keys, protecting the coral reefs and making it the second national marine sanctuary. This sanctuary protected 103 square nautical miles of coral reef habitat from Carysfort Lighthouse to Molasses Reef. In 1981,  the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary  is designated to protect 5.32 square nautical miles of coral reef.

           The 1980s were a very busy time for the area that would become the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. During the 1980s, there were several drilling proposals in the area. In late 1989, within a few weeks of each other, three large vessels ran aground: October 25th, the M/V Alec Owen Maitland (M/V means motor vessel); October 30, the Mavro Vetronic plowed into a reef;  and on November 11th, the M/V Elpis grounded. In that same year, the Exxon Valdez tanker runs aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, making it one of the biggest oil spills in U.S. history. Also during the 1980s, there was a decline in the health of the Florida Keys which led to several problems. These problems include: the Long-spined sea urchins were decimated due to disease, algal blooms, loss of living coral cover, and seagrass die-offs.  These incidents prompted Congress to begin drafting a bill, which on November 16th, 1990, was signed into law by President George H. Bush thus creating the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. 

What goes on at the sanctuary

           As mentioned before, in doing research for this article I had the opportunity to speak with Rachel Pawlitz. She has done research in the marine and terrestrial ecology fields. In doing so, she has gotten to work in some amazing places such as Australia’s temperate reefs, Brazil’s rainforest, Africa’s Okavango Delta, and in river systems in the southeastern United States. Her extensive travel and her broad training in the ecology field propel her passion is to help inform and educate people about natural resource conservation. She gave me a incredible information about what goes on at the Eco-Discovery Center and what they are all about. Here is are some pieces of our interview.

Q: What are some things that you hope to instill in the people that go to the sanctuary and Eco-Center?

A: Firstly, we want people to learn about the natural and cultural resources that we protect – from coral reefs to

This is a part of one of the ships on the ship wreck trail. This is the drive shaft from the City of Washington ship wreck. Photo courtesy of FKNMS (http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/wrecks/protection.html)

This is a part of one of the ships on the ship wreck trail. This is the drive shaft from the City of Washington ship wreck. Photo courtesy of FKNMS (http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/wrecks/protection.html)

shipwrecks. We also try to help visitors to understand what they can do to help, what kinds of behaviors help sustain this ecosystem for the next generation to enjoy.  A big one is not to touch, damage, take, or stand on coral and to learn safe boating techniques to prevent running aground on reefs and seagrass beds.

Q: What are some examples of research that gets done at the sanctuary?

A: The sanctuary works closely with other programs such as the one at Mote that I mentioned…We also work with researchers from universities such as Florida International University, University of Miami, and many others. Our biggest long-term monitoring focus has been on water quality, coral reefs, and seagrass. (Links for research and other things for the sanctuary are at the end.)

Q: What kinds of programs  and events do you guys put on at the sanctuary?

A: We host a “Discovery Saturday” program for kids kindergarten through fifth grade on the third Saturday of each month – it’s a great way for local kids to come learn more about the sanctuary’s ecosystems. They can also learn about weather, maritime history, and other related topics. We also have some classroom programs and host booths at local festivals.

The Center’s theater runs a film on our local ecosystem called “Reflections of the Florida Keys,” by renowned filmmaker Bob Talbot.

Every year in April, we work closely with Mote Marine Laboratory, and internationally renowned non-profit organization that promotes ocean conservation and supports important conservation research. They are a close partner of ours and help us with programs such as Bleachwatch, which is a citizen science program where trained members of the public can report sightings of bleached corals.

Mote Marine Lab also runs “The Living Exhibit” portion of our Eco-Discovery Center, a mini aquarium where visitors can see living corals and other reef fish and invertebrates.

Our Team OCEAN does important on the water outreach to boaters by heading out each weekend between Memorial Day and Labor Day to greet boaters in some of the most heavily visited areas and offer them free information about our regulations as well as charts and other helpful assistance.

Q: What is your favorite part of working at the Center? What makes it so special and so different from others like it?

A: It’s special because it’s the gateway to the only living coral reef in the continental United States – and it provides visitors with a glimpse into the unique ecosystem of the Florida Keys. The Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center is actually the free public visitor’s center for the sanctuary, which is a marine protected area of more than 2900 square nautical miles of waters around the Florida Keys chain of islands.

Within the sanctuary are coral reefs, one of the world’s most expansive seagrass beds, and more than 6,000 species of marine life. Coral reefs are famous for their biodiversity. Their complex, three-dimensional structures make for great fish habitat so they are home to many colorful reef fishes – damselfish, butterflyfish, snappers, groupers.

What many people don’t realize is that seagrass beds are also home to many beloved species, including Florida manatees and sea turtles. Smaller but no less wonderful animals are found there, including bright orange Bahamian sea stars and the Queen conch – which is an iconic species here in the Florida Keys. And don’t forget tiny seahorses, some of which only reach a few inches in length. They curl their tails around the seagrass blades. By the way, seagrasses are not actually related to grass, they are flowering plants that are adapted to live in the ocean.

The sanctuary also protects historic shipwrecks and other archaeological treasures. We have wrecks from many different eras of American maritime history and there is a Shipwreck Trail that helps people start exploring the local wrecks.


Q: Is there anything that you think is really important or fascinating, in regards to the sanctuary and Discovery Center that you think people should know about?

A: I hope that someday, all of our visitors and residents alike would have a good grasp on how to take care of our resources. In particular, coral reefs are delicate animals (NOT rocks) and divers and snorkelers must learn to avoid bumping, touching, standing on, or otherwise coming into contact with them. Boaters must also be extremely careful – exercise caution, know their nautical signs and how to navigate properly with charts and be cautious to avoid running aground in either coral reef OR seagrass.  

Q: What is one thing you would like the readers of the article to take away from it?

A: National marine sanctuaries, such as the Florida Keys, are a lot like underwater National Parks. They preserve some of America’s most special underwater treasures and play a very important role in helping maintain a healthy balance between ocean conservation and enabling people to continue to work and play in these special places.  Sanctuaries protect the best characteristics of these places for future generations. If you’ve never been to one, you’re missing out on some of the most spectacular coastal areas in the U.S.


Special upcoming events

       Now as mentioned in the title of this article, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is celebrating it’s  25th birthday with a big celebration for families and people of all ages! Visit the Conservation Village for family fun and games, listen to live music, and guest speakers sharing cool facts and stories of sanctuary’s role in protecting the Keys coral reefs, seagrass beds and the other wonders that make the sanctuary so special.

Happy Birthday FKNMS! Photo courtesy of clker.com (http://www.clker.com/clipart-birthday-hat-and-horn.html)

Here are the details:

Date: November 8th

Time: 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm


Islander Resort

Mile Marker 82.1 Oceanside

82100 Overseas Highway

PO Box 766 Islamorada, FL, 33036


           The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has a long standing history and is important for the preservation the delicate ecosystem in the area. They partner with local dive shops, and researchers so they can educate, raise awareness, and reduce the impact of the visitors. They offer protection for the ecosystem by making it illegal to discharge sewage, oil, or gas, there is no oil or gas drilling within the sanctuary, and they have what they call zones of protection set up to keep the ecosystem in balance but not take away from the experience of the visitors. So bring the family out and have a great time playing games and learning about some of the Florida Keys natural resources and the history that makes it so special and a treasure!



A special thanks to Rachel Pawlitz from NOAA who works at the center for taking the time to talk with me and help me gather the information in this article.


Here are some examples of research findings that are mentioned in the article and other links for the sanctuary:

Other Research:  http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/scisummaries/welcome.html

The long-term monitoring:  http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/research_monitoring/welcome.html

The Ship Wreck Trail: http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/shipwrecktrail/welcome.html  

The main website:  http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/eco_discovery.html