Visit the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center

Eco-Travel, Florida Keys, Wildlife & Animals — By on September 2, 2010 at 6:00 am

By Patty Hodapp

Deputy Editor

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I had no idea life under the wavy ocean-surface was so fascinating until I visited the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center. For example, the center is home to a special, small square aquarium tank that houses a very dangerous venomous marine creature called the “lionfish”. The lionfish, also dubbed the Turkey Fish, Scorpion Fish or Fire Fish, is threatening to the Keys waters because it is a predator to almost everything, and has no predators chasing it–essentially it is at the top of the food chain right now, posing problems to the eco-system…including us humans.

Venom of a Lionfish

Lionfish have long, separated spines that when touched, equal a shock 100 times more powerful than a bee-sting, to humans. Now, imagine you are a little fish, or even a big shark, and you brush against several of these menacing spines… you’re basically toast. While lionfish aren’t typically aggressive toward humans, they pose a danger to divers ascending or descending who can’t see them floating in the water. A lionfish’s bladder  doesn’t adjust buoyancy like regular fish. Regular fish stay upright in the water because their fish bladder keeps them balanced, but Lionfish float upside down, right side up, or any which way, at depths up to 120 feet (and maybe more) which make water areas they inhabit like a minefield for divers.

What Lionfish Look Like

Plus, with next to no predators, they can grow over a foot in length. They can be many colors and are typically striped: red, green, navy green, brown, orange, yellow, black, maroon, or white. The lionfish we saw in the Eco-discovery center was black and white, and about the size of an extra large grapefruit. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Association branch in the Keys encourages divers and fishers to exercise caution and avoid contact with the venomous spikes, which aren’t deadly to humans but are extremely painful.

Benefit of the Eco-Discovery Center

While the effects of getting stung by a lionfish don’t make the Keys water particularly appealing, one of the main benefits of the Eco-Discovery center is its budget and facilities that educate people on Marine issues like this. The center has instructions on how to catch and remove lionfish safely and how to avoid them while enjoying the Keys sanctuary.

But that’s not all.

The 6,400-square-foot center opened on Jan. 13, treating visitors to an array of interactive maps and displays highlighting the natural environment of the Keys, both good and bad. As all science buildings should be, the center itself is environmentally friendly with a solar paneled roof and green building amenities. As soon as we started our tour of the center, led by Craig Wanous, office of coastal and aquatic managed areas, and Sean Morton, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, I was hooked.

Things to Do at the Center

  • Watch the “living reef” with Mote Marine Laboratory’s 2400 gallon aquarium and live video feed from the reef about six miles off shore.
  • Walk through a mock version of Aquarius, the world’s only underwater ocean laboratory.
  • Take a virtual dive to 1600 feet.
  • Watch Reflections–A Florida Keys Experience, a true life story of a young women who grew up snorkeling, diving and swimming along the reef of the keys. Her inspiring narrative will make you want to jump right in and see the ocean’s beauty for yourself.
  • Explore the Dry Tortugas, a small group of islands at the end of the Florida Keys, and learn about Fort Jefferson, the closest U.S. destination to Cuba in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Visit the gift shop for Keys souvenirs. Proceeds from the Center’s store sales benefit education programs at the Center.

The Center is a must-see for visitors of all ages. I definitely left with more questions than answers, and a whole new curiosity about the waters in the marine sanctuary. The world beneath the surface is really an incredible place, and talking to Craig Wanous and Sean Morton inspired me to get scuba certified so that next time I visit, I can dive down to see the reef for myself.

Admission: FREE

Hours:Tuesday to Saturday, 9am-4pm; Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas

Location: 35 East Quay Road, Key West, FL, 33040; Center is at the end of Southard Street at the Truman Waterfront (across the street from Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park).

Parking: Free parking available at the center

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