Florida Keys Marine Ecosystem: Ride Safely Through Blue Rider

Adventure Travel, Eco-Travel, Florida Keys, Wildlife & Animals — By on August 19, 2010 at 3:00 pm

By Patty Hodapp
LG Deputy Editor

When it comes to personal watercrafts (PWC) a.k.a. Waverunners and Jetskis, people in the Florida Keys either love them or hate them. But regardless, almost 80,000 machines are sold each year in America, and according to the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment, nearly 20 million Americans ride a personal watercraft each year. The Florida Keys marine sanctuary is an extremely sensitive, shallow stretch of ocean bed surrounding the island chain, and happens to be a popular PWC destination. With water depths ranging from 5 to 20 feet, boats and watercraft make an especially rough impact on this fragile water environment. Although Waverunner and Jetski owners are considered Class A boaters by the U.S. Coast Guard—and therefore are required to follow Florida’s boating regulations and navigational rules—unfortunately not all do so. In fact, many irresponsible recreational riders aren’t aware of their boating obligation to get up to speed on this unique habitat.  And their riding is one of the main causes of habitat loss or damage and endangered species. From scarring seagrass beds to stirring up the ocean floor, and from tearing up plant life to hitting water animals, irresponsible boaters unfortunately make their irreversible mark.

That’s why the Blue Rider Ocean Awareness and Stewardship Program (a combination of efforts from the Personal Watercraft Industry Association and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary) works with experienced local riders who know the rules and the ecosystem. Through guided tours, riders show inexperienced visitors that wave-running and jetskiing can be a fun way to see the Florida Keys without damaging the habitat.

During my visit to the Keys a few weekends ago, I went on two PWC tours. On each tour, our guides stressed not only the fragile state of the marine life several times, but also gave us extensive navigational directions and rules. I was impressed by their fervency in protecting the ecosystem and their desire to  teach us about the marine life.

Two Guided Tours:

Barefoot Billy‘s at the REACH Resort, on Key West

On our 26-mile Barefoot Billy’s tour, we circumnavigated the entire island of Key West. Our guide brought us through the channel and we saw every shore of the island. We also caught great waves out in the Atlantic and slowed the pace down to admire the Mangrove trees. Our guide was especially well versed in history, so we learned a lot about old sunken battle ships, and the role of the navy in building and paroling the channel.

To book a Barefoot Billy’s marine-safe Key West PWC tour, call 305.849.0815 or click here.

Extreme Sports Florida Keys on Islamorada

Extreme Sports Florida Keys focuses on kite-boarding and kite-surfing, but they also provide local PWC tours around Islamorada, about 25 miles. Our guide here knew much more about the ecosystem itself–he pointed out scarring from boat motors in the seagrass, took us near the mangroves, found sharks for us to see, and brought us out deep enough where we could snorkel and look at the coral without getting the the way of fish or touching the habitat.

To book an Extreme Sports Florida Keys tour call 305.664.4055

Stabilizers to Florida Keys Marine Environment

Just within the last decade or so, the idea of using personal watercraft as eco-friendly tools is becoming more popular. Before, the machines had a bad reputation for harming the environment, but now with greener developments and programs to teach safe riding, riding PWCs can actually be cleaner and more eco-friendly than regular boats. Our guides made it clear that jumping on a machine doesn’t mean you can ride off around the sanctuary anywhere you like. The fragile, interconnected ecosystem is teeming with wildlife, and chalk full of endangered species, so riding with extra care is vital to the moral framework of being a Blue Rider. On our tours, we learned about several plants and water animals key to the survival and success of the reef and the surrounding waters. Here is an overview crash course, but I did leave the water knowing we had only scratched the surface…there is a whole world of creatures that lurk peacefully below the surface, including pilot whales, brown pelicans, manatees, sharks, and alligators. I for one, walked away with many more questions than answers. But I also left with a new respect for the habitat that I gained from these tours and seeing the wildlife in action.

Coral Reefs

Corals are actually animals called polyps. Each bud of a coral is one polyp and each bud secretes a calcium carbonate skeleton for protection. Its stagnate position in the ocean makes it prime real estate for hundreds of thousands of species, from fish to bacteria. Colonies of polyps form reef formations and it takes years just to grow an inch, so imagine the near irreversible damage of breakage. Coral requires sunlight to grow and survive. If the reef is damaged by humans (particularly by boating accidents) the entire reef suffers and can die overtime.

Hands off rule: you can enjoy the beauty of the reef and the tropical fish that live in them, but don’t touch the reef or any sea creatures in any way.

Seagrass Beds

Seagrass is a flowering plant that lives underwater. Florida has around 2.7 million acres of seagrass that is crucial to the stabilization of the ecosystem. Seagrass traps fine sediments, stabilizes the ocean bottom with its root network, provides a home to many fish and other sea creatures (much like a coral reef), offers food for manatees, sea turtles and other marine creatures, acts as a nursery for Florida’s commercially imported marine life, and is a haven for young marine animals who need protection from larger open-water predators.

Slowly over Seagrass Rule: Improper boating (including going too fast over the seagrass) leaves scars in the beds from dragging motors and other boat parts through the beds. Drive your boat slowly and avoid shallow places where seagrass lives. Even if the water appears deep, gunning your engine can stir up the ocean bottom and is harmful to the seagrass ecosystem. Instead, stick to marked channels.


Mangrove trees were my favorite. They are native to Florida and thrive in salt water because of their unique distillation process where one leaf takes on most of the saltwater, and the rest take on the filtered freshwater for survival. Florida has an estimated 496,00 acres of mangrove forests that contribute the overall health environment. Mangroves trap and cycle organic materials, chemical elements, and filter nutrients for the larger ecosystem. The roots are a physical trap for sediments and they also give shelter and attachment for other filtering marine organisms.

Like seagrass, mangroves provide a protected nursery for fish and other marine life from the open ocean. Species that thrive on the mangrove ecosystem include tarpon, snapper, oyster and shrimp.

Channels are Mostly Off-Limits Rule: Mangroves have narrow, shallow channels of water running through them, so only enter these with an experienced guide. Drive at idle speed and don’t touch anything. Wait until you are well outside the mangroves to accelerate.

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