Like salt in the sea, there are some experiences we encounter that are forever engraved into who we are. When it comes to the ocean, you never forget the sound waves make as they crash against the shore, the smell of salty brine lingering in the air, or the blissful way a cool breeze engulfs you on a hot summers day. The ocean is something we all have in common and in recent studies around the globe, it’s now become alarmingly evident that our oceans have seen better days. Fortunately for us, a few pioneers have been revolutionizing the way cities handle conservation and education for responsible tourism. With plenty of caring citizens wanting to do their part, eco-tourism, sustainability-focused, and thriving wildlife destinations have become front and center on trending travel reports.
Here in the United States, the Florida Keys has been leading the charge on responsible tourism offering everything from sustainable eco-tours to government supported nature centers that emphasize the education on local wildlife. If you’re looking to do your part this summer, we recommend planning a trip to the Florida Keys, diving down to the world’s third largest barrier reef and preparing for a vacation where you can give back to the planet and leave knowing you left a destination better than you found it.
The first stop of any Florida Keys road trip is none other than Key Largo. The Keys consist of a 125-mile-long stretch of islands that mirrors an equally as impressive coastline with the world’s third largest barrier reef. As you can imagine, the reef plays a vital role in attracting visitors near and far. Therefore, businesses and locals alike are doing their part to invest in the upkeep and well being of their oceanic ecosystem.
The Baker’s Cay Resort, for example, is a former pineapple plantation which has been reimagined into a 13-acre resort that not only features beautiful rooms, quality service, delicious restaurants, and stunning nature trails complete with hidden beaches, but also does its part by providing guests with environmentally friendly options liked boxed water, biodegradable straws, and an eco-conscious boutique that offers up everything from sustainable fashion to reef safe sunscreen.
In Monroe County, reef safe sunscreen is strongly encouraged, as the county is currently working their way towards making reef harmful sunscreens illegal by law. Sunscreens that contain harmful chemicals like oxybenzone, octinoxate, and avobenzone are proven to be lethal to coral, which since the 1970s has diminished by 97 percent. As the United State’s only barrier reef, coral is one the Keys most valuable players in this $2.7 billion dollar tourism industry. In the words of Roxane Boonstra, the recreational dive and volunteer coordinator from the Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo, you have to start with coral. They’ll be no marine life without it. Guests can visit the Coral Restoration Foundation to learn more about the future of coral reefs as well as volunteer to snorkel or scuba dive the man-made coral farms. Divers will even get the opportunity to do their part by helping replant native corals back onto the reef.
Of course, if you’d rather be landlocked, you can wind down and visit The Florida Keys Wild Bird Sanctuary, a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of native wild birds that have been harmed or displaced. You can visit the resident birds who are no longer eligible to be released due to long-standing medical conditions and learn the importance of coexistence as well as the importance of environmental preservation for some of Florida’s oldest residents.
After you’ve finished exploring the Upper Keys, take a day tip to Marathon, where visitors can tour one of the world’s first turtle hospitals, opened in 1986, designated to the health and well being of sea turtles. At the Turtle Hospital, educational tours are held daily to introduce visitors to the resident sea turtles, the facilities that help them, and to the local stressors that affect marine life as well as how we can do our part to prevent them. Guests even have the opportunity to get up close and personal in the process by assisting in the release of a turtle, back into the ocean, after they’ve been rehabilitated, which is regularly announced on the hospital’s website. Bette Zirkelbach, the manager of the turtle hospital, excitedly exclaims that, “6/10 of our calls [for sick sea turtles] are from people who have been to the hospital before,” making this once in a lifetime experience one not to be missed!
After you’ve worked up an appetite from saving turtles all day, head over to Castaway Waterfront Restaurant & Sushi Bar to order up the local catch of the day, Lionfish. Owner and Chef John Mirabell was one of the world’s first chefs to serve up lionfish after a venomous sting left him “inspired” to make lionfish sushi. Lionfish are an invasive species in the Atlantic Ocean causing a real problem for Florida’s local ecosystem as they compete with native fish for food, habitat and dominate in populations due to a lack of natural predators. As a conservationist, Mirabell is lending his hand in helping diminish the invasive population by doing what humans do best, putting lionfish on the menu. On Castaway’s extensive menu, you can find this fish served up several different ways alongside plenty of other locally caught fish and delicious dishes. Local favorites include the fresh ceviche, stuffed avocados, and lionfish sushi humorously referred to as the king of the jungle roll.
After crossing the infamous seven-mile bridge, you’ll eventually find yourself at the final destination of your road trip, Key West. Naturally, you can’t mention the Floridas Keys without mentioning Florida’s biggest wildlife player, dolphins. Key West is home to a resident pod of about 300 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, which live in smaller pods that can range anywhere from 6 to 20 dolphins seasonally. Watching them in their natural habitat with Honest Eco Sustainable Nature Tours is an experience favored by visitors and locals alike. The SQUID, Key West’s first solar-powered boat, uses a lithium battery-powered electric motor that reduces fuel consumption making it a perfect environmentally friendly option for day tours. The solar powered battery reduces the engine’s noise pollution making it ideal for dolphin watching as well as snorkeling in secluded areas amongst the iconic turquoise blue waters that are synonymous with the Keys.
If you prefer to stay dry on your excursion, Key West Eco Tours provides kayaks or stand up paddle boards through “backcountry” waters where wild mangroves provide a lush habitat for young sea life and colorful gardens. Led by local nature guides, this hands-on experience invites guests on a treasure hunt as they search the seabed to identify, classify, and learn about the extensive ecosystem that flourishes within these clear shallow waters.
In addition to the abundance of eco-friendly tours, Key West is also home to a budding sustainably sourced culinary scene. Locals can be found on any given night dining at The Stoned Crab. At this restaurant, private fishing boats deliver sustainably caught Florida stone crab, lobster, Key West Shrimp and a variety of local fish that are every bit as delicious as they are fresh. From dinner, stroll on over to the infamous sunset celebration at Mallory Square where around 7 pm the streets turn into a carnival affair as Floridians and eager guests overlook the harbor while street performers, musician, and food carts celebrate another day in paradise. From there, you can head to Duval Street’s only eco-bar, The Green Room, where this local hub serves up unique frozen cocktails, live music, and a picturesque rooftop deck overlooking the downtown area. The Green Room’s commitment to being eco friendly echoes throughout the space with upcycled decor, an extensive recycling system behind the scenes, a curbside cigarette container that makes recycling those butts anything but boring and a for sale merchandise display that donates a margin of their proceeds to helping environmental causes, such as the Turtle Hospital. After a long night celebrating on Duval St, you can rest easy at the Parrot Key Hotel & Villas who’s newly refurbished waterfront villas are a blissful escape with top of the line amenities and friendly staff that will make your stay feel like paradise.
As far as vacations go, getting in touch with one of America’s most eco-conscious destinations is more than just a once in a lifetime experience, it’s a bright light to the future of sustainable tourism. This chain of island’s commitment to reducing plastic use, enforcing non-toxic sunscreen, and commitment to sustainably caught seafood is the lifeline needed to aid a seemingly sinking ship. As the world works towards educating future generations on sustainable practices, the Florida Keys is no doubt a pioneer in leading the way in which sustainability can work hand in hand to educate locals and visitors alike on the importance of preserving our planet making this destination an absolute must for your next vacation.
Merissa Principe is a teacher and a freelance travel blogger from NYC. Teaching early childhood education has provided Merissa an opportunity to travel all over the world and live in new places. Be sure to follow her at Citygirlriss.wordpress.com for all things travel, beauty, fashion and New York City.