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Florida by Water: See the Wild Side of the Keys

Beyond the brightly painted houses and saloons of Key West are hundreds of square miles still wild and ripe for exploration.

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Looe Key Marine Sanctuary Preservation Area in Bahia Honda State Park is home to one of Florida's most spectacular reefs.


Perched at the end of the 113-mile-long Overseas Highway, Key West is a laid-back haven of civilization. But beyond the brightly painted conch houses and iconic Duval Street saloons are hundreds of square miles still wild and ripe for exploration.

Spring Migration, Key West Seaplane Adventures, Dry Tortugas National Park

You could take a ferry or private boat to remote Dry Tortugas National Park, but arriving on one of the park's seven small islands via seaplane seems particularly appropriate for a spring bird migration trip. Key West Seaplane Adventures offers half-day and full-day excursions from Key West Airport to Dry Tortugas year-round. To witness the flood of spring migrants visit between late March and mid-May, when you'll likely see well over 200 bird species, says Dry Tortugas park ranger Nick Fuechsel, adding that bad weather bodes well for optimal birding. "Typically, the worse the weather, the larger the number and diversity of grounded migrants," he explains. After intense spring storms (more likely in April), normally scarce species such as Lincoln's sparrow may be common and the usual suspects—ranging from colorful warblers to sooty terns (which nest nowhere else in the United States)—are often present in the thousands.

Looe Key Sanctuary Preservation Area, Bahia Honda State Park

Located about eight miles offshore from Bahia Honda, Looe Key Sanctuary features one of the Florida Keys' most spectacular reefs, with nearly 50 species of coral, including plentiful elkhorn and massive star coral. The abundant coral and fish (over 150 species ranging from brightly colored parrotfish to the torpedo-like barracuda) have made Looe Key a must-see destination for wildlife enthusiasts. "Because of its varying depths, Looe Key is an excellent scuba and snorkeling site for all skill levels," says Brittany Burtner, park services specialist at Bahia Honda State Park. Snorkeling trips fill up quickly in winter and during holiday breaks, so make reservations well in advance of your Keys trip.

National Key Deer Refuge, Big Pine Key

The 25 islands that make up the National Key Deer Refuge are home to an estimated 800 endangered Key deer. The golden retriever-size Key deer is the smallest subspecies of Virginia white-tailed deer and is commonly spotted feeding throughout Big Pine Key, both inside and outside (in private yards, wooded areas, and along roadsides) the refuge. "This is the only place in the world to view this unique, endangered species," says Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges park ranger Kristie Killam. "The best way to see them is to travel the main roads at dawn and dusk."

Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, Big Pine Key

This refuge is the only place in the world set aside to protect the great white heron and features hundreds of other native and migratory birds. It's primarily made of mangrove islands, so you'll need a boat or kayak to explore within the refuge boundaries.

Fun Fact: Dry Tortugas is in the central time zone. On seaplane trips to the islands, pilots and passengers cross from eastern to central time 45 miles west of Key West. According to the clock, the plane actually lands 15 minutes before the posted takeoff time. To keep things simple, however, the park service and Key West Seaplane Adventures both operate on eastern time.

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