The United States outpost in the Caribbean, the Florida Keys archipelago, sits amid the worlds third largest coral barrier reef. The national marine sanctuary that protects this habitat sweeps in a 220-mile- (354-kilometer-) long arc of ocean from the southern tip of Key Biscayne, southwest across the Keys, to roughly 80 miles (129 kilometers) west of Key West. The mangrove-fringed waters of the sanctuary harbor over 6,000 plant and animal species and lure millions of tourists every year.
Below the waves neon-blue-and-yellow queen angelfish and vividly striped butterfly fish scoot around huge sponges, sculpted coral heads, and swaying forests of sea fans. Divers who visit this underwater oasis may see a spotted eagle ray swoop past or lavender moon jellies float by.
In much of the sanctuary, patches of reef alternate with sea grass meadows that offer convenient places for juvenile spiny lobsters and other vulnerable young crustaceans and fish to hide from hungry predators. The thousands of verdant mangrove islands that dot the sanctuary waters play a similar protective role, sheltering the rookeries of great white herons and other endangered and threatened birds.
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