Patty Hodapp delves into the diverse ecology of the Florida Keys.
The largest living coral reef in the United States exists as backbone to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, a 2,800-square-nautical-mile ecosystem that surrounds the 126-mile island chain of the Florida Keys. This reef is home to a diverse group of plants and animals all protected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And as scientists continue to shed light on the Keys’ underwater life, visitors can learn more about this delicate ecosystem at the new Eco-Discovery Center in Key West that opened a year ago this month.
On a visit to Key West, I put aside my snorkeling mask to tour the new 6,400-square-foot educational center, wandering among its interactive maps and exhibits highlighting the ecology of the Keys’ main habitats: pinelands, beaches, mangroves, seagrass flats and the coral reef. A 2,500-gallon reef tank displays living coral, tropical fish, and a live reef camera feed from the actual reef six miles off shore. The center also includes a mock-up of Aquarius, the world’s only underwater ocean laboratory. And its solar paneled roof and green amenities make the center environmentally friendly.
While the center celebrates the beauty of the sanctuary, the reality is that like most marine habitats, the Keys sanctuary deals with aquatic problems as well.
Case in point: The white and black, grapefruit-sized marine creature called the lionfish sequestered alone in a small square aquarium. The predatory lionfish endangers marine life and has no natural predators, posing problems to the Keys
Lionfish have several long, separated spines that when touched can deliver a shock 100 times more powerful than a bee sting. This shock isn’t fatal to humans, but to other reef fish it’s a death sentence. With no predators, lionfish grow over a foot long, and while they aren’t typically aggressive toward humans, they’re dangerous for ascending divers who can’t see them floating upside down in the water above their wetsuits. Most fish float upright comfortably because their bladders keep them balanced. But a lionfish’s bladder doesn’t account for direction when it adjusts buoyancy, so they can float upside down, sideways or right side up, and at depths up to 120 feet–creating a diving minefield.
According to Sean Morton, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, lionfish invading the coral reef slash the survival of other reef fish by about 80 percent. That’s devastating to an ecosystem. Scientists theorize lionfish invaded from the Pacific, but their definitive origin is unclear. Lionfish aren’t deadly to humans but the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association warns divers to exercise caution.
Life underwater is complex, spectacular, and often inexplicable.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Though I left the center with more questions than answers, this new curiosity inspired me to pursue my scuba certification, so when I visit again, I can dive the reef myself–watching out for lionfish, of course.
Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center
35 East Quay Rd.
Key West, FL 33040
Photos: Courtesy of the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center.