Iguana - florida keys

7 Unique Wildlife Encounters In The Florida Keys

All the way at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula you’ll find the Florida Keys – a string of islands that have more in common with Caribbean islands than they do most places in the mainland United States. From the mainland of Florida, visitors can drive 115 miles through the keys, hopping from island to island across scenic bridges until they arrive in Key West – the last inhabited island in the archipelago.

Each island in the Florida Keys offers its own unique charm, and the local wildlife is certainly a big part of that charm. From land-dwelling animals to maritime citizens of the coral reefs just offshore, the Florida Keys are home to a variety of unique and fascinating wildlife.

Key Deer

This endangered miniature deer is a subspecies of the whitetail deer – it lives only on a few islands in the Florida Keys. The Key Deer nearly became extinct during the 1950’s, but since then they have recovered somewhat after being placed under the protection of The National Key Deer Refuge. Fully grown Key Deer weigh only 45-75 pounds and are largely unafraid of humans.  An excellent place to see these deer is at the Blue Hole in The National Key Deer Refuge.

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A friendly key deer sniffing for food in my camera (don’t feed the deer, it’s bad for them!)

Crocodiles

Far less common than alligators, there are only about 2,000 American crocodiles in the United States. Also unlike their cousins, crocodiles prefer saltwater or brackish water and are only found in tropical areas. Crocodiles are shy and avoid humans, but can sometimes be seen in the National Parks in and around the keys.

Coral Reefs

Undoubtedly the most vibrant and diverse wildlife in the Florida Keys can be found at the Florida Reef, a 220 mile long coral barrier reef that runs just a few miles seaward of the Florida Keys. Corals, tropical fish, sea turtles and other life is plentiful on the reef. Snorkeling trips, glass bottom boat tours, and diving excursions are all excellent ways to enjoy the marine life on the reef and there are dozens of companies operating tours from every major island and town along the Florida Keys. Consider choosing a Blue Star operator to ensure you’re using a company that protects the reef and its wildlife for future generations. See my Florida Keys snorkeling guide for detailed information on snorkeling spots throughout the keys.

Coral reef - florida keys

A living growth of coral.

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An Angelfish.

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A school of Blue Tangs.

Sea Turtles

In my opinion, one of the most exciting animals living on the coral reef are sea turtles. Seeing a turtle while snorkeling is always a highlight for me – there is just something uniquely endearing about these calm, beautiful creatures. While seeing a turtle in the wild is the most exciting way to meet one, a more certain option for seeing sea turtles is to visit The Turtle Hospital in Marathon. The Turtle Hospital helps injured sea turtles return to the wild, educates people about sea turtles, conducts research, and houses several sea turtles who were unable to return to their natural habitat.

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A sea turtle I saw over the reef just off Marathon, FL.

Sharks

Contrary to what the movies portray and what many people think, the sharks found in the Florida Keys are typically harmless to humans. THe clear waters on the reef also make it easy for sharks to identify humans and avoid them (which they prefer to do). In fact, since records were started in 1882 there has not been a single fatality recorded from a shark in the Florida Keys. These magnificent creatures can be seen while diving or snorkeling, although it’s difficult to predict when they’ll turn up. Sharks are more commonly seen at Looe Key Reef near Big Pine Key, so that’s a good place to head if you’re hoping to see one.

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A shark swimming past me at Looe Key reef. (Don’t worry, it’s safe!)

Iguanas

These reptiles are not native to Florida, but a population was established after people released their pets into the wild. These vegetarians found the landscaped yards of South Florida and the Florida Keys to their liking, and they are a common sight in many areas. They are harmless and a fun addition to the local wildlife, and they give the Keys a unique tropical feel.

Key West Chickens

Another non-native species that has moved in and claimed territory in the Florida Keys, chickens are a common sight on the tropical streets of Key West. Enjoy their colorful plumage and their alarm call every morning! (If you find their alarm services too annoying, just grab a chicken sandwich for lunch for some indirect vengeance!)

Key west Chicken - florida keys

Key West Chicken.

About The Author

Adam Thompson blogs at StayFloridaKeys.com, with a special focus on nature and outdoor activities in the Florida Keys. Adam’s favorite thing to do is head out to the reef for a day of snorkeling.

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