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Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary: The Ocean's Last Frontier

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is the top national marine sanctuary in the U.S waters and one of Earth's most biologically diverse places. The refuge includes a chain of more than 2,000 different species of plants and animals. It's an unparalleled place to explore some of our planet's last unexplored frontiers.

From beautiful coral reefs to fantastic sea turtles and manatees, this sanctuary has it all. Whether you are an avid scuba diver or just looking for a place to relax on the water's edge, this national marine sanctuary is a must-see. This article will walk you through some exciting things about Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. So keep reading to discover more.

A Brief History

In the late 1950s, when many offshore oil drilling operations were in their infancy, a group of scientists and businessmen in Florida became concerned about the possible damage these activities might do to the waters off their shore. So they came up with the idea of creating a sanctuary for marine life. In the late 1980s, Congress approved this request and began to build what’s now called Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is the country's only underwater national park. It was designated on November 16, 1990, to protect one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth. The sanctuary was first established after a large coral reef ecosystem was discovered during a joint U.S./Soviet marine research expedition in 1975-76. George H. W. Bush established this area as part of his presidential legacy to protect coral reefs, islands, shipwrecks, and other historical sites important to the United States maritime history.

One of the top destinations that make the Florida Keys so famous is the National Marine Sanctuary. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is part of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) network of protected sites, which spans across 2, 900 square nautical miles in Florida Bay to Key Largo's John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. For centuries, the Florida Keys has been a haven for wildlife and an important place for people to explore their connection with the ocean.

What’s Unique About Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary?

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is a place unlike any other in the Florida Keys. The sanctuary is an underwater national park protecting the coral reefs and different marine life in the area. It consists of over 90% water and 10% land, including four islands known as Key Largo, Summerland Key, Big Pine Key, and No Name Cay. It covers a large area that boasts islands, seagrass beds, shallow water areas, reefs, shipwrecks, and artificial habitats.

The marine environment within the sanctuary offers diverse habitats, including sandy beaches, mangrove wetlands, seagrass beds, salt marshes, and coral reefs. This area is home to over 200 types of coral and 100 species of fish, including bottlenose dolphins, loggerhead turtles, Kemp's Ridley sea turtles, and numerous fish species such as red snapper and grouper. It’s also a home for endangered species like sea turtles and manatees.

Feeding Tarpon in Islamorada Florida Keys

Shipwreck Trail at the Sanctuary

One of the most popular attractions on the island chain is a trail that follows an underwater shipwreck from its discovery site at Wilson Key Reef all the way to its final resting place off Grassy Key. The shipwreck trail is a self-guided tour that leads you past sunken skiffs, shipwrecks, and other historical sites in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The trail has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since it’s one of America's best-preserved underwater archaeological landscapes. Shipwrecks are some of the most haunting features in any marine sanctuary. When you visit the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, these shipwreck sites offer more than just a thrill at seeing remnants of Florida’s maritime history. There are more than 70 historically significant shipwrecks to explore along this underwater trail, including:

  • The Conrad (Adelaide Baker)
  • The Amesbury (Alexander’s Wreck)
  • The Benwood
  • The Duane (the U.S coast guard cutter)
  • The City of Washington
  • North America
  • The San Pedro
  • The Eagle

Activities to Enjoy at Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

Do you want to spend your time on vacation in a place that’ll offer fun activities for the whole family? If so, you should head over to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Besides viewing marine life and exploring the historic shipwrecks, there are more fun things to do at this marine sanctuary, including:

  • Stewardship
  • Boat tours
  • Fishing
  • Kayaking
  • Diving and Snorkeling
  • Paddlesports
  • Surfing
  • Heritage trails and sightseeing
  • Tide pooling


The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is the only living coral reef in North America. It’s home to more than 100 species of fish and provides critical habitat for migrating birds and endangered manatees, and sea turtles. The unique ecosystem also includes an extensive system of shipwrecks spanning five centuries. If you’re looking for a perfect destination in the Florida Keys, the national marine sanctuary should be on your bucket list.

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