Getting Back to Nature in the Rich Florida Keys

 In Jenny

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Many people think that because I work for a travel TV show, I’m constantly jetting off to fabulous destinations. Unfortunately, though, my public relations and social media duties for “Family Travel with Colleen Kelly” can be handled while working on a laptop in my kitchen. But recently, while on spring break in the Florida Keys with my family, I had an opportunity to take part in two unforgettable activities that Colleen tried out while shooting her show there last December: touring the Turtle Hospital in Marathon and kayaking through mangrove islands off the coast of Big Pine Key. The Florida Keys episode of “Family Travel” has not yet aired, so I thought I’d share my experiences now. Because both of these activities are just too amazing to keep you waiting!

The Turtle Hospital, 2396 Overseas Highway, Marathon

All sea turtles are endangered, so it’s a real problem when one is sick or injured. And this happens more often than you might think, thanks to fishing line entanglements, boat collisions, intestinal impactions caused by plastic bags and debilitating tumors. This is where The Turtle Hospital comes in. A small facility situated next to the ocean in a picturesque part of Marathon, The Turtle Hospital rescues, rehabilitates and releases sea turtles. More than 1,500 have been saved and returned to the wild over the past 30 years.

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And here’s the good news for anyone vacationing in the Florida Keys … you can tour The Turtle Hospital and even meet the adorable patients. (Ok, maybe not everyone thinks a turtle is adorable, but I certainly did – especially the babies!) Educational programs run daily. My family and I toured on a weekday morning, and I was surprised to learn that all tours were sold out for that day. So it’s a good idea to call ahead and make a reservation. Admission is $22 for adults and $11 for children 4 to 12 (under 4 are free). If you’re really lucky, maybe you’ll be in town during a turtle release. I’m told these are joyous events, with bystanders cheering the turtles on from the beach as they make their way back to their ocean home.

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Touring The Turtle Hospital is not only a fun family activity, it also gives kids and adults a first-hand view of how human actions can impact the natural world. Many tropical destinations feature heavily marketed opportunities for tourists to watch wildlife shows and swim with captive dolphins. These types of activities, in my opinion, don’t do as much to educate kids about the need to value and protect our planet and all of its creatures. This is a central theme at The Turtle Hospital, where you’ll get a 90-minute guided tour that starts with a short film and presentation about the plight of sea turtles. Guests then have a peak at the operating rooms and head outside to two pools to visit with patients who have names like Nemo, Bubbles and Dottie (the turtles are named by those who find them). Our engaging guide Rachel did a wonderful job of telling each turtle’s fascinating story. We then went to a larger area of tanks, including a 100,000-gallon salt water pool, once a swimming pool for the motel that was previously located on The Turtle Hospital’s grounds. This is the home of permanently disabled turtles that would have a poor chance of survival in the wild.  We all had the chance to feed them, which was a thrill for the younger kids in the group. It’s worth mentioning that this part of the hospital is right next to the Gulf of Mexico and has some of the prettiest ocean views we encountered while in the Florida Keys (great photo op).

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After the tour, Turtle Hospital manager Bette Zirkelbach introduced me to some of her youngest patients – the hatchlings – and told me a little more about the hospital’s mission, which also includes researching how water pollution might be contributing to the widespread turtle tumors and lobbying for environmental legislation that gives sea turtles a better chance. Keep in mind that when you visit The Turtle Hospital, your admission fee helps support this important work. Click here to learn about other ways to help.

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Bette Zirkelbach, Turtle Hospital manager

At The Turtle Hospital, visitors of all ages will gain a new appreciation for sea turtles, which are among the oldest inhabitants of our planet. And they’ll come away inspired by what a big difference a small group of people can make.

Big Pine Kayak Adventures, Big Pine Key, Mile Marker 30

My family and I have been on several kayaking excursions in Florida, but we’ve never had the opportunity to kayak right through the middle of a mangrove forest. At Big Pine Kayak Adventures, located in the Lower Keys, that’s exactly what you get to do. And it’s very cool! This kayak tour company is owned by Bill Keogh, a nature guide in these parts for 20 years, who specializes in unique backcountry trips around the mangrove islands of the Great White Heron and Key Deer National Wildlife Refuges. We did the three-hour tour, which is $50 per person. If we had time, we would have loved to try the 4 ½-hour tour, where you take a motor boat farther out and kayak “where few venture,” according to Bill. He also offers kayak rentals and fishing charters; click here for a complete list.

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We began our adventure by crossing the channel and heading for the mangrove island, where we found an opening just the right size for our kayaks. We set down the oars, as instructed, and reached overhead to carefully grab branches and guide our kayak through the narrow path. It felt like we were in another world, surrounded by the thick vegetation and total silence. We eventually emerged in a large, shallow “salt pond” that was totally isolated and teeming with jellyfish and blue crab.

IMG_0629FullSizeRender (11)Our knowledgeable guide Chris pulled them out so we could get a good look, then gently placed them back in the water. The jellyfish “only sting a little,” he said. Now that’s dedication to your job! We also saw osprey and great white herons nesting around the salt ponds and flying overhead. After exploring and relaxing, we went back through the mangroves and out into the open bay, where we spotted a barracuda. We didn’t have the pleasure of encountering dolphins or sharks, but Chris said he often sees them during the tours.

The tour we took is perfect for experienced and inexperienced kayakers alike, including kids. My son who’s eight shared a kayak with his dad and loved it. Even the teens had a great time. If you have a wide spread of ages, like we have in our family, you know it’s not always easy to make everyone happy on vacation. That’s why I try to plan an adventurous activity, like kayaking, that is exciting for everyone, regardless of age and ability. One of my favorite things about kayaking is that you feel so close to the water and the nature all around you. This is especially true with a Big Pine Kayak excursion, thanks to the mangroves, the salt pond and our guide who captivated us with his knowledge of the wildlife that he was able to get us so close to.

We had such a great week soaking up the Florida sun and fun. But by far, the highlights were our tour of The Turtle Hospital and kayaking at Big Pine Key. Our family will cherish those memories. There’s absolutely nothing better than getting out and exploring a new place together, especially when your surroundings are as rich as the Florida Keys.

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  • Turtle Hospital: The only way to see the turtles is to take part in an educational program. They run hourly every day between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.  Call 305-743-2552 to reserve your spot. $22 for adults, $11 for children 4 to 12.
  • Big Pine Kayak Adventures: It’s a bit off the beaten path, but if you follow the directions on the website you should be fine. The three-hour tour is $50 per person. Call 305-872-7474 to reserve your tour or to get prices for the other offerings. Don’t forget your camera or phone (if that’s how you take pictures) because there are some great photo ops. They’ll give you a waterproof bag to put it in. If you need a snack or forget to bring drinks, the shop at the marina has some basics.

Be sure to watch the Florida Keys episode of “Family Travel with  Colleen Kelly” when it airs on National Public Television later this year.  Check local listings. The episode will include Colleen’s behind-the-scenes tour of The Turtle Hospital and her kayaking excursion, plus many other adventures throughout the Keys.

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