The Florida Keys, a unique string of islands between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, is home to the only living coral reef in the U.S. Living, but barely. Snorkeling above the Keys’ Sombrero Reef reveals branchless, bleached coral and scant fish life. Coral is an animal with living tissue, and when that tissue dies all that’s left are these bare bones. With the reef’s ecosystem damaged, creatures like long-spined sea urchins that keep invasive coral-damaging algae down decline, accelerating its demise.
Ecotourism is about interacting with nature without dominating or harming it. Instead of killing or capturing animals, visitors observe and experience them on their turf, and on their terms. It’s an enormously different, far more intimate experience than seeing caged animals in zoos or captive sea mammals in aquariums. Dolphin petting and swims are a big tourist attraction in the Keys and worldwide, but the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) advises against direct interaction with animals, which can be traumatizing for them.
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As the Keys' tourism depends on fertile waters, ecotourism is more than just a buzzword here: It’s a strategy for survival. Catch-and-release fishing and limiting catches is encouraged; instead of jet skis, more businesses offer paddleboarding and kayaking; and veteran resorts like Islamorada’s Cheeca Lodge & Spaban thrill craft like jet skis to protect shallow waters’ turtle grass and fish breeding grounds. Cheeca Lodge also offers in-room recycling via designated bags. It seems a small measure, but given the volume of tiny shampoo bottles discarded each day alone, the long-term impact is huge.
Environmental and animal protection in the Florida Keys began more than a century ago with the creation of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge, which protects about 2,000 acres of unpopulated islands and 200,000 acres of marine waters. In 1938, the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge opened to provide safe breeding areas for these South Florida natives, which are North America’s largest wading bird. The National Key Deer Refuge was established in 1957 to protect more wildlife, notably the threatened indigenous small Key deer.
Decline in the Keys’ coral reef became noticeable in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 2003 that the Coral Restoration Foundation formed in Key Largo to counteract the ravages of disease, climate change and pollution. Their work has spread to other coral-depleted areas in Colombia and the Caribbean. This year, they aim to transplant 20,000 pieces of coral in the Keys’ nurseries. Given the dire situation, however, is it too little, too late?
“We’re very optimistic that the coral reef will come back,” the Coral Restoration Foundation’s Jessica Levy tells Metro. “There are so many angles and obstacles, and getting the transplant volume out there and making sure past mistakes aren’t repeated is crucial.
"Still, the first transplants took nine years to spawn. Now, the coral are spawning only two years after transplantation,” she beams. “That’s huge.”
Find an eco-trip for you
The Global Sustainable Tourism Counciland Sustainable Travel Internationalare working together to establish a set of universal guidelines for implementing and managing destination sustainability. However, whether habitats survive depends on individual behavior. Plastic bags and other trash kill turtles and other marine life. Even something as simple as switching sunscreens (Coral Restoration recommends the reef-friendly3rd Rock Sunblock) helps: According to an article published in Environmental Health Perspectives, betwen 4,0000 and 6,000 metric tons of sunscreen washes off swimmers into the ocean annually, bleaching the coral and ultimately killing it.
Dr. Kelly Bricker - chair of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, interim chair of the International Ecotourism Society and associate professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism at the University of Utah — gave us the ground rules of ecotourism.
- “The actions and activities of the ecotourist support conservation and all living beings within the ecosystem they have the opportunity to visit.”
- “The actions and activities of the ecotourist respect local communities and provide direct financial support through their tourism expenditures.”
- “The ecotourist does their homework to support travel businesses that are built on sustainability, have low-impact activities that directly support conservation efforts, provide a meaningful, quality experience, and enhance the learning and awareness of the traveler about the natural and cultural heritage of the area.”
Visit the Florida Keys
Fly: American Airlines has daily direct flights to Miami International Airport.
Eat: Most restaurants serve local, responsibly harvested fish, including Cheeca's Atlantic's Edge and Chef Michael’s, which is among the Keys’ best restaurants. 305-664-0640.
More ideas for travel
Ecotourism’s "do no harm" ethic isn’t a young business model. Since 1980, Peru’sRainforest Expeditionshas operated in the Tambopata-Candamo Reserved Zone, protecting 1.5 million hectares of tropical rainforest stretching from the Andean highlands to the Amazon lowlands. Unfortunately, it’s some of the last untouched lowland and pre-montane tropical humid forests in the Amazon.
Established in 1994, Ecuador-based eco-tourism companyTropicworks with the Huaorani, one of the world’s most isolated ethnic groups. Their home, the Yasuni National Park, is a Unesco Biosphere Reserve and considered the most biodiverse region in the world. The union has brought economic clout to this indigenous tribe, enabling them to protect their ecologically threatened land from industrial clear-cutting. Tree canopy regrowth is encouraging species regeneration, enriching the tourist experience with sightings of giant river otters, jaguars, giant armadillos and occasionally the very rare short-eared dog.
Hotels are, generally, bastions of waste, with lights ablaze 24/7, heat and air conditioning flowing through unused rooms and rarely any recycling bins for guests. Hotel Vermont in Burlington, Vt., however, is at least making an effort to lessen the enormous carbon footprint of travel. This newly built hotel, which opened in 2013, is LEED-certified (and in the country's second-greenest city!). It features flooring made of reclaimed antique red oak, and a green roof with plants and herbs where guests enjoy biodynamic wines, which are created organically and in conjunction with the Earth’s natural biorhythms. Hotel Vermont includes charging stations for electric cars, repurposed bicycles for guests to use instead of taxis, and high-efficiency washing machines.