Key West's Nature Attractions

Experience Key West's natural beauty at these sights.
By: Cammy Clark
Key West is known for its eclectic festivals, famous writers and water adventures. But for those who love nature and don’t want to get wet, visit these 4 attractions where you can view birds, barracudas butterflies and even a pond full of sharks.
The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservancy

The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservancy

Photo by: iStock


Open the door to the conservancy and enter the colorful world of more than 1,000 sun-worshiping butterflies, representing 50 to 60 exotic species. Some fly around the cascading waterfall and meandering garden habitat with high ceilings made of glass and the temperature kept at a humid 85 degrees. Others nap or feed on tree branches, flowers, the walkway and people’s shoulders. Tour guides warn guests to check for “hitchhikers” when they leave.

The kid-friendly attraction lets visitors watch caterpillars turn into majestic butterflies. Educational displays explain and show the metamorphosis. A butterfly’s life is short, like a flower’s, at just 2 weeks or so. Only 6 species mate at the conservancy --all the others arrive as chrysalis in weekly shipments from more than 10 tropical countries around the world. Once they hatch, the new butterflies join the garden party that also includes 35 species of exotic birds. The best time to go is when the sun is shining bright and the butterflies are most active.
Audubon House

Audubon House

Photo by: stannate, Flickr

stannate, Flickr

Just a block off the main tourist drag of Duval Street, modern-day travelers can go back to the mid-1800s by strolling around the restored 3-story home of Capt. John Geiger. Be sure to kick back in a rocking chair on the back balcony and take in the view of the lush gardens, with more than 60 species of tropical plants that attract local and migrating birds. The 1-acre grounds include several Geiger trees named after the wealthy harbormaster who made his fortune salvaging ships that wrecked on the nearby coral reef.

Now, the elegant home of American Classic Revival architecture -- but no running water -- is filled with the work of John James Audubon. In 1832, Audubon came to Key West and painted 2 White-crowned Pigeons on the cut branches of a Geiger tree, which he received permission to take from the Geiger property. The watercolor painting is featured in Audubon’s famed book Birds of America, but Audubon never stepped foot in the current house. It was built in 1846 after a hurricane destroyed Capt. Geiger’s original home. The second home was almost destroyed, too -- by bulldozers. In the late 1950s, Key West native Col. Mitchell Wolfson and his wife, Frances, saved the historical treasure from demolition and turned it into today’s museum now run by their family’s non-profit foundation.
Key West Aquarium

Key West Aquarium

Photo by: Thinkstock


The aquarium opened as the first attraction of Key West in 1935, during the Great Depression. The then-bankrupt city hoped to lure tourists with the ocean’s wonders. More than 75 years later, the aquarium still is a must see. Visitors can touch a baby nurse shark’s tail, pick up a giant hermit crab or see a rare and critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle named Lola, who lost her flipper to entanglement in a fishing line.

Educational videos and displays explain that corals are alive and that the nearby coral reefs are the “rainforests of the ocean.” The aquarium is home to sea horses, jellyfish, clownfish, rooster hogfish, great barracudas, spiny lobster and the “great invaders,” pretty but dreaded lionfish that wreak havoc on the Atlantic and Caribbean marine ecosystems. Most of the marine creatures are easy to see in small display tanks, which line several ponds where stingrays, sharks and sea turtles swim. Kids love the interactive pond where they can pick up shells and find squirming crabs and other critters inside -- and smile to the overhead webcam for friends and family watching back home.
Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center

Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center

Photo by: Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau

Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau

The island chain’s diverse, subtropical ecosystem comes to life in this 6,500-square-foot center that is sponsored by the national government and is one of the few attractions to see for free in Key West. It’s the perfect place to learn all about the uniqueness of the coral reef, even for travelers who plan to go see the natural wonder in person by diving, snorkeling or by taking a glass bottom boat. The Mote Marine Living Reef exhibit features a 2,500-gallon reef tank with live coral and brilliantly colorful tropical fish, which visitors can compare to a reef cam in the wild. See how scientists and researchers work under the sea in a mock-up of Aquarius, the world’s only underwater ocean laboratory, which operates offshore of Key Largo.

The terrestrial habitats showcase the upland pinelands, hardwood hammocks, beach dunes and mangrove shorelines. A 74-seat theater shows “Reflections of the Florida Keys,” a 20-minute movie by renowned filmmaker Bob Talbot. In this beautiful video, he documents how the underwater world is connected with life on land and in the air. While this Smithsonian-quality center is off the beaten path at the Truman Waterfront, it’s worth the effort to discover.

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