Marine Life Protection
The Florida Keys’ marine ecosystem provides a wide variety of activities for residents and visitors, including viewing wildlife in its natural environment. Among that wildlife are sea turtles, manatees and dolphins, which are common in Keys waters.
There are opportunities to view wild marine mammals but there are serious legal restrictions about interacting with them. Generally, you can view but you can’t touch or harass wild marine mammals in any way such as feeding them or riding them. Doing so can result in civil or criminal penalties on both the state and federal levels.
Sea turtles are either endangered or threatened (the loggerhead is the only species that has a population high enough to be only threatened in Florida). They are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 and Florida's Marine Turtle Protection Act (379.2431, Florida Statutes).
Florida Statutes (F.A.C. Rule 68E-1) restrict the "take, possession, disturbance, mutilation, destruction, selling, transference, molestation and harassment of marine turtles, nests or eggs." Protection is also afforded to marine turtle habitat. A specific authorization from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission staff is required to conduct scientific, conservation or educational activities that directly involve marine turtles in or collected from Florida, their nests, hatchlings or parts thereof, regardless of applicant's possession of any federal permit.
Five species of sea turtles can be found in Florida waters.
Hawksbill Sea Turtles
Hawksbill sea turtles are small, agile turtles with beautiful tortoise-colored shells. Hawksbills weigh from 100 to 200 pounds as adults and are approximately 30 inches in shell length. The carapace is shaded with black and brown markings on a background of amber. The body is oval-shaped, the head is narrow and the raptor-like jaws give the hawksbill its name. These jaws are perfectly adapted for collecting its preferred food, sponges. They are frequently spotted by divers off the Florida Keys.
Loggerhead Sea Turtles
The most common sea turtle in Florida, the loggerhead, is named for its massive, block-like head. Loggerheads are among the larger sea turtles; adults weigh an average of 275 pounds and have a shell length of about 3 feet. The carapace, which is a ruddy brown on top and creamy yellow underneath, is very broad near the front of the turtle and tapers toward the rear. Each of its flippers has two claws. The powerful jaws of the loggerhead allow it to easily crush the clams, crabs and other armored animals it eats.
Green Sea Turtles
A more streamlined-looking turtle than the bulky loggerhead, the green turtle weighs an average of 350 pounds and has a small head for its body size. The oval-shaped upper shell averages 3.3 feet in length and is olive-brown with darker streaks running through it; the lower shell, or plastron, is yellow. Adult green turtles are unique among sea turtles in that they are largely vegetarians, consuming primarily seagrasses and algae. At one time, Key West was a major processing center for turtle meat (harvesting turtles is now illegal).
Leatherback Sea Turtles
Most leatherbacks average 6 feet in length and weigh from 500 to 1,500 pounds. Leatherbacks look distinctively different from other sea turtles. Instead of a shell covered with scales or shields, leatherbacks are covered with a firm, leathery skin and have seven ridges running lengthwise down their backs. They are usually black with white, pink, and blue splotches and have no claws on their flippers. Leatherbacks eat soft-bodied animals such as jellyfish.
Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles
The Kemp's Ridley is the rarest sea turtle in the world and is the most endangered. Kemp's Ridleys are small, weighing only 85 to 100 pounds and measuring 2 to 2.5 feet in carapace length, but they are tough and tenacious. Their principal diet is crabs and other crustaceans.
The Florida manatee, a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, is native to Florida and has existed here for millions of years. Manatees are large, gray, tube-shaped marine mammals with leathery looking skin, whiskered faces, flippers and paddle-shaped tails. The average adult manatee is about 10 feet long. Often referred to as sea cows because of their grazing habits, Florida manatees are found throughout peninsular Florida. The manatee is Florida's state marine mammal.
Manatees are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. It is illegal to feed, harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, annoy or molest manatees.
Anyone convicted of violating state law faces maximum fines of $500 and/or imprisonment of up to 60 days. Conviction for violating federal protection laws is punishable by fines up to $100,000 and/or one year in prison. Report manatee harassment by calling the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Wildlife Alert number, 888-404-3922. You can also email tips to the FWC.
Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are the most common type of dolphin seen in Florida Keys waters. Bottlenose dolphins in the United States are not listed as endangered or threatened, but they are protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Bottlenose dolphins are easy to view in the wild, but this also puts them at increased risk of human-related injuries and death. Feeding and attempting to feed dolphins is harmful and illegal because it changes their natural behaviors and reduces their wariness of people and vessels. They learn to associate humans with an easy meal and change their natural hunting practices by begging for handouts and taking bait/catch directly off fishing gear. Dolphins also teach these unnatural and risky feeding strategies to their calves and other dolphins. Dolphins are than more vulnerable to vessel strikes and to fishing gear entanglements and ingestion.
Dolphins may also be disturbed or harassed by the presence of humans and watercraft. Harassment is illegal and occurs when any act of pursuit, torment or annoyance has the potential to injure the animal or disrupt its behaviors. Any human-caused change to a dolphin’s behavior may constitute disturbance or harassment.
The information herein came from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.