I love seeing wildlife in the Florida Keys, and with each visit it gets better and better. I know that not everyone is as adventurous as my family and I, so we chatted about what our favorite wildlife we’ve seen in the Florida Keys has been and made a great list of where and how to see some of the coolest creatures.
Something to remember though whenever you’re hoping to see wild animals of any sort, they are WILD, meaning that they may or may not be where you are at the moment. From the very first time we visited with the kids to our most recent trip through the Keys, full of freediving and birdwatching, we’ve had lots of cool experiences that, I hope, will help you plan an awesome, nature-filled trip through these amazing islands.
As always, if you have any additional thoughts, ideas you want to share, or questions, please leave a comment or send us a note so others can benefit too!
Recommended Wildlife Tours in the Florida Keys
We haven’t been out with every single guide or tour company, so cannot speak to each individual service, but of the ones we’ve done, we can confidently recommend the follow tours due to their care, conservation-minded operations, and the general fun we’ve had while watching for wildlife in the Florida Keys.
We visit the Florida Keys quite often, so if we have another great wildlife tour experience, we’ll be sure to add it here so that we have a running list. For detailed information about each of these tours, be sure to ready our guide to Wildlife Tours in the Florida Keys as we have a lot to share to help you pick the best experience for seeing wildlife in the Keys. Although you can find different tours in the many towns of the Florida Keys, Key Largo and Key West tend to be the hubs for wildlife expeditions.
For now though, here are our top picks for getting to see incredible wildlife in the Florida Keys:
- Horizon Divers on Key Largo – if you’re looking to explore the many shipwrecks and reefs around the Upper Keys, primarily Key Largo, Horizon Divers is a great option. We went out on a two tank dive to French’s Reef and the Benwood Shipwreck and it was fantastic. Sea turtles, huge fish, and such unique, different sites.
- Starfish Catamaran on Marathon – while a lot of people stay on or visit Marathon for the purpose of going fishing often, this is also the launch point for going out to the Sombrero Reef National Marina Sanctuary. Starfish Snorkeling takes visitors out to the reef on a high speed catamaran, waves crashing over the front, to see the HEALTHIEST coral reef I’ve ever seen. The tour crew does a great job and they are super chill and safety oriented.
- Key West Eco Tours – what I love about Key West Eco Tours is the flexibility of tour types. They offer kayaking, snorkeling, catamaran sailing and more. The team is kind, knowledgeable, cares about the environment and has very safe practices. I’d happy go out with them on the water any day!
- Honest Eco Tours in Key West – with several boats in the company, the Honest Eco Tours crew is great and all about teaching while exploring. We’ve been on the Squid (fully solar powered) and the Blu Q with Honest Eco Tours and enjoyed both experiences very much. They were also really wonderful with our kids and very patient.
- Island to Island Charters from Key West – the reason Island to Island Charters is so great is fully due to the incredible Captain Ally. Thoughtfully taking small groups and families through the backwaters and sandbars of the Lower Keys, Island to Island Charters is both a great way to see the wildlife in the Florida Keys and just a fun, beautiful day on the water.
- Night Kayak Key West – this is one of the most unusual and fun tours in Key West. An exceptional wildlife experience, Night Kayak Key West goes out at sunset and guides visitors through the mangrove passages of Key West. It’s all about the wildlife you can see UNDER your kayak, as the bottoms of the boats are clear. This is NOT clear kayaking (like rowing a bathtub) but is legit kayaking with a window into the underwater world.
Favorite Wildlife in the Florida Keys
I want to share a quick note before we dig into the coolest wildlife in the Florida Keys. Wildlife safety is so important, both for them and for you, so be respectful and maintain safe distances, including not touching. Also, if you’re visiting the Florida Keys in summer, although it is technically hurricane season, this is when the waters tend to be the most calm (and warm). You may face daily storms that quickly roll through, but in general it’s actually pretty wonderful.
Big Ticket Florida Keys Wildlife
When you’re planning a Florida Keys vacation, no doubt you’ll want to see some of these awesome creatures. I call these the big ticket wildlife in the Florida Keys. It’s not that these animals are exceptionally large (but some can be), but that they are either very exciting or just so unique. We get excited to see any creature, but this list of wildlife in the Keys really is cool.
Yes, you can see bottlenose dolphins all around Florida, from Cedar Key on the Gulf Coast to St Augustine on the northern Atlantic Coast, but seeing dolphins in the Florida Keys is extra special and you often find them in wonderfully clear, shallow water, making the experience of observing them even better.
While dolphins are most commonly seen in the deeper areas around the Keys, if you’re able to do a shallow water trip, like a backwater trip or to the Lakes area of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge, you may really get a treat. Don’t bank on seeing dolphins on every trip you make on the water, but for us we’ve seen dolphins on all but two boat trips in the Keys.
The Key Deer is an unusual species when you consider the wildlife in the Florida Keys, as there aren’t a ton of land mammals to see in the island chain. This tiny deer lives primarily on Big Pin Key, just north of Key West on the Overseas Highway. Visiting the Key Deer Refuge is free (a great activity for doing the Florida Keys on a budget) and if you want to learn something, this stop is a win.
Key Deer are very small and they live in densely wooded parts of the Keys, so they’re tricky to spot. The best way to see Key Deer is to visit Big Pine Key at sunset and go just off the Overseas Highway, as during dusk they tend to become active before going to bed for the night.
Manatees are so cool to encounter, and while we most frequently see them in Florida’s springs, they’re also one of the most interesting wildlife in the Florida Keys. Manatees are huge and tend to be slow moving. They like warm water, but there are times when the shallows around the Keys get a bit too warm, so they make their way off the islands a bit. We’ve seen manatees on boat tours, from a variety of marinas all through the Keys, and just off the dock while eating lunch.
One of the places we most frequently see manatees in the Keys is in the bay just off Roosevelt Blvd on the north side of the island. From the Ibis Bay Beach Resort to the Key West Marriott Beachside, these waters tend to be a favorite for manatees.
Note: like with any wildlife, DO NOT touch or feed the manatees. You may see people do this, but it’s not safe for them and there are laws protecting manatees. Yes, a manatee may approach you while swimming, but they are not to be touched and you should try to maintain a 15 foot distance from them.
When I think about unique wildlife in the Florida Keys, one that comes to mind is the lionfish. You may have heard about them if you’ve visited the Keys or South Florida before, as they are invasive and actually pose a threat to a lot of other fish species. Having said that, when you see them underwater it’s really remarkable and they are one of the most beautiful fish in the Florida Keys.
DO NOT TOUCH the lionfish. The same thing that makes them so pretty to see while snorkeling is the reason they’re a problem: they have venomous spines mixed in with their flowy fins that make it so nobody in the sea wants to eat them, which is why they’re prolific. If you see one, enjoy how pretty it is and then report the location to REEF so they can track the lionfish and work on maintaining a healthy ecological balance.
There are few sights we’ve seen as graceful as a sea turtle slowly surfacing, and this is what makes them one of the most beautiful wildlife in the Florida Keys. While we haven’t seen sea turtles from land, we’ve gotten to see them from several boats off Islamorada and Marathon, from kayaks out of Key West, at Dry Tortugas National Park and while free diving off Key Largo.
Something unique to experience in the keys if you’re a sea turtle lover is to visit the Sea Turtle Hospital on Marathon. Here you’ll see turtles with all sorts of ailments, some living permanently at the hospital and some visiting until they’re healthy enough to be released back into the ocean. This is a great stop with kids or for the wildlife lover.
Spotted Eagle Ray
Whenever I’m anywhere tropical, my dream wildlife to see is the spotted eagle ray. This big, beautiful member of the stingray family flies through the water and really stands out when you see them in the shallows. I think it’s one of the most beautiful species of wildlife in the Florida Keys.
Want to see a spotted eagle ray yourself? Here are all the places we’ve seen them in the Keys:
- John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (main beach area)
- Curry Hammock State Park in the Deer Key passage
- Channel #2 Bridge Walkover
- Bahia Honda State Park / Spanish Harbor Key
- Sugarloaf Sound
- Key West National Wildlife Refuge and more
The trick to seeing spotted eagle rays is, of course being in the same place as them, but then also watching the lightly colored water for broad, dark moving patches. Spotted eagle rays, like manta rays, tend to move slowly through the water unless they’re inspired to take off, so let your eyes take in the turquoise waters as you look for this behavior.
So there is the goliath grouper and then there are just really big ones of other species. If you’re a diver, you have some great opportunities to see the goliath grouper if you’re diving a wreck or in the canyons at various reefs. If you’re a snorkeler though, you will most likely be looking for other types of grouper, that may not be as big, but are really cool. Grouper like to hang out in places they can hide, such as the undersides of reefs or in the sponge gardens of the Gulf of Mexico.
One of my favorite grouper encounters in the Florida Keys was going out with Key West Eco Tours to the sponge beds in the Key West National Wildlife Refuge. The wildlife was everywhere, but there was one grouper in particular that was hanging out under the edge of an enormous sponge, relaxing with his nurse shark friend. It was remarkable!
Our kids love when we get to see nurse sharks in the Florida Keys. These gentle, unusual sharks like to relax in the grassy beds or sandy bottoms of the passages around the Keys. They are dangerous like any other animal in that they’ll defend themselves, but in general they eat shellfish and are considered one of the most mellow shark species.
We’ve gotten to see nurse sharks from catamarans, kayaks and while snorkeling. They are really cool and what I consider one of the neatest types of wildlife in the Florida Keys.
Beautiful Birds in the Florida Keys
There are so many islands in Florida beyond the Keys and some of them offer amazing birdwatching, but there are a few really special elements to birding here. Off all the wildlife in the Florida Keys, the unique birds are both some of the easiest to enjoy AND then most nuanced to observe. I know not everyone is into birding, but we love it and get really excited for some of the bird species in the Keys.
I remember the first time I saw a frigate bird, it was from far away and I had no idea how cool they are. Now when we’re looking for wildlife in the Florida Keys I can spot a frigate bird from far away. Up close, they are some of the coolest birds. Watch for them circling over the ocean, never landing, or if you’re someplace they can next (trees or higher rocks) you’ll see them with their young.
During our visit to Dry Tortugas National Park we were able to observe frigate birds from afar as they occupied the low trees on Bush Key just off Fort Jefferson. Other place to see they a bit closer are on the more well established mangrove islands. They need height to start flying, so keep your eyes peeled in the tops of trees when you’re in the Keys.
Note: the magnificent frigate bird is the one you’ve no doubt seen pictures of with the puffed out, shiny red chest. Those are the males and that happens when they’re looking to mate. In general, you don’t get to see their chests puffed out.
I know, I know. You can see cormorants all around the world, but in the Florida Keys you can observe them up close and in really unique environments. Whether you come across a rockery while strolling on a boardwalk in Long Key State Park of if you’re paddling and they are swimming under you, watching double crested cormorants is a treat.
I think my favorite place we’ve gotten to observe cormorants in the Keys is in the Lakes area of the Key West National Wildlife Area (I know, I talk about this place a lot). Here, the water is so calm and clear that you can watch the cormorants dive and swim like it’s nobody’s business. I love it.
Herons and Egrets in the Florida Keys
Birds really are some of the most beautiful and interesting wildlife in the Florida Keys, and there are some very large ones to look for. Herons and egrets are plentiful all around Florida, but the concentration of them in the Keys is magical. In one eyeful you can see great blue herons, the protected great white heron, a few egrets and the special Wurdemann’s heron (a beautiful hybrid heron).
While you might not be trying to seek out a specific type of heron, if you start chatting with a birder when you’re watching for wildlife in the Florida Keys, you may just get sucked into how fascinating these huge birds are. They aren’t all huge though, that’s true. One of my favorite to see when we’re kayaking in the Keys is the green heron, which is kind of small and likes to hide in the mangroves. So much to learn about and see!
This may be my most Florida trait: ibises are like rats and they’re everywhere… and then I see them in the wild and I think they’re just the most beautiful birds. White ibises have vibrant reddish orange beaks and the coolest eyes. When you come across them, mostly in the Upper Keys, they tend to be poking around in the low tide spots out hanging out on the mangroves.
Although you’ll see ibises all around Florida, I still think they’re one of the most beautiful wildlife species in the Florida Keys.
Note: there are no scarlet ibises in the Florida Keys. That species lives in Venezuela and northern South America.
When you look up and see pink birds flying over you, no those probably aren’t flamingos, but are roseate spoonbills. The best time to see them is at low tide where the mangrove channels meet the bay on the Gulf of Mexico side. The winter is the best season for roseate spoonbills because it’s so nice and warm in the Florida Keys.
If you get a chance while you’re in Key West, visit the Audubon House to see some beautiful spoonbill images and a display with a taxidermy specimen. You’ll learn a bit about the Audubon Society, birding in the Keys and the famous artist.
Underwater Creatures of the Florida Keys
If you’re doing a Florida Keys road trip, you’ll for sure be making stops to get in the water, and hopefully under the water too. My favorite part of a trip to the Florida Keys is getting to spend time under the water. Being surrounded by it and on it is wonderful, but it’s an incredible world beneath the surface and I just can’t get enough of it. Of all the wildlife in the Florida Keys the fish are the most colorful and, I think, the most fun to seek out.
The Famous Conchs of the Keys
When you get to Key West you’ll see “Conch Republic” flags and signs all over the place. This isn’t just because there are lots of conch snails in the waters around the island, but because there was a time in 1982 when Key West seceded from the USA because of immigration and border issues, and in taking their stand against the US government, the island took the name of the Conch Republic. They even had their own navy. The issue was resolved and the Florida Keys and Key West rejoined the USA.
IN THE MEANTIME, the queen conch is a very large, beautiful snail that lives in the waters around the Florida Keys. When you’re snorkeling, or sometimes even just out on a catamaran in shallow waters, you’ll see them on the sandy bottom. Now, you may be picturing a giant pinkish-orange shell, slowly moving below the turquoise waters of the Keys, but often when you see conchs, they have algae or even little hitchhiking creatures on them.
Note: if you see a conch moving really quickly, it may actually be a hermit crab who’s taken over a conch shell. I’ve actually encountered more hermit crabs than live conchs!
I think barracudas are fascinating fish to see. Yes, they do have teeth and they’re very fast fish, but we haven’t had a negative encounter with one. Usually when we see barracudas they are hanging out just off the reef or in a mangrove bay, just chillin’. They are so neat to see because they’re very large fish and often just kind of float. I really enjoy them and thinks they’re iconic as a species of wildlife in the Florida Keys.
Parrot fish are the reason my family got into snorkeling. We are always on the lookout for parrot fish and when we’re on the water it’s a bit of a competition to see who can spot the largest or most colorful one. The Florida Keys are loaded with parrot fish on the reefs and in the sponge areas. They don’t like you to get close to them, so they may swim off slowly if you’re not keeping your distance, so just pay attention to the signals they’re giving you.
We have porcupine fish all along the Florida coast, but I’ve never seen ones anywhere as large as the ones I’ve seen in the Florida Keys. A very unusual type of wildlife, the porcupine fish is boxy and strange looking, and puffs up, all covered in spikes when it feels threated. We see them quite a lot while snorkeling in Cabo San Lucas, but they’re usually pretty small. Here in the Keys I’ve only seen very large ones. Keep your eyes peeled when you’re snorkeling over crevasses and ledges and you may spot one of these creatures!
Sea Fans and Corals in the Florida Keys
I didn’t know coral reefs could be so beautiful in person as what we saw at the Sombrero Reef National Marine Sanctuary. Yes, there are several reefs all around the Florida Keys and each has ample wildlife, but the healthy corals and sea fans at the Sombrero Reef were astounding. Flowing and fanning with the waves, this is the undersea garden straight out of the Little Mermaid.
As is the rule with all wildlife in the Florida Keys or national parks or anywhere, do not touch or take anything from the reef. Not only does that damage a very delicate living creature, but there is a hefty fine for anyone doing so. Just swim around them and appreciate them for all they are.
Do you love weird animals? Of all the wildlife in the Florida Keys I think the trumpet fish is one of the weirdest. No, it’s not shaped like a brass instrument, but it’s cute and has a trumpety mouth like one. The trumpet fish is such a sneaky guy, but you can spot them all through the Keys. We’ve found trumpet fish in grassy bays in the Upper Keys and along the reefs in the Middle Keys. They are hilarious to watch swim with their tiny fins and big lips. Really, one of the gems of the Keys!
Unique Bonus Wildlife in the Florida Keys
I know that I talk about fish a lot, but it’s because when we’re in the Florida Keys we spend a lot of time on and under the water. There are lots of other creatures too though, and you don’t ever have to get your feet wet to see them. These species of wildlife in the Keys can be observed from land or a boat are just add to why the island chain is such a wonderful place to experience nature.
Iguanas in the Keys
If you’re on a Florida Keys road trip, you have for sure seen iguanas walking along the side of the road or sitting on the sidewalk. There are two primary types of iguanas in the Keys: the green and the spiney-tailed iguanas. I think they’re both pretty neat, but truth be told they’re invasive and can be problematic. You can observe them all through the Keys though, and since they are there, enjoy the sight!
Of all the Florida Keys, I think we’ve seen the most iguanas (and the biggest) at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West. Running through the underbrush and hanging out on the trails or walls of the fort, this is a great place for iguana spotting!
Small Sharks to Look For
Have you ever been having lunch in a marina and realized that there are small sharks swimming around? It’s not a bad or scary thing, but there are lots of small shark species all though the Florida Keys. Whether you want to see them or not, they may just show up. From bonnet head sharks to small reef sharks, we’ve seen them all!
While on a catamaran out of Key West, we got to observe several sharks swimming amidst a group of herons that were hanging out on a sandbar together. You just never know what wildlife you’ll see and how they might interact with each other.
Nanday Conures or Blue Crowned Parakeets
It’s kind of the story of Florida: species is released or introduced; loves Florida and is very prolific; spreads through the state. And that’s the case with the nanday conures and blue crowned parakeets. Starting in Miami and heading down through the Florida Keys, keep your eyes and ears peeled for colorful birds. While there are several species of parakeets that were once native to the Southeast, most of the parrot-like birds you’ll see are invasive and have found a home, mostly in the Upper Keys.
The first time we saw horseshoe crabs in the wild we were in Mexico, on Isla Holbox. Then on our very first trip to Key West we saw them active at night underwater just off a dock. They’re so bizarre! When you’re kayaking or even just wading, keep your eyes AND TOES on the lookout for horseshoe crabs, scurrying along the sand.
Fun Fact: female horseshoe crabs are much larger than the males. When they’re mating, you’ll actually see the male hitching a ride on the back of a female as they move through the water.
If you’re looking for wildlife in the Florida Keys and don’t want to be underwater to see it, a wonderful option is to do a sailing with a tour company, such as Honest Eco or Key West Eco Tours, that goes out to the sponge gardens. These aren’t planted gardens, but protected areas where sea sponges live and grow, giving shelter and homes to more wildlife than you might imagine.
The sponges themselves are really cool, but what makes seeing them so neat is when you’re cruising above them you can see how they are basically undersea community centers with wildlife teeming all around them. For sure, the sponges of the Florida Keys are fascinating!
Sometimes you don’t realize how cool wildlife is until you see it up close. We’ve had lots of fun in Maine and been out when they’re pulling lobster traps, but until we went night kayaking in the the Florida Keys did we ever see lobsters of any variety in the wild. Wow! Such cool creatures.
For a unique wildlife experience, and to see the shallow water lobsters of the Keys, do a night time paddle with a guide. We loved going with with Key West Paddle for night kayaking with a naturalist who would jump in the water and carefully bring animals up to the surface for us to see, including the colorful lobsters. Very unique tour, indeed.
Rare Florida Keys Wildlife Questions
One of the things that makes a road trip through the Keys so much fun is the diverse wildlife you may encounter. We do get a lot of questions about the more rare wildlife though, and some of the questions are for sure worth digging into. If you haven’t explored the Keys before, no doubt you have a few of these same questions.
Are there Flamingos in the Florida Keys?
Well, once upon a time there were and sometimes there still are. Flamingos are an iconic Florida image, but unfortunately they’re exceptionally rare now. Once hunted to extinction withing the Florida Keys, the flamingo is one of the coolest birds in the Caribbean. They are now protected, and every few years a lone flamingo or two will find themselves in the Florida Keys.
Flamingos in the Keys are very rare and when they’re around they cause quite a draw. We were in Maine in winter and the presence of a Steller sea eagle brought birders in from all around the USA. The same happens when a flamingo is spotted in the Keys. If you think you see one, watch it carefully and confirm that it’s not actually a roseate spoonbill, then report it to Fish and Wildlife or the local visitor center and they’ll help you report it.
Should I Be Concerned about Alligators or Crocodiles?
Ahh, the age old question about the large reptiles of Florida. If you’re visiting Everglades National Park or Big Cypress National Preserve just north of the Keys, you’ll no doubt see alligators, but it’s highly unlikely that you’ll encounter one in the Florida Keys. There’s a gator who lives in the Blue Hole on Big Pine Key, but I’ve never seen another in the Keys.
When it comes to crocodiles, there are indeed crocs that live in salt water areas around South Florida; there is even a crocodile refuge. We’ve never seen a crocodile in the Keys and I’ve not talked to anybody who has. That being said, crocs are wildlife and they may range where they choose or feel pulled to. You may see warning signs at beaches reminding you to be wary of crocodiles in the water, so keep them in mind, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll encounter one.
Is It Safe to Swim if there are Sharks?
Another question we get a ton is about sharks and swimming all around Florida. There are sharks in salt water nearly everywhere in the world. The Florida Keys have their share of sharks too, both big and small. We’ve swam with nurse sharks, bonnet head sharks and other docile varieties in the Keys. While we’ve never had an issue or been aggressively pursued by any type of shark, they are wild animals and should be respected and distance kept.
Our family has an awesome time swimming in the Florida Keys, both in the shallows and the open water. Like with any sort of experience, you have to decide what’s right for you and your family’s level of comfort, skills for swimming, and safety knowledge before jumping into the water.
I could talk about the wildlife in the Florida Keys all day! Clearly this is our happy place and our family has had some remarkable experiences with nature in the Keys.
If you have any questions or would like to share your own Florida Keys wildlife stories or tips, please leave a comment or send us a note. We love to hear from others and to help people plan unforgettable travel adventures!