The only living barrier reef in North America is about seven miles from the coast of the Florida Keys. Florida's reef consists of approximately 6,000 corals and is home to species of fish, sharks, sea turtles and other marine life. Florida's reefs are in serious decline because of pollution, global warming and overfishing. Activities on or near the reef, such as fishing, boating, diving and snorkeling, have an adverse effect on the reef, so obey all laws that protect the reef.
Corals are actually small, simple animals grouped together in colonies. Individual coral animals are referred to as polyps, and coral heads are built out of anywhere from a dozen to over a thousand polyps. Approximately 100 different species of coral can be found in the reef off Florida, including brain coral, finger coral, gorgonians, sea fans, sponges and anemones. Two species of fire coral live in these waters, named for the burning sting they cause when touched. Staghorn and elkhorns are found on the reefs, and were candidates for the Endangered Species Act list in 2009. The pillar coral is already listed as endangered in Florida.
There are approximately 1,000 species of fish in the Florida reefs. Among the most colorful and abundant are porkfish, parrotfish, angelfish and triggerfish. Snorkelers and divers may also see species of drums, butterflies, wrasses, blennies, gobies, filefish and pufferfish. Large fish spotted near the reef include tarpon and various species of grouper, including the Goliath grouper, called a jewfish in the Keys. Barracuda are abundant around the reefs, and moray and snake eels can be seen hiding in the reef as well.
Sharks and Rays
Sharks are commonly seen around the reefs. These are generally non-aggressive species, such as the nurse shark, bonnethead,and blacknose. Bull sharks also live on the reefs, and they can be aggressive and dangerous to humans. Southern stingrays are the most common ray in these waters, but spotted eagle and yellow stingrays may also be encountered.
Sea turtles are abundant in the Florida Keys, and up until the late 1970's, sea turtle meat was big business. Now, all sea turtles are listed as either threatened or endangered and are protected in Florida waters. There are four sea turtles you may spot on the Florida reefs. Most common are Green and Loggerhead sea turtles, but you may also spot the Hawksbill, or even the smallest, rarest sea turtle in the world, known as the Kemp's Ridley.