November 8, 2004
If you decide to try an animal tour, here are some recommendations and ideas:
1. Robert is Here
Our traditional first stop on the way to the Keys is actually a fruit stand in Homestead. The real reason for the stop is the key lime milk shakes, but we also love to visit the tortoises, iguanas, goats and exotic birds.
Robert Is Here is about 10 minutes off the U.S. 1 route to the Keys at 34815 Country Club Road. (Just follow the sign for Everglades National Park.) While the key lime milkshakes are our classic way to start a trip to the keys, the coconut, strawberry and pina colada are equally wonderful. The fruit stand is a good place to sample exotic tropical treats, from the scary looking Monstera Deliciosa (looks like a pale green banana with lizard-like scales) to lychees and persimmon and kumquat.
Out back there is a large pen with a variety of animals. The stars are the huge rock-like tortoises with legs as sturdy as tree trunks. The tortoises share a cage with a few goats and on a recent visit, we watched a goat play king of the mountain on a tortoise's back. He stayed there, shakily keeping his balance as the tortoise lumbered on. We figure to the goats, this is surfing.
Visiting the animals, which include caged iquanas and parrots, is free, as are peeks at the Model A Ford and 1913 Detroiter.
2. Robbie's Marina
Feeding the tarpon at Robbie's, mile marker 77.5 on the bayside, Islamorada, is a major Keys bargain. You pay $1 to go out on the dock and $2 for a bucket of fish. What you see are dozens of massive silvery tarpon, some 6 feet long. If you've fed koi at various parks, you can imagine the feeding frenzy when the fish lunging for the food are as tall as you are. One can easily spend a half hour here, and for young children, this may be their favorite Keys memory.
Robbie's began attracting tarpon, the story goes, when the folks there nursed an injured tarpon back to health. Soon it returned for handouts, and began bringing friends along.
Robbie's is also a good place to rent sea kayaks for my favorite Keys outing, kayaking to Indian Key State Park. In addition to the appeal of the historic rubble of an abandoned settlement that hit its heyday in the 1830s, the island is a good place to snorkel and see colorful reef fish up close.
3. Dolphins Research Center
For many, an animal tour of the Keys would start with dolphins, and there are probably a half dozen dolphin attractions from which to choose. We had a positive experience at the Dolphins Research Center, mile market 59 on Grassy Key, a not-for-profit education facility that provides educational tours and the more expensive dolphins encounters. What we liked best was sticking around after the formal tour and watching the folks who paid $155 to swim with the dolphins have their experience. We weren't in the water, but we got to observe the interaction up close and in an informal setting.
4. Key deer
We took many trips to the Keys, driving slowly through Big Pine Key watching for deer without encountering these mini-Bambis. This time we made the deer a priority, and we chose accommodations that guaranteed deer sightings. We were not disappointed.
We stayed at Deer Run, a lovely guest house on Big Pine Key where a dozen deer hang out every morning and evening. It is located right on a rocky beach with free use of kayaks, bikes and a hot tub.
On the same road is another bed and breakfast and we've read the deer are equally visible here: The Barnacle.
The dog-sized deer have lost all fear of man. Feeding members of this endangered species is a crime, but it is apparently a common one. The easiest way to get a close-up look at these deer was to rustle a potato-chip bag. The deer trotted over and stared up entreatingly with their big moist eyes and their long eyelashes. We saw more than a dozen at time – two bucks, many does and a tiny, tiny yearling.
If you don't stay at a spot in Big Pine close to the deer, we were told it is easy to spot them at dusk in a few places: Along Long Beach Drive and on No Name Key (access this adjoining island off Key Deer Boulevard.)
5. Key West: Roosters, six-toed cats and an aquarium
Our favorite animals in Key West are the feral roosters you see everywhere. You won't have trouble spotting them; the tourist brochures say there are 2,000 "wild" chickens on the island. They roost in the bushes. Mother hens guide tiny chicks across busy streets. They scurry around outdoor cafes.
Key West's other famous animals are the six-toed cats at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. The grand old home at 907 Whitehead Street in Old Town Key West is home to some 60 cats, and about half of them have an extra toe. Whether or not they are descendents of cats in any way associated with Hemingway is open to debate among historians. Whatever their derivation, people love these cats and the museum's web site devotes considerable space to their story.
The final Key West animal attraction is the Key West Aquarium. Built as a Depression-era public works project, it opened in 1934 -- a year before the Labor Day storm destroyed Henry Flagler's railroad to Key West. Since then, it has expanded and specializes in daily shark and turtle feedings. It's located at 1 Whitehead St. at Mallory Square.
6. Pelicans and other sea birds.
The best time to visit the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Tavernier, a couple miles south of Key Largo, is at 3:30 p.m. -- feeding time for the pelicans.
Every day, a few buckets of fish are thrown out to supplement the diets of wild brown pelicans who live in the area, and the birds -- somewhat prehistoric looking with their long, flat, clapping beaks and plodding waddle -- come by the hundreds in hopes of getting in on the handout.
You can volunteer to help give the fish out, but be forewarned: This is not a job for the squeamish, as the birds can get aggressive and the fish are not particularly pleasant to touch or smell.
7. The creatures in the deep
No animal tour of the Keys would be complete without an encounter in the water with the creatures of the sea.
This can be elaborate – taking organized snorkeling trips from John Pennekamp State Park – or it can be as simple as putting on a snorkel mask and peering under docks and along rocky shores. Doing the latter, we've seen everything from colorful reef fish to a shy octopus.
An alternative for those who don't swim well is the glass-bottom-boat tours out of Pennekamp.