For more than 60 years, the region of Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys - from the west end of the Seven Mile Bridge at Sunshine Key, mile marker (MM) 40, to Stock Island at MM 5 - has advocated the responsible utilization and preservation of the vast natural wonders found there, earning the region the title of the Natural Keys.
The Lower Keys are home to two national wildlife refuges, a national marine sanctuary and a state park, and are surrounded by a marine environment filled with abundant terrestrial and marine wildlife.
Established in 1957, the National Key Deer Refuge protects the endangered Key deer - a subspecies of the Virginia white-tailed deer, ranging in size between 45 and 80 pounds fully grown - and its habitat. Today the refuge encompasses more than 8,000 acres of prime Key deer territory ranging from Bahia Honda Key to the eastern shores of Sugarloaf Key, out to the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.
In the ocean waters off Big Pine Key, divers and snorkelers explore the spectacular coral and marine life of Looe Key Reef, renowned as one of the world's best reefs for diving. Each July, Looe Key is the site of a popular underwater music festival that promotes the preservation of the Keys' coral reefs.
Since Dec. 5, 1998, divers have been exploring an artificial reef approximately seven miles southwest of Big Pine Key - the intentionally scuttled 210-foot former island freighter, the Adolphus Busch Sr.
Just north of the Lower Keys, the adjacent waters of the Gulf of Mexico offer refuge and breeding areas to great white herons and other migratory birds and wildlife in the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1938. The refuge features more than 375 square miles of open water and islands, and stretches from Key West to just north of the Seven Mile Bridge. White herons are North America's largest wading bird and are only found in the Florida Keys and the South Florida mainland, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Visitors can access the area by kayak, canoe or shallow-draft boat.
Featuring one of the top 10 beaches in the United States as designated by several travel studies, Bahia Honda State Park on Bahia Honda Key, MM 37, offers camping, picnicking, watersports and plenty of opportunities for sunning.
Camping is widely popular throughout the Lower Keys, with 10 campground and recreational vehicle parks from which to choose. Outdoor activities in the Lower Keys include both inshore and offshore fishing, kayaking through the nearby shallow waters, birding, golfing and walking.
Big Pine Key is located about 30 minutes by car from Key West International Airport and approximately the same distance from Marathon.
For more information, call the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce at (800) 872-3722 or (305) 872-2411, visit www.lowerkeyschamber.com or stop by the chamber's visitor center at MM 31 oceanside on Big Pine Key. Information also can be obtained by writing the chamber at P.O. Box 430511, Big Pine Key FL 33043.
Multilanguage visitor guides are available free of charge by writing to Florida Keys & Key West Tourist Development Council, P.O. Box 1147, Key West FL 33041 U.S.A. Downloadable brochures and videos are available at the Florida Keys & Key West Web site at www.fla-keys.com. Or, in the U.S. and Canada, dial toll-free 1-800-FLA-KEYS (352-5397).
Information is courtesy of the Florida Keys & Key West Tourist Development Council , Photo by Catherine Girt