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posted: 3/27/2014 5:45 AM

Creatures of the Keys: Fish, deer, 6-toed cats and more

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  • Visitors to the Dolphin Research Center in Marathon, Fla., can see Atlantic bottlenose dolphins during the center's daily demonstrations. The center also offers hands-on training in the care of marine mammals for would-be professional caregivers and trainers.

      Visitors to the Dolphin Research Center in Marathon, Fla., can see Atlantic bottlenose dolphins during the center's daily demonstrations. The center also offers hands-on training in the care of marine mammals for would-be professional caregivers and trainers.
    Associated Press File Photo

  • Tourists on the Spirit of Pennekamp tour boat peer through viewing ports above the coral reef off Key Largo, Fla. The boat trip from a shoreside base at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is a popular activity for tourists to observe underwater marine habitats without getting their feet wet.

      Tourists on the Spirit of Pennekamp tour boat peer through viewing ports above the coral reef off Key Largo, Fla. The boat trip from a shoreside base at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is a popular activity for tourists to observe underwater marine habitats without getting their feet wet.
    ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO/FLORIDA KEYS NEWS BUREAU

  • It's not unusual to spot the endangered Key deer by the side of the road or wandering on trails in the 8,000-acre National Key Deer Refuge in the vicinity of Big Pine and No Name Keys in Florida.

      It's not unusual to spot the endangered Key deer by the side of the road or wandering on trails in the 8,000-acre National Key Deer Refuge in the vicinity of Big Pine and No Name Keys in Florida.
    Associated Press File Photo

  • Tourists feed tarpon at a pier at Robbie's of Islamorada in Islamorada, Fla. The tarpon have been the marina's star attraction for decades, attracting visitors who want a close encounter with the fish nicknamed the "Silver King."

      Tourists feed tarpon at a pier at Robbie's of Islamorada in Islamorada, Fla. The tarpon have been the marina's star attraction for decades, attracting visitors who want a close encounter with the fish nicknamed the "Silver King."
    Associated Press File Photo

  • Tour guide Bob Smith at the Hemingway Home in Key West, Fla., comes across one of the home's cats, named Fats Waller. The home belonged to the late author Ernest Hemingway, who had a six-toed cat, and many of the 40 to 50 cats who reside there today have the polydactyl gene for an extra toe.

      Tour guide Bob Smith at the Hemingway Home in Key West, Fla., comes across one of the home's cats, named Fats Waller. The home belonged to the late author Ernest Hemingway, who had a six-toed cat, and many of the 40 to 50 cats who reside there today have the polydactyl gene for an extra toe.
    Associated Press File Photo

  • Karen, a blind and aging sea lion, works with a trainer at the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key in the Florida Keys.

      Karen, a blind and aging sea lion, works with a trainer at the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key in the Florida Keys.
    Associated Press File Photo

  • A 320-pound green sea turtle lifts his head to breathe in a transition pool at the Florida Keys-based Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Fla. Because of an irreparable collapsed lung, the turtle cannot be released into the wild. The Turtle Hospital has released more than 1,300 rehabilitated turtles into the wild since it was founded in 1986.

      A 320-pound green sea turtle lifts his head to breathe in a transition pool at the Florida Keys-based Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Fla. Because of an irreparable collapsed lung, the turtle cannot be released into the wild. The Turtle Hospital has released more than 1,300 rehabilitated turtles into the wild since it was founded in 1986.
    ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO/FLORIDA KEYS NEWS BUREAU

  • The waterfront at The Hungry Tarpon Restaurant in Islamorada, Fla., is crowded with tarpon and pelicans attracted by visitors tossing tiny fish from a bucket to feed them.

      The waterfront at The Hungry Tarpon Restaurant in Islamorada, Fla., is crowded with tarpon and pelicans attracted by visitors tossing tiny fish from a bucket to feed them.
    Associated Press File Photo

  • Birds roam the beach at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center near Key Largo, Fla. The bird sanctuary accepts donations but has free admission.

      Birds roam the beach at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center near Key Largo, Fla. The bird sanctuary accepts donations but has free admission.
    Associated Press File Photo

 
By Beth J. Harpaz and Suzette Laboy, Associated Press

KEY LARGO, Fla. -- Activities for visitors to the Florida Keys range from snorkeling, boating and fishing to barhopping in Key West at sunset. You don't even have to leave your car to enjoy the tranquil scenery of water and sky on either side of the toll-free Florida Keys Overseas Highway, a series of bridges and roads that connects the 125-mile chain of islands. And while the Keys are not as well-known for beaches as other parts of Florida, a few spots -- like lovely Sombrero Beach in Marathon -- are worth a visit.

But wherever your wanderings through the Keys might take you, chances are you'll encounter some of the islands' many creatures on land, in the sea or flying overhead. Tarpon fish crowd the docks at waterfront restaurants, birds and tiny Key deer abound in nature preserves, and stingrays can be seen through glass-bottomed boats at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. And six-toed cats have the run of the place at Ernest Hemingway's home in Key West. Here are some details.

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Under the sea

One of the first major attractions you hit driving through the Keys from Miami or Fort Lauderdale is Pennekamp Park (pennekamppark.com/). Glass-bottomed boat tours are offered three times a day (9:15 a.m., 12:15 and 3:15 p.m.) to the offshore coral reef. The tours take about 2 hours and you're likely to see sharks, stingrays and smaller tropical fish through the clear, angled panels in the floor of the boat once you reach the reef. It costs $24 for adults and $17 for kids younger than 12. Snorkeling and other boating excursions throughout the Keys offer views of wildlife as well.

Rescued birds

Also in Key Largo, the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center (fkwbc.org) (near mile marker 93) is a sanctuary for rescued and rehabilitated wild birds. You'll see falcons, owls, cormorants and more in large cages, but there are also wild pelicans freely strolling about. More wild birds can be found on the beach nearby. Admission to the center is free, but donations are encouraged.

Hungry Tarpon

The Hungry Tarpon Restaurant (hungrytarpon.com/) at Robbie's Marina in Islamorada is a Keys institution. The food is good and reasonably priced, with everything from fish tacos to Key lime pie, but the main attraction is what you see, not what you eat. Outdoor tables overlook the water, which is crowded with tarpon. For $3.30, customers can buy a bucket of tiny fish to toss to the tarpon from a dock. Pelicans float and waddle around, too, hoping to snag whatever the tarpon miss. Restaurant customers get free access to the dock; others can pay $1 to watch the scrum. Find the restaurant at 77522 Overseas Highway, Islamorada (a right after crossing the bridge past mile marker 78, then another right).

Tiny deer

As you get to the Lower Keys, signs warn you to slow down and watch for Key deer, an endangered species. The small animals with white tails can often be seen by the roadside in the vicinity of Big Pine and No Name Keys, which are part of the 8,000-acre National Key Deer Refuge (fws.gov/nationalkeydeer/).

But you won't find a traditional park entrance. Instead there are a few trails accessed from Key Deer Boulevard where you can take a short hike. If you're lucky, you'll encounter a deer or two in the brush in a moment of mutual surprise. From U.S. 1 on Big Pine Key at mile marker 30.5, turn north on Key Deer Boulevard and drive 2.8 miles to the Blue Hole trail (park on the left). The entrance to the Jack Watson and Fred Mannillo Trails is a bit farther down the road. Reminders: Early morning and late afternoon are best times for wildlife viewing, but don't feed the deer! A visitor center is located in the nearby Winn Dixie Shopping Plaza.

Dolphins

The Dolphin Research Center (dolphins.org) in Marathon on Grassy Key offers hands-on training in the care of marine mammals for would-be professional caregivers and trainers. But the center also welcomes visitors daily ($23 for adults; $18 for children 4-12), offering narrated presentations every half-hour with the opportunity to observe the center's dolphins and sea lions. Pricey interactive experiences are also available, such as a 20-minute "Dolphin Dip" for $119, which involves interacting with a dolphin in the water.

Other places in the Keys offering interactive dolphin programs are Dolphins Cove, Key Largo; Dolphins Plus, Key Largo; Theater of the Sea, Islamorada; and Dolphin Connection at Hawks Cay Resort, Marathon, Duck Key.

Turtles

Sick and injured sea turtles have their very own hospital in Marathon at mile marker 48.5. The Turtle Hospital (turtlehospital.org) has released more than 1,300 rehabilitated turtles into the wild since it was founded in 1986. Daily tours of the hospital and turtle tanks are offered on the hour from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. It costs $18 for adults and $9 for children ages 5-12.

Hemingway's cats

The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, at 907 Whitehead St., Key West, offers an entertaining look at the legendary writer's life and times, and you don't have to be a fan of his fiction or films made from his work to enjoy the guided tour. Stories of his travels, his women and his passions -- hunting, deep-sea fishing, bullfighting -- are fun to hear whether or not you're familiar with books like "The Old Man and the Sea" or "A Farewell to Arms."

But one of the most charming aspects of any visit is encountering the 40 to 50 cats that loll about, sprawling on vintage furniture, pristine bedspreads and in the yard. Many of the cats are polydactyl, meaning they have an extra toe, just like a six-toed cat Hemingway owned. The kitties are named after Hollywood stars like Clark Gable and Audrey Hepburn. You're not supposed to pick them up, but they are amusing to watch. Tours are offered from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. It costs $13 for adults and $6 for children. See hemingwayhome.com/.

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