The Florida Keys consist of nearly 1,700 islands and 140 square miles of dry land off of the southern tip of Florida on the edge of the Florida Plateau. The island farthest to the southwest is actually a group of islands, the Dry Tortugas Archipelago, uninhabited but the location of the Civil-War-era Fort Jefferson. Key West is the westernmost island with a dense human population, and is home of Mote Marine Laboratory's Living Reef Exhibit. Summerland Key, approximately 30 miles east of Key West, is the location of Mote Marine Laboratory’s Tropical Research Laboratory.

Florida Keys

Lower Florida Keys from Space

The Florida Keys were actually created by plants and animals. Coral and marine algae that once thrived there created large reefs that became exposed and fossilized when sea levels fell more than 300 feet approximately 15,000 years ago. The limestone sand grains eroded from the remains of the plants, corals, and other marine animals are now the foundation of the Florida Keys, giving them their shape today.

Today's living coral reefs came into existence 5,000 to 7,000 years ago and include almost 6,000 coral reefs between Key Biscayne and the Dry Tortugas.[1] These reefs are the only reefs in the continental United States and contribute to the local Florida economy by attracting both tourists and researchers. They form the third largest coral reef system in the world (following Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the reefs off of Belize, Central America).

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill causes great concern for the fate of the coral reefs of Florida. In May 2010, oil was detected in the Loop Current, which passes from the Caribbean, into the Gulf, then over the Keys reefs. If the amount of oil in the Loop increases, serious damage could occur to the fragile coral reef ecosystem. There is some speculation whether the oil will reach the reefs. On June 20, 2010, Dr. Billy Causey, Southeast Regional Director of the National Marine Sanctuary Program, said that “it is highly unlikely that the Keys will see a sheen or liquid form of any oil."[2]

Currently, there is an underwater robot traveling along the edges of the Loop Current near Key West monitoring the water for signs of oil. The Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota[3] developed the robot, nicknamed Waldo, which is watching for any detectable oil that might enter the rotating eddy and direct oil into the Loop Current. As of July 2010, there was no immediate threat to the Keys, but the concern of oil reaching the reefs will continue until the spill has been stopped and the affected areas recover.

Resources for the Florida Keys

[1] Florida's Coral Reefs

[2] Anxious monitoring near Florida coral reefs for oil spill

[3] Robot checks Florida Keys water for signs of oil spill