Mangroves are magical forests where we discover nature’s secrets. They straddle the connection between land and sea and nature and humans. — Anne Birch, Marine Conservation Manager at TNC Florida
Key West is known for many things—snorkeling, fishing, island vibes, and famous historical sites being some.
You probably don’t picture mangroves while dreaming of fun in the sun, but you’re sure to see lots of them lining the shores as you tour Key West and the rest of the Florida Keys.
They often look like overgrown bushes, appearing as nothing more than a tangled mess of branches and roots lining the roads. You’d be forgiven for failing to see their importance at first sight, but what they lack in curb appeal, they make up for in importance. Key West’s mangrove forests are actually one of its most important ecosystems, playing a number of crucial roles and serving multiple purposes.
Not only are the mangroves important to the area’s wildlife, but they’re beneficial to the people who call the Keys home, as well as the droves of tourists who visit this paradise during ‘normal’ times.
The Key West Aquarium explains why they matter to humans:
Mangroves are important to us because like all other trees, they produce oxygen. They also act as a buffer during intense storms reducing wave action, preventing erosion, and absorbing floodwaters.
I saw first-hand the devastating effect massive storms can have on the area, having driven down to Key West from Toronto, Ontario in November of 2017, just two months after Hurricane Irma had swept through the region.
Key West received the least damage, as the worst of the storm hit 20 miles north on Cudjoe Key, but evidence of its damage throughout the Keys was clear driving along Overseas Hwy. Debris was piled along the sides of the road—a mix of decimated building materials, a mangled mess of tree roots and vegetation, and other personal belongings that had been destroyed.
As we witnessed the clean-up efforts of residents and businesses still underway months after the storm had subsided, I could only imagine the kind of force and power needed to cause the fifth-most damage economically in U.S. history when it comes to hurricanes.
Despite the widespread damage, The Nature Conservancy reported that “Florida mangroves prevented $1.5 billion in direct flood damages and protected over half a million people during Hurricane Irma in 2017.”
Statistics like these make a compelling case for further protecting these complex ecosystems, but seeing them in person really gives you a deeper understanding of why they matter, as well as an appreciation for their interconnected biodiversity.
Upon our arrival in the Florida Keys, I hadn’t yet realized the value of the mangroves for myself—but I was about to!
We spent a few days exploring Key West on land and at sea, and for our accommodation while there, we rented a sailboat through Airbnb. In order to reach our temporary floating home moored in the channel, we had to jump in kayaks. An added bonus of this arrangement was having unlimited access to these kayaks for the duration of our stay, which meant we could do lots of sightseeing via the channels.
We spent a full day paddling around the maze of mangrove forests accessible right from Cow Key Channel where our sailboat was located. We carefully made our way through the shallow waters and obstacle courses of vegetation, ducking under branches and following the little creeks around twists and turns to see where they’d lead.
The water was so clear and clean we could easily see the bottom, so navigating our way through was not a problem. While out on our paddling adventure, we saw birds, all kinds of tiny fish, and even some iguanas sunning themselves on branches or leaping into the water!
While there are many ways to learn about Key West’s mangrove habitats, kayaking your way through them at your own pace is certainly one of the best. It’s less invasive and much quieter, and allows for a more peaceful experience overall.
You get to simply float there, in tune with nature, soaking up all the sounds of this important ecosystem and seeing some of the wildlife that calls these mangrove forests home.
For us, this was a perfect way to spend one of our days in paradise!