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New sealife encounter park opens in Marathon in the Florida Keys

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Swimming with sharks, sting rays, tropical and sport fish can be done at the coral reef that runs oceanside along the string of islands that comprise the Florida Keys, but touching and feeding them are options as well at the new Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters, which opened July 1 at mile marker 53 bayside in Marathon.

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In its opening week, the Peterson family enjoyed the encounter with the fish so much the youngsters didn’t want the 30-minute swim to end. “It should be way longer; I loved it,” one wrote in his critique.

Next came the multi-generational Steinmetz family who had six family members on the aquarium’s platform trying to breathe air through hookah regulators. “Is there a signal we make if we want to come up?” asked an apprehensive Riet Steinmetz. The dive instructor assured her that thumbs up was a signal to surface. “We aim to have guests become comfortable with the oxygen apparatus on the platform before the dive,” said the instructor. Sure enough, 30 minutes later, Steinmetz was all smiles. “I forgot I was worried,” she laughed.

The opening of Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters completes a longtime dream of Ben Daughtry, who first came across a similar facility owned by a friend in Curacao about 20 years ago. Daughtry witnessed people swimming in the clear ocean waters, feeding the fish and enjoying up-close marine encounters. He said the main difference between the Curacao experience and recreating it in the Florida Keys is water clarity. To ensure that, rather than depend on the right wind, tide and weather at the reef, a 200,000-gallon tank divided into two parts was designed and built.

Measuring 75 feet long by 40 feet wide with a depth of 10 feet, one half of the aquarium houses the more predatory fish such as the sharks, eels and jacks in 80-degree water while the other half contains more mild-mannered fish such as tarpon, look-downs, yellowtail snapper and an eagle ray. The tank’s four species of shark thus far are a sand tiger, black tip, black nose and nurse. Soon, bonnetheads and sand bar sharks will reside there, too.

Daughtry said there are advantages to swimming in a tank. Guests won’t experience seasickness, for example. Also, people are not allowed to feed fish on the reef, but the aquarium fish are accustomed to people and tend to welcome the free hand-outs. Lastly, the hookah equipment is less burdensome and bulky than dive equipment, he said. In total, there are about 75 species at Aquarium Encounters.

Daughtry was on hand June 27 to guide family and friends through the new attraction, listen to feedback and delight in the visible excitement of the patrons.

“The aquarium has something for everyone,” he said. “I have a two-year-old and four-year-old and the steps on this touch tank were designed with those ages in mind. They can observe and touch a sea urchin, a conch and horseshoe crabs here while a marine biologist gives information about each species while sharing a message of conservation.”

Another tank contains nursery-sized fish that visitors can feed such as small nurse sharks, a one-foot wide Southern ray, a small adult yellow ray, and three Atlantic rays. The nurse sharks can grow to eight or nine feet and weigh 200 pounds, so while some may think this species makes a great aquarium fish, marine biologists know when they are full-grown they are not so cute and cuddly and are not great container fish. “Our marine biologists talk about the species’ life cycles,” Daughtry said.

One more free-flowing aquarium is actually a manmade canal lined naturally by spindly mangroves which create shade. Ocean water flows from Vaca Cut along the canal to the property’s entrance tiki hut and back. From a floating walkway and a bridge, guests can see numerous species there. A goliath grouper who prefers to lurk beneath the bridge, red grouper, tarpon, jacks, a school of angelfish, colorful parrotfish, yellowtail snapper and rays mosey on by, to be captured by cameras while freely swimming. Eventually, snorkeling in the canal may be offered.

Almost sixty years ago, the canal was dug as part of an aquarium project, Daughtry said. But the project never came to fruition due to Hurricane Donna in 1960. This time, however, it looks like the venture and fish are here to stay. The new business employs 20 full-time guest services staff including six dive instructors, and five part-time staff members. Several volunteers have stepped up to help out as well.

A concession stand takes advantage of the waterfront view of Vaca Cut, while being close enough to the touch tanks to keep the kids occupied.

Special touches at the roadside attraction include artwork by Caleb Goins (www.calebgoinsart.com) and Jason Robinson, both of Marathon. Goins is a painter and metal sculptor, while Robinson fashions creative fish from wood. Visitors can’t miss their unique marine art -- as long as they look up -- at the visitor center and large swimming tank.

Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, entry fees are $20 for adults, $15 for kids of ages 4-12 and free for those three and under. A discount is available online. Swimming with the marine life costs additional. The first encounter begins at 10 a.m., and are operated on the hour. For more information, visit www.floridakeysaquariumencounters.com or call 305-407-3262.

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