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KEY WEST, Florida Keys — Visitors can experience sights, sounds and flavors recalling Key West's Bahamian heritage at the family-friendly Goombay Festival, scheduled Friday and Saturday, Oct. 23-24. The exuberant street festival takes place in the island city's Bahama Village neighborhood, settled in part by Bahamians seeking a new home in the early 1800s.

For more than 30 years, the Goombay Festival has marked the beginning of Key West's Fantasy Fest, a 10-day masking and costuming celebration whose 2015 revelry continues through Sunday, Nov. 1.

Goombay's high-energy action is centered on Petronia Street, just off Key West's famed Duval Street in the heart of Bahama Village. Events are to take place from noon to midnight both days, with an opening ceremony scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday.

Festival attendees can savor the flavors of Caribbean and ethnic dishes offered by vendors, discover island-influenced arts and crafts, and dance in the streets to live music by popular Bahamian, South Florida and Florida Keys musicians and bands.

Other festival standouts typically include appearances by Junkanoo performers and a Junkanoo Rush of costumed marchers and dancers.

Event information: keywestgoombay2015.com

Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com/keywest
or 1-800-LAST-KEY

Social: FacebookTwitterKeysVoices.comYouTube

FLORIDA KEYS — Quirky and laid-back year-round, the Florida Keys turn to mischievous mayhem come Halloween. Hauntings are to take place in the island chain from the northernmost outpost of Key Largo to mile marker (MM) 0 in Key West, the southernmost city in the continental United States. Here is a sampling of spooky events in the Keys.

Divers can earn prizes and praise for creating the most unique jack-o'-lanterns during the 18th annual Underwater Pumpkin Carving Contest set for Saturday, Oct. 17. Hosted by Amy Slate's Amoray Dive Resort, MM 104.5 bayside in Key Largo, the contest is open to all certified scuba divers. While underwater, two-person teams are to carve pumpkins into imaginative jack-o'-lanterns for chances to win prizes from first to third place. The fee is $85 per diver for the two-tank, two-location dive, and teams are encouraged to sign up early since space is limited. For details, visit amoray.com or call 800-426-6729.

Brave children can venture into Crane Point Hammock's Creepy Carnival starting at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 30. The eerie event, located in Marathon at MM 50, is to feature spooky special guests like the Bearded Lady, Crazy Clowns and Wolfman. Geared toward youngsters age 12 and under, the fright-filled fun is free to the public. Visit cranepoint.net or call 305-743-3900.

The historic U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ingham, docked at Key West's Truman Waterfront and operating as a maritime museum, will host an interactive experience titled "King Neptune's Curse: Aliens vs. Coast Guard." The Coast Guard and attendees will battle "aliens" trying to take over the USCGC Ingham. Each compartment will have various challenges for attendees to complete to "protect" the ship. Shows are scheduled each evening Oct. 22-30 except Oct. 26 and 29. Tickets are to be on sale beginning at 7:30 p.m. and gates open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 per adult, $10 per person for active military personnel and $8 per child age 12 and under. Closed-toed shoes are required. For information, visit facebook.com/events/895954350489622/.

Revelers can dress up or down at daily and nightly events during Key West's annual Fantasy Fest, set for Friday, Oct. 23, through Sunday, Nov. 1. The 2015 festival is themed "All Hallows Intergalactic Freak Show" and includes 10 days of masquerade balls, costume contests, parties and uninhibited escapades, all climaxing in the epic 3Wishes.com Fantasy Fest Parade Saturday, Oct. 31. The festival's traditional Children's Day offers food, games, rides, arts and crafts and a costume contest for attending kids. The family fun takes place Sunday, Nov. 1, from noon to 5 p.m. at the island's Bayview Park at Truman Avenue and Eisenhower Drive. For Fantasy Fest information, visit fantasyfest.com. For Children's Day details, call 305-292-8912.

Artists and creative spirits are to display unique miniature floats in Key West's"Smallest Parade in the Universe." The PG-13 event is set for 5-9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 29, at Key West's newest microbrewery, Waterfront Brewery, located at 201 William St. Creativity is encouraged and floats cannot exceed a length or height of 18 inches or a width of 12 inches. Each float's visuals and theme must be "PG-13" rated. The tiny floats will be displayed on a specially crafted replica of Key West's Duval Street and projections will be flashed on the "street" to make them look like full-sized parade floats. The event's proceeds are to benefit the Monroe Association for ReMARCable Citizens, a nonprofit that provides life services for Monroe County's adult developmentally and intellectually disabled residents. Spectator tickets are $20 per person and can be purchased at keystix.com beginning Oct. 1. For more information, visit thesmallestparadeintheuniverse.com or marchouse.org.

Florida Keys event calendar: fla-keys.com/calendarofevents

Florida Keys visitor information: fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS

Social: FacebookTwitterKeysVoices.comYouTube

KEY WEST, Florida Keys — Revelers can show off their most exotic, outrageous and elaborate mask and headdress creations at the Headdress Ball, a blend of entertainment and creative competition set for 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 29.

The gala is a highlight of Key West's 2015 Fantasy Fest masking and costuming celebration, themed "All Hallows Intergalactic Freak Show" and scheduled Oct. 23 through Nov. 1.

Billed as the festival's "headiest" masquerade challenge and premier LGBT event, the Headdress Ball is to be staged in a huge party tent at Key West's Truman Waterfront, located at the end of Southard Street past Truman Annex.

Entrants compete for nearly $5,000 in cash prizes for the most spectacular decorated masks, cowls and other headgear. Designers typically use feathers, sequins, glitter and even unexpected moving parts to embellish their creations.

Many are expected to draw inspiration from the 33rd annual contest's theme of "Spacey and Freaky," crafting "over-the-top" toppers suitable for everything from seductive space aliens to freakish inhabitants of otherworldly realms.

As well as marveling at extravagant headdress entries, attendees can enjoy comedic patter from host Tom Luna, applaud entertainment by leading local performers, dance to tunes spun by DJ Rude Girl, explore a vendor display area and take "selfies" to a whole new level in a photo booth.

Other attractions include a VIP party on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ingham, docked at the Truman Waterfront site and operating as a maritime museum.

The Headdress Ball is presented by the Key West Business Guild and raises funds for the organization's programs. To purchase tickets for general admission or reserved tables — as well as VIP tables where spectators can participate in the headdress judging — visit keystix.com.

The gates open at 7 p.m. and ticket holders can make use of free trolley transportation to the event from the intersection of Angela and Duval streets. Searchlights are to light up the sky over the Truman Waterfront to beckon attendees with their own transportation.

Headdress Ball information: headdressballkeywest.com, www.gaykeywestfl.com

Fantasy Fest information: fantasyfest.com

Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com/keywest
or 1-800-LAST-KEY

Social: FacebookTwitterKeysVoices.comYouTube

KEY WEST, Florida Keys — Sports fans with a need for speed can satisfy it at the Key West World Championship powerboat races set for Sunday through Sunday, Nov. 8-15, in Key West waters.

The 35th annual championship series is to feature boats raced by leading American and international teams, roaring over a 6.2-mile course that includes Key West Harbor and provides unparalleled viewing for spectators.

Boats typically face both rough and calm water conditions during the season-ending event, dubbed the Indianapolis 500 of the offshore powerboat racing circuit. The challenging course is a primary reason for Key West's reputation as one of the world's premier racing venues.

The course layout means boats can sometimes pass within 50 yards of fans, enabling them to experience the pulse-pounding action in a unique close-up manner.

The Key West World Championship is to kick off with a parade of race boats down the island's legendary Duval Street beginning at 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8.

The excitement builds through the week with races Wednesday, Nov. 11; Friday, Nov. 13; and Sunday, Nov. 15. Races are scheduled at 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. on all three days and each features boats from multiple classes.

Among spectators' favorites are the Superboat and Superboat Unlimited classes, which draw powerful contenders competing at speeds that can reach 140 and 150 mph, respectively.

On nonrace days, powerboat enthusiasts can view the boats, watch in-water testing runs and mingle with racers and crews at the race village on Key West's Truman Waterfront, which lies beyond the end of Southard Street past Thomas Street and Truman Annex.

In addition, parties are planned for racers and fans.

General-admission tickets are available, as are all-inclusive VIP spectator passes for the Truman Waterfront grandstands and hospitality tent. Other popular viewing areas include waterfront hotels and Key West's Mallory Square.

Event information: superboat.com

Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com/keywest
or 1-800-LAST-KEY

Social: FacebookTwitterKeysVoices.comYouTube

KEY WEST, Florida Keys — Lavishly decorated floats, costumed characters, bands and elaborately garbed marching groups are to entertain spectators Saturday, Oct. 31, during the 3Wishes.com Fantasy Fest Parade through Key West's historic downtown.

The otherworldly extravaganza is the traditional highlight of the annual Fantasy Fest masking and costuming celebration, set this year for Friday, Oct. 23, through Sunday, Nov. 1. Tens of thousands of people, many of them arrayed in exotic costumes, are expected to throng the island's downtown streets to view the internationally recognized parade.

The procession's floats and costumes are likely to reflect the 2015 festival theme, "All Hallows Intergalactic Freak Show," with organizers encouraging entrants to draw inspiration from sci-fi spectaculars, fun-filled freak-show realms, pagan pageantry or even recent news of water found on Mars.

Many float entries each year include music, moving parts and elements that tower over the audience. Creativity is rewarded with prizes as well as acclaim from Fantasy Fest crowds.

Standouts in recent Fantasy Fest parades have included a troupe of colorful cartoonlike superheroes and villains, a wacky Noah's Ark carrying a giant octopus, a "Hello Kitty" spoof and a float featuring fictional superhero Batman rising 40 feet above the crowd to hover protectively over "Gotham City."

Fantasy Fest's 2015 pre-parade activities begin at noon Saturday with the open-air Duval Street Promenade, where vendors are to offer masking and costuming finery and accessories suitable for everyone from earthlings to outer-space inhabitants. Out-of-this-world entertainment, as well as food and libations, are scheduled to add to the festival frolic.

At 7 p.m. the 3Wishes.com Fantasy Fest Parade is to begin at the intersection of Key West's Southard and Whitehead streets. Floats, bands and other parade participants are to travel down Whitehead toward the Gulf of Mexico, turn onto Front Street and then proceed the mile down Duval to the Atlantic Ocean.

Event information: fantasyfest.com

Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com/keywest
or 1-800-LAST-KEY

Social: FacebookTwitterKeysVoices.comYouTube

FLORIDA KEYS — Bicyclists are to explore the Florida Keys and pedal one of America's All-American Roads during the seven-night, 200-mile BubbaFest Bike Tour set for Saturday through Saturday, Oct. 31 through Nov. 7.

Led by retired police sergeant and biking enthusiast Bubba Barron, the fully supported adventure takes cycling fans on a roundtrip journey from Key Largo to Key West along the scenic Overseas Highway (U.S. Highway 1) that connects the Keys with each other and the Florida mainland.

Incorporating 42 bridges and long vistas of breathtaking open water, the highway was designated an All-American Road in 2009, the highest recognition possible under the National Scenic Byways program.

Riders proceed at their own pace each day, enjoying their favorite sport while discovering the Keys' environment and attractions. Aside from cycling, BubbaFest activity options include swimming with dolphins, visiting eco-attractions, snorkeling, sunning and exploring galleries and boutiques. The schedule features a layover day at Marathon in the Middle Keys and two layover days in Key West.

Attractions include manageable mileage averaging 45 miles per day, a mostly flat route suited to riders of virtually all abilities, warm subtropical temperatures and accommodations at waterfront campgrounds. Support vehicles are available to transport anyone who wants a break from cycling, and a bike mechanic and licensed massage therapist travel with the group.

BubbaFest begins in Key Largo Saturday, Oct. 31, with registration at the Holiday Inn Key Largo, 99701 Overseas Highway, followed by a welcome reception and dinner.

The fee of $735 per participant includes six nights at beachside campgrounds, six breakfasts and five dinners, a private open-air trolley tour of Key West, a farewell dinner dance and services of a baggage truck and support vehicle. Motel lodging and "pampering" service are available for an additional fee.

Event information: bubbaspamperedpedalers.com

Florida Keys visitor information: fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS

Social: FacebookTwitterKeysVoices.comYouTube

KEY WEST, Florida Keys — Cindy Williams, who portrayed Shirley Feeney in the classic television series "Laverne & Shirley," has been named grand marshal of the parade highlighting Key West's Fantasy Fest, the 10-day costuming and masking festival scheduled Oct. 23 through Nov. 1.

Williams, who also starred in a sci-fi film spoof with Leslie Nielsen titled "The Creature Wasn't Nice," is to lead the Oct. 31 3Wishes.com Fantasy Fest Parade down Key West's Whitehead and Duval streets. Themed "All Hallows Intergalactic Freak Show," the 2015 festival features 10 days of lavish masquerade balls, costume contests and themed parties.

"I'm really looking forward to the spirit and camaraderie of the festival," said Williams. "Every time I think if it, in my head I just see all these colors and everybody's imagination at work and all their costuming — all that inventiveness and creativity and fun."

Fantasy Fest is internationally recognized for its untamed revelry and lighthearted spirit. Among its nearly 50 events are a popular masquerade march starting at the Key West Cemetery, an exotic Headdress Ball and a costume contest for pets and their people.

Williams, who recently penned a well-received memoir titled "Shirley, I Jest," said she believes some of her early pre-acting jobs — including working at West Hollywood's famed Whisky a Go Go and taking the graveyard shift at an IHOP on Sunset Boulevard — were good preparation for Fantasy Fest's outrageous, anything-goes atmosphere.

"Nothing startles or shocks me," she said.

As well as portraying perky brewery employee Shirley Feeney in ABC's "Laverne & Shirley" from 1976 until the early '80s, Williams earned kudos for her role in the 1973 film "American Graffiti" and appearances in plays including "The Drowsy Chaperone" on Broadway.

But it's her star turn in the outer-space parody "The Creature Wasn't Nice" that connects her most closely to Fantasy Fest 2015's intergalactic theme. The offbeat epic, which paired her with Nielsen, also was called "Naked Space" and "Spaceship."

"He was the captain of the ship and I was like the ship's social coordinator and I wore a silver lamé jumpsuit," Williams recalled. "Patrick Macnee played the scientist on board and he wanted to save the creature, and the creature wanted to eat everyone on board — and it was a musical."

Williams will be accompanied at the head of the Fantasy Fest parade by her boyfriend Tim Culbertson, an actor whose prolific career has included roles in "Battlestar Galactica" and "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan."

Williams, who admitted that visiting Key West was on her bucket list, said she thought Shirley Feeney would enjoy leading the parade, too.

"She would go along with it for the adventure of it, and she would have a very demure costume," Williams said. "Goodness only knows what Laverne would wear — or not wear."

The 3Wishes.com Fantasy Fest Parade typically draws more than 60,000 revelers to applaud its costumed marching groups, street dancers, bands and lavishly decorated motorized floats. The 2015 parade steps off at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31.

Event information: fantasyfest.com

Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com/keywest
or 1-800-LAST-KEY

Social: FacebookTwitterKeysVoices.comYouTube

KEY WEST, Florida Keys — Spectators won't need high-powered telescopes to spot some of the most cosmic creatures in the galaxy Wednesday, Oct. 28, during Key West's annual Pet Masquerade. The otherworldly event is a highlight of the island city's 2015 Fantasy Fest costuming and masking festival, themed "All Hallows Intergalactic Freak Show" and set for Oct. 23 through Nov. 1.

Each year the Pet Masquerade draws costumed canine, feline and avian contestants — as well as an occasional rabbit, pot-bellied pig, lizard, snake or even goat — to vie for prizes on an oceanfront stage at the Casa Marina, a Waldorf Astoria resort at 1500 Reynolds St.

Organizers encourage participants to take inspiration from the festival theme. They might dress their pets as aliens inhabiting an "animal planet," feline freak-show escapees, canine "space cadets" or even feathered pagans from mystical realms.

Entries typically range from costumed pet-and-person duos to animal-and-human ensembles cavorting in choreographed performances. Judges award prizes for the top junior contestants, most exotic attire, best theme adaptation, best pet-owner look-alikes and overall winner.

Past competitors have included a "vampire cat" with a replica coffin, a Chihuahua "burro" whose saddlebags held tequila bottles, a pot-bellied pig costumed as a dragon and two tutu-wearing "space aliens" accompanied by a starship with a canine crew.

Registration for the 2015 Pet Masquerade begins at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 28, at the Casa Marina. The entry fee is $25 per category and costumed competitors can enter as many categories as they wish.

The contest starts at 5:30 p.m. and is to be emceed by interstellar Florida Keys personalities.

General admission for spectators is free, and VIP seating and cocktail packages are available at keystix.com. Proceeds benefit the Lower Keys Friends of Animals.

Event information: facebook.com/keywestpetmasquerade, fantasyfest.com, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 305-304-1026

Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com/keywest
or 1-800-LAST-KEY

Social: FacebookTwitterKeysVoices.comYouTube

FLORIDA KEYS - The Florida Keys & Key West enter fall with upgraded accommodations, new interactive tours and unique experiences that tempt visitors ranging from culinary buffs to marine enthusiasts. Explore the highlights here.

Keys Accommodations

Key West's critically acclaimed Southernmost on the Beach, Southernmost Hotel in the USA, La Mer and the Dewey House are now united into one resort named Southernmost Beach Resort Key West. Spanning more than 6 acres, the property is situated in Key West's Old Town at 508 South St., where visitors can enjoy beachfront views of the Atlantic Ocean. Guests can find a variety of accommodation types and styles at the newly rebranded resort as well as three swimming pools, four bars, an on-site restaurant, a private pier and sandy beaches. Other amenities include a fitness center, spa and on-property parking. Each of the Southernmost Beach Resort's 261 guest rooms features contemporary Key West style and upscale amenities.

Three properties in Old Town Key West have been purchased and are slated for improvements in the coming year. Two of them, Ocean Breeze Inn and Southwinds Motel, have been combined into one entity that now operates as the Southwinds Motel. The 32-room budget-friendly property has undergone renovations and upgrades to its appearance including landscaping, painting and enhancements to all guestrooms. The third property, formerly known as the Spindrift Motel, is to be transformed into H2O Suites, a luxury accommodation featuring 22 one-bedroom suites. Plans call for 11 of the suites to have private plunge pools, while the resort also will feature a rooftop swimming pool for all its guests. H2O Suites is set to open in summer 2016.

Banana Bay Resort & Marina, located in the heart of the Florida Keys at mile marker 49.5 in Marathon, is to conclude numerous renovations in late fall 2015. Situated on 10 acres, the resort features 59 newly renovated deluxe guestrooms, a remodeled lobby and a restored pool area. Additional amenities include a poolside tiki bar, heated freshwater pool, outdoor whirlpool, garden tennis court, marina and boat launching ramp.

Little Palm Island, an award-winning luxury private island resort in the Lower Florida Keys, is set to see enhancements this fall. Located three miles off Little Torch Key in the Atlantic Ocean, accessible only by boat or seaplane, the 5.5-acre property is upgrading six bungalow-style suites to become "Romance Suites." All are to be enhanced with private decks, hot tubs and access to their own private beach area. The extravagant resort's 30 guest rooms will also be upgraded with new furniture, artwork and other room features. In addition, renovations also are being made to the island's pool and outdoor bar area.

Keys Anniversaries

In November 2015, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary marks 25 years of dedication to protecting the world's third-largest barrier reef and the waters surrounding the Florida Keys island chain. Administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and jointly managed with the state of Florida, FKNMS became one of 14 marine protected areas in the National Marine Sanctuary System when it was established Nov. 16, 1990. Today the sanctuary protects 2,900 square nautical miles of waters. Its boundaries stretch from Biscayne National Park near Miami to the Dry Tortugas, 70 miles west of Key West. Within these boundaries lie spectacular nationally significant marine resources, historic shipwrecks and other archeological treasures, extensive seagrass beds, mangrove-fringed islands and more than 6,000 species of marine life. Thousands of scuba divers, snorkelers, anglers and watersports enthusiasts visit the Florida Keys annually to enjoy the sanctuary's waters. A family-oriented 25th anniversary celebration is scheduled Sunday, Nov. 8, at the Islander Resort, a Guy Harvey Outpost Resort, at mile marker 82.1 oceanside in Islamorada.

Divers exploring the 189-foot shipwreck Thunderbolt in the coming months can mark the 30th anniversary of the Middle Keys gem being intentionally sunk 4 miles south of Marathon and Key Colony Beach. Considered by the diving community to be the queen of the Marathon wreck fleet, the easily navigable "T-bolt" rests in 120 feet of water, providing advanced divers as well as spear fishermen an interesting deep site populated by hundreds of reef fish and pelagic species. Before its intentional sinking in March 1986, the ship was stripped of all but a few pieces of equipment. Its most prominent features are a cable-handling reel centered on the forecastle at approximately 80 feet and an observation deck at 75 feet. Aft, the rudder and propellers sit at 120 feet. The stern was cut away to expose the hull's interior.

Keys Attractions

One of Key West's best-known historic sites has recently undergone upgrades. The Audubon House and Tropical Gardens, located at 205 Whitehead St., has received new carpets, window treatments and wallpaper — all chosen to enhance the historic home's reflection of life in 19th-century Key West. Built in the 1840s by Captain John H. Geiger, the house sits on the property where John James Audubon identified and drew a number of Florida birds during an 1832 sojourn in Key West and the nearby Dry Tortugas. Geiger was Key West's first state-licensed harbor pilot and a shipwreck salvager. Today his family's home is a museum that showcases both the Audubon connection and Key West's early days. The historic house contains 28 first-edition works by the famous ornithologist. Situated on an acre of lush tropical gardens, the house is open for tours daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.

Islamorada's Keys History & Discovery Center presents "Sanctuary Reef," an intriguing traveling exhibit that offers viewers a "shrimp's eye view" of an oversized coral reef. Created by Florida's acclaimed Mote Marine Laboratory, the interactive display uses hands-on educational panels and videos to spotlight the ocean's coral reefs as well as crucial scientific research. The exhibit explores topics including reefs' ecological and economic importance, the risks they face, what scientists are learning about them and how people can help protect them. Visitors will discover large-scale models of corals, colorful fish and eels complemented by interactive panels with reef information. Located on the grounds of the Islander Resort, a Guy Harvey Outpost at mile marker 82 oceanside, the center is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. "Sanctuary Reef" is to remain on display through Feb. 28, 2016.

Historic Upper Keys Walking Tours recently debuted a new excursion named the Happy Hour History Tour. Led by Brad Bertelli, historian and curator at the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center, the 45-minute walking tour ends with a locally crafted beer. The tour begins at the Florida Keys Hurricane Memorial and follows a route along a historic stretch of Upper Matecumbe Key. Participants end their stroll at Florida Keys Brewing Co, a newly opened brewery and bar, where they savor a complementary cold beer and receive discounts on subsequent libations.

Keys Food and Drink

This fall The Waterfront Brewery, located at 201 William St. in Key West's Historic Seaport, began brewing up local beers. Opened Sept. 18, the restaurant and brewery features American cuisine, homebrews — including the award-winning Key Lime Witness — and a variety of other drafts from Florida breweries. The highly recognizable nautical-inspired space currently features a main bar, restaurant, game room and bar in the brewery and tasting room. A third space, located on the upstairs deck, is slated to open in the next few months. The brewery also will host group events and private parties.

Visiting foodies looking to practice their culinary talents can now participate in cooking lessons at Isle Cook Key West, located at 218 Whitehead St. Key West chefs lead healthy and exciting culinary lessons for groups of up to 12 people during afternoon and evening sessions. Wine and beer are available for purchase during the classes. Also a boutique emporium, Isle Cook sells high-quality kitchenware and colorful indoor and outdoor tableware.

The Reach, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, located at 1435 Simonton St. in Key West, recently opened an oceanfront restaurant named Spencer's by the Sea. Patrons can enjoy views of the Atlantic Ocean from both inside the restaurant and on its serene veranda, paired with a memorable Key West dining experience for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The restaurant specializes in fresh seafood, local ingredients and prime steaks, with dinner entrees including Peppercorn Crusted Tuna and 72 Hour Beef Short Rib.

Florida Keys visitor information: fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS

Social: FacebookTwitterKeysVoices.comYouTube

FLORIDA KEYS — For divers, snorkelers, anglers and watersports enthusiasts, Nov. 16, 2015, is a significant date. It marks the 25th anniversary of the creation of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary that protects 2,900 nautical miles of waters surrounding the Keys island chain.

Sanctuary waters are popular with Keys visitors and residents for activities including boating, diving and snorkeling, swimming, deep-sea and backcountry fishing, dolphin-watching, paddleboarding, kiteboarding, kayaking and simply relaxing. The sanctuary protects a spectacular and unique ecosystem with shallow seagrass beds, mangrove-fringed islands and the world's third-largest barrier coral reef that collectively support more than 6,000 species. In addition, it is the final resting spot of culturally important shipwrecks — some dating back centuries.

"If you come to the Florida Keys you can see more fish and diversity of fish that is tough to find anywhere else in the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico," said Sean Morton, the sanctuary's superintendent.

It all began in 1989 when three large freighters ran aground on the coral reef within a 17-day period. There had been talk at the time of slightly expanding the boundaries of already existing protected waters in the Keys, but the groundings led federal lawmakers to push a bill through the U.S. Congress that would protect all waters surrounding the islands.

President George H.W. Bush signed the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act Nov. 16, 1990.

Administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the sanctuary's boundaries stretch from Biscayne National Park near Miami, Fla., to the Dry Tortugas (70 miles west of Key West).

Keys waters offer world-class diving and snorkeling at the reef and on shipwrecks. The warm water and generally excellent visibility mean underwater explorers can see the vibrant colors of sea fans, corals and a wide array of tropical fish. Sea turtles, moray eels and rays also are regulars at reefs.

The island chain's Blue Star operators promote responsible diving and snorkeling at the reef, with emphasis on not touching or removing corals and using mooring buoys so boats don't have to drop anchors that might damage corals.

The sanctuary has put in place no-take zones, covering a small percentage of the waters, which are designed to allow important species of fish an opportunity to spawn and grow to help improve size and populations.

Kayaking and paddleboarding are great ways to see the beauty of the sanctuary's seagrass beds full of juvenile marine life or observe birds and other wildlife on pristine islands.

The sanctuary works with other government agencies, universities and private entities on research projects to get better science about fish populations and other marine life topics.

"We have done our best to put in management tools to protect the environment," Morton said. "We will continue to try to make this special place even better to sustain a healthy marine ecosystem for our children and our children's children to enjoy."

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary information: floridakeys.noaa.gov/
Florida Keys visitor information: fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS

Social: FacebookTwitterKeysVoices.comYouTube

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