dangerous wildlife florida keys

A demystification of potential marine hazards in the Florida Keys.

Without distinct seasonal changes down south, Halloween in the Florida Keys can come and pass without much notice! To get in the spirit of the season I wanted to address a topic that I get MANY questions about on my tours- “Dangerous wildlife Florida”

There is not one tour that goes by without some question about hazardous wildlife. While it is true that the Florida Keys has their fair share of creepy crawlies, I hope that this blog post will help to alleviate some concerns and correct some misinformation about the wildlife of the Florida Keys!

General guidelines for interacting with wildlife:

A little common sense goes a long way, especially when in wilderness situations! Here are some common sense rules to keep in mind on your next nature adventure!

  • Read the colors

    Bright, bold or neon colors in nature usually indicate danger. Keep reading to learn which stinging critters give you fair warning by being brightly colored!

  • Do not harrass or bombard wildlife

    We are all looking for our National Geographic, nature moment, but let’s not get that experience at the expense of the wildlife! Give the critters some space! If you want to get closer to nature, just sit still and become a part of the landscape, as opposed to being an invader. You will be amazed at how the ecosystem comes alive for you! A little respect goes a long way!

  • Be alert and aware of your surroundings

    Summertime is jellyfish season. Don’t despair! Our waters are still swim-able! Usually it just takes a little extra vigilance to avoid these jelly balls of joy! Luckily our waters are usually crystal clear so you can spot them and avoid them. This is just one example of how it pays to be aware of your surroundings!

  • Get in touch with your instincts

    Trust your gut. If something seems like a bad idea, guess what? It probably is!

  • When in doubt, google it!

    Use your resources, Don’t touch, ingest, or interact with any flora or fauna, unless you are 100% sure of what it is. Not sure? Just google it and check your sources!

Meet the Florida Keys Creepy Crawlies!

Without further adieu, here is AquaVentures list of Florida Keys wildlife to be aware of. We will give you the scoop on which critters are real threats and which ones have developed an unfair reputation!

Fire Sponge/ Coral


Pain rating
intense sting

Occurrence of Animal in Florida Keys
Very Common

Level of aggression


The fire sponge/coral can be recognized by its bright red- orange coloration and definitely has some stinging power. Fortunately, fire sponge and fire coral is sedentary, which means that it is stationary. Watch out for these bright orange and red sponges on dock pilings, submerged rocks and mangrove roots!


Placeholder

Treatment

The best treatment for the fire sponge is prevention! Watch out for their bright orange coloration and steer clear of them! If you accidentally come in contact with one- Clean the effected area and remove any spines(spicules) and treat with some vinegar. Like most stings, the best medicine is time! Just know it won’t last forever and stay distracted!

Sharks


Pain rating
rare but painful

Occurrence of animal in Florida Keys
very common

Level of Aggression


For any true ocean lover it is very upsetting to hear people bad mouth sharks constantly! They get a bad wrap! Hollywood wants you to believe that all sharks are like Jaws. This is NOT true! Just one of many myths perpetuated by hollywood/society, because fear sells tickets and dvds! In reality the sharks don’t want anything to do with us! Once again negative encounters are easily avoidable in most cases. Just to give you an idea of how rare shark attacks are in the Florida Keys – In Key West, there has never been a fatal shark attack. And there’s only been one incident reported in the record books since the 1800s. And if that fact doesn’t calm your fears, remember, You are more likely to die from having a coconut fall on your head than from a shark attack! So give the sharks a break! They are actually really amazing creatures that definitely deserve our respect and even our admiration!


Placeholder

Treatment

If you have a serious shark bite please see a qualified physician! But since the chances of this happening in the Florida Keys are very, very slim, we will instead focus on preventative measures to ensure safe shark encounters. If spear fishing or lobstering, be sure to keep your catch in your boat and not with you as you continue to hunt. This will attract the sharks just like chumming the water would! Also, do not chase, harass or corner sharks as they will try to defend themselves, and you can’t blame them for that! Stay calm and enjoy the experience of encountering one of natures wonders!

Upside down jelly


Pain rating
mild

Occurrence of Animal in Florida Keys
Very Common

Level of aggression


The upside down jelly or “cassiopea” is extremely common in the shallow, clear, warm waters of the Florida Keys. They like to sit on the bottom “upside down”, with tentacles facing up into the sun. The sting is not very powerful. It may feel similar to stinging nettle and usually only lasts about 10-15 minutes. Stings are very common in shallow water areas. If you kick up the bottom these jellies will release their stinging cells into the water. Click here to learn more about these fascinating “solar powered animals”!


Placeholder

Treatment

As with most of the stings that you encounter, time is the best medicine. There is nothing that I know of that will completely take away the pain, but there are things you can do to make the sting go away faster! Putting vinegar on the effected area is always worth a try. I also find that rubbing sand on the sting makes me feel better.

Lionfish


Pain rating
Extremely painful

Animal occurrence in the Florida Keys
common invasive

Level of aggression

The infamous lionfish is becoming more and more common in the Florida Keys. The lionfish is very cool to look at but you do not want to bump into one! Those long spines pack a very powerful sting! They are luckily non-aggressive towards humans and generally do their best to steer clear of us. Keep an eye out for them on the reef or in the mangroves. Click here to learn more about the lionfish!



Placeholder

Treatment

If you’ve been stung by a lionfish, the first important step is to remove any spines that may still be located in the wound. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommends immersing your wound in hot, but not scalding water for about 30 minutes

Long- spined sea urchin


Pain rating
Painful

Occurrence of Animal in Florida Keys
Common

Level of aggression


This is one sting you really want to avoid! Luckily the long-spined urchin is non-aggressive towards humans and pretty conspicuous! Watch out for this small bodied, long spined critter. The spines will be about 3 times longer than the body is big and the spines are very active, visibly wiggling in the current. The bottom right photo is an image of a variegated urchin to illustrate the difference between a non-harmful urchin and the poisonous one pictured on the top right.


Placeholder

Treatment

Once again prevention will be your best bet with these critters. Recognize them and stay away! For some the sting lasts 20-30 minutes, for others much longer! If you do get stung by the long- spined sea urchin the treatment is pretty similar to the lionfish sting- remove spines and soak effected area in HOT water, which helps to “denature” the stinging cells.

Stingrays


Pain rating
Very Painful

Occurrence of Animal in Florida Keys
Very Common

Level of aggression


Stingrays are awesome! They are definitely non-aggressive towards humans and, just like all the other critters we have discussed, these guys really want little to do with us. Getting stung is not a common occurrence and can be easily avoided in most cases.


Placeholder

Treatment

Prevention wins again in the case of the stingray! There is a technique called the stingray shuffle -when walking in the shallows/beaches, shuffle or drag your feet across the bottom instead of stomping down. The “stingray shuffle” will basically gently nudge the ray away from you, rather than sending it in to defense mode by stomping down on top of the ray.

Moon Jelly


Pain rating
mild

Occurrence of Animal in Florida Keys
seasonal

Level of aggression


Moon Jellies roll in to the Florida Keys in the late summer. They are a transparent, pink-blue color that can be easily spotted in the clear waters of the Florida Keys! Some years they take over the waters, but this year was a pretty light year for moon jellies. I am guessing this might have something to do with the fact that the moon jellies like warm water and the water stayed pretty cool, even in August and September, thanks to extra rain during our rainy season.


Placeholder

Treatment

Practice prevention by being aware of your surroundings while swimming or snorkeling. If you do get stung by a moon jelly, treat the area with some vinegar and let time take its course. Moon Jelly stings can last anywhere from 15 minutes to several days or longer in more extreme cases! Keep in mind, everyone reacts differently to stings!

Barracuda


Pain rating
Mild Bite

Occurrence of Animal in Florida Keys
Very Common

Level of aggression


Barracudas get a bad name, just like the sharks do! Yes they have intimidating teeth and can get pretty big, but the animals that they prey on are much smaller than humans! They will creep on you while you swim or snorkel, but they are not looking for any attention from you! This creepy behavior is actually the barracuda confusing the snorkeler for a larger predator, hoping to make some snacks out of their leftovers.


Placeholder

Treatment

Prevention- barracuda have poor eyesight and prey on small silvery fish. Avoid being confused with prey by not wearing silver jewelry, otherwise enjoy your barracuda encounter! They are amazing fish that can actually change their coloration to blend in with their surroundings!

Mangrove Crabs


Pain rating

Occurrence of Animal in Florida Keys
Very Common

Level of aggression

There are 2 varieties of mangrove crabs in the Florida Keys- The mangrove tree crab and the mangrove root crab. I had to address these critters because guests on my tours find them to be very creepy crawly! Believe it or not, these crabs are the #1 feared thing on my tours! Which is ironic, since they are one of the least harmful things around. The mangrove tunnels are full of the mangrove tree crab(pictured bottom right). The tree crab is actually a vegetarian, mostly eating mangrove leaves. Their bodies are pretty soft and their claws are tiny! The Root crab (pictured top) has bigger claws and is more of an opportunistic omnivore, as you may be able to deduce by looking at their claws! These guys are usually on the roots of the red mangrove, or on the muddy banks in between roots, and will quickly scurry away from any human intruders!



Placeholder

Treatment

No treatment necessary! I just had to include them because they freak people out even though they are harmless!

Portuguese Man of War


Pain rating
Moderate-Extreme

Occurrence of Animal in Florida Keys
Seasonal

Level of aggression

The Man o War is definitely infamous! They are non-aggressive and at the mercy or the wind and ocean currents. They blow into the Florida Keys during the winter and wash up on the beaches. Their tentacles can be over 30 feet long! Getting entangled in those tentacles is bad news! This is where most of the man o war horror stories originate. I was grazed by a tentacle and the sting was barely noticeable! Again everyone is different in the way they react to stings!



Placeholder

Take Home Messages

  • Use common sense as often as possible!
  • Its not all about you! These animals have their own lives that have nothing to do with terrorizing humans! (Hollywood and the media do a great job of that!)
  • Respect all beings, great and small.
  • Do not let irrational fears and false pre-conceived notions stop you from getting out there and experiencing, adventuring, living.
  • I would rather get stung by many moons(jellies) than live my life in fear of “what if’s”!