Florida Keys Coral Reefs


Coral reef is one of the oldest and most intricate life forms, existing in symbiotic relationships with an enormous amount and variety of marine life. Because of the vast number of different species forming the reef's mini ecosystem, it's considered one of the most complex systems in the world.

Florida's coral reefs began approximately 5,000 to 7,000 years ago when sea levels rose following the Wisconsin Ice Age. Reef growth is extremely slow. It is estimated that they grow from one to sixteen feet every 1,000 years.

The Florida Reef Tract (the third largest barrier reef in the world) provides shelter, food and breeding sites to over 6,000 species of plants, fishes, and invertebrates, including the only coral reef system in U.S. waters. In fact, the reef tract is home to one third of Florida's threatened and endangered species. The reefs also form a breakwater for the adjacent coast, providing natural storm protection. In effect, it protects the Florida Keys from pounding waves of the ocean. It is also why there are no natural beaches in the Keys. Waves erode the rock away and create sand. The reef is formed by corals which are delicate structures that actually are hundreds of thousands of tiny slow-growing animals called polyps. The reef is constantly growing new colonies on top of older corals but some corals can take years to grow just one inch.  Extremely important to Florida's economy, the coral reefs are the foundation for commercial and recreational fishing as well as the tourism-based economies that are vital to south Florida.

Look but don't touch the coral and don't harm it in any way. All coral is protected and it is against the law to collect, harvest or sell Florida coral. Do not grab, sit or stand up on the coral reef. We have seen many instances of snorkellers and divers on trips to the reef where this happens. Corals are easily damaged (and you may also hurt yourself in the process). Removal of coral, which includes any broken and dead branches, is illegal throughout the 2,800 square nautical miles of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Help to protect our beautiful reefs by snorkeling and diving responsibly when visiting the Keys.

For more information on Florida Keys coral reefs visit the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.