Sanctuary’s info-packed center is free

Nearly 10 years and $6 million in the making, the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center is aimed at educating people about the Keys’ unique ecosystem above and beneath the sea.

The center features more than $1.5 million worth of interactive exhibits and a 75-seat theater within 6,400 square feet of museum space.

Through touch-screen exhibits featuring underwater audio and video, visitors can explore the Keys’ nine different habitats including hardwood hammock, mangrove, patch reef, seagrass, deep shelf and the Dry Tortugas environments.

“The hope is that people will see the Florida Keys in a little different light as far as how vital our resources are, how our resources are all interconnected and how our actions affect our resources,” said Mary Tagliareni, education and outreach coordinator for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The center is on the Key West waterfront at Truman Annex, and serves as the visitors’ center of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary as well as the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the South Florida Water Management District.

“None of the agencies involved have ever really had a visitors’ center to promote their various missions and activities. So this is really a cooperative effort to entertain and educate people, and also give our causes a more public presence,” said Cheva Heck, public outreach specialist for the sanctuary.

Included in the center is a replica of the Aquarius Undersea Lab, the world’s only operating underwater laboratory, now located 60 feet below the surface off Key Largo.

Inside the Aquarius Undersea Lab replica, visitors can hear actual audio recordings from lab studies and take an interactive video tour through the world beneath the sea, as well as view indigenous fish and sea creatures through the lab’s video portholes.

The latest exhibit, the Living Reef, is designed to educate visitors about preserving and enhancing the reef environment, as well as critical reef research by scientists from the Sarasota-baed based Mote Marine Laboratory, which has a research center on Summerland Key.

The exhibit’s focal point is a 2,400-gallon tank featuring fish and invertebrates indigenous to the Keys. Visitors also can view tanks of hard and soft corals, find out how long-spined sea urchins can help reef restoration and learn about Mote’s coral nursery, where more than 22 species of corals are being propagated for replanting on reefs.

A 20-minute program about the Keys’ ecosystem by world-renowned underwater videographer Bob Talbot plays continuously in the theater.