By Mike Miller Updated August 21, 2023
Mention Key West and images of Sloppy Joe's, Ernest Hemingway and beautiful sunsets come to mind.
But when it comes to Florida tourist attractions, the sun has yet to set on the nation's Southernmost city.
Each year Key West plays host to millions of visitors who flock to "America's Caribbean Island".
Key West has a history that is as interesting as the island itself.
During the Great Depression, Key West was hit hard by the economic slump and turned its charter over to the state and federal governments, being the only city one hundred percent on relief.
Federal officials felt the island city could become one of the leading Florida tourist attractions and vacation places due to its weather and location.
In 1932, the Federal government had the Works Progress Administration construct the world's only open-air aquarium in an attempt to stage an economic recovery.
The Key West Conch construction workers - employed by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration - created a massive floating foundation by placing poured concrete a bucket at a time over the shifting sand base.
Opened to the public in 1934 as one of the first Florida tourist attractions, one of the more charming features of the aquarium is "getting up close and personal" with the marine life on display.
A 90-minute guided tour begins at the "Touch Tank" where you can handle such saltwater critters as horseshoe crabs and Florida lobster.
Next, the personable and knowledgeable guide leads you over to to large oval pool where you are so close to sharks you could hear the theme music from JAWS!
After you watch the sharks being fed by hand, you have the opportunity to pet one while you're having your picture taken doing it.
Preserving the Key's natural resources is the focal point of the Aquarium's operation.
The Green Sea Turtle Head Start program raises baby turtles in captivity and prepares them for release, thus improving their chances of survival.
The Florida Key's delicate mangrove ecosystem is showcased at the Atlantic Shores Exhibit.
Here, you can observe game and reef fish living in harmony with barracuda, tarpon, jacks and snook from a two-level observation deck.
You're not going to find anything high-tech at this aquarium. The informal, laid-back atmosphere that prevails in the Florida Keys will make this visit more memorable than most Florida tourist attractions.
The aquarium is open daily from 10:00am - 6:00pm and is located at #1 Whitehead Street in Mallory Square. Telephone is 305-296-2051.