Visitors to the Florida Keys can enjoy a new immersive experience, including feeding reef fish, invertebrates, stingrays and even sharks.
The recently opened Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters in Marathon features a coral reef exhibit and a predatory fish habitat housed in a 200,000-gallon interconnected saltwater aquarium.
"It's an interactive aquarium where you get the opportunity to go in and encounter all different species we have in the Florida Keys," said Ben Daughtry, the facility's managing owner. "And it's really a unique learning opportunity where you get the ability to touch, feel [and] feed any of the species we have here."
Feeding the marine life at the aquarium provides an opportunity not allowed in open waters off the Keys. Fish feeding in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is prohibited, because it disrupts their natural behavior, sanctuary officials said.
The encounter utilizes tethered diving technology, enabling individuals without prior scuba experience to enjoy the in-water opportunity with supervision from dive instructors. A fortified Plexiglass window divides the coral reef tank from a shark and other predatory fish section, and participants can safely hand-feed these creatures through small underwater feeding ports in the divider.
Other interactive facilities include shallow touch tanks that feature starfish, conchs and horseshoe crabs, and allow feeding of de-barbed stingrays and docile baby nurse sharks. Staff marine biologists provide educational introduction and guidance.
"You swim around a bunch of fish," said Doug Boring, a recent guest of the facility. "It gives you a whole new perspective on the world that doesn't get to be seen regularly."