Dolphin Research Center

OK, so the Florida Keys may not be the first destination that comes to mind when you think of a family vacation. But maybe it should be.

Sure, there are about a hundred other Florida attractions you’re more likely to take your little ones to than this island chain, which has a well-deserved reputation for world-class diving, sportfishing and, of course, its notorious watering holes.

But look beyond its notoriety and you’ll find you can get up close to nature with some real wildlife at a unique marina in Islamorada, Fla., come face-to-face with rescued dolphins and turtles near Marathon, Fla., and see butterflies — lots of butterflies! — in Key West.

Our three kids, ages 7, 8 and 11 were surprised when we turned off the road at Robbies Marina, on a recent windy morning. You wouldn’t know it from looking at it, but Robbie’s is a Keys institution, and not for the reasons you’d suspect. There are gift shops that sell local art and shell necklaces. There’s a restaurant where conch chowder and blackened Grouper sandwiches are on the menu. But the really interesting fish are in the water, on the far end of the pier.

Pay a few dollars for a bucket of baitfish and walk to the end of the dock. Then hold one of the baitfish in your hand — and wait.

Cue the video.

I know what you’re thinking: What if our son Aren hadn’t let go of the fish? Well, that happened to him on his first attempt, and fortunately these enormous jumping Tarpon don’t have sharp teeth. Aren suffered a few tiny cuts and he bravely got back in the game. You go, son!

A few hours later we found ourselves face-to-face with a different kind of sea creature: a dolphin. The Dolphin Research Center is a nonprofit facility on Duck Key that’s home to a collection of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions that were either born in captivity or deemed “unreleasable” into the wild. True to its name, the center conducts research (like giving dolphins math problems) and rehabilitation (like nursing an injured dolphin back to health).

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The highlight was seeing a baby dolphin, only a few days old, being coaxed through the water by her watchful mother. Our daughter wanted to adopt her.

Let’s see, how do we put this? No, honey. Baby Flipper doesn’t make a good pet.

And how about turtles? They’ve got those too, a little farther down the road at the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. That’s right, it’s a turtle hospital. The facility takes in sick or maimed reptiles, nurses them back to health and returns them to the wild. We were amazed, and a little dismayed, to hear about all of the trouble these shelled sea creatures could get into, from being chopped up by the a boat’s propellor to getting stuck in a lobster trap.

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The kids were most impressed with the turtle ambulance, which is dispatched to rescue injured turtles up and down the Keys. It may be the only ambulance that comes with a sea kayak.

But we didn’t stop at the middle keys. For a truly immersive experience, keep heading southwest along Highway One until you get to Key West, where you’ll find the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory. Walk into the netted enclosure and you’ll be surrounded by brilliant butterflies of all kinds — from the small red Diaethria clymena, with its psychedelic black swirls, to the white-striped Morpho catenaris, to the enormous, orange spotted Papilio zagreus.

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The facility promises that when you enter this magical world of the butterflies, you’ll relax and feel the stress fade away. And that’s true, more or less.

Our daughter — the one who wanted to adopt the dolphin, remember? — is a little insect-phobic. Turns out the phobia includes butterflies, a fact we didn’t know until we visited. The feeling wasn’t mutual. The butterflies loved her. In fact, it was as if every butterfly in the house wanted to come over to meet her.

After calming her down, and explaining that these winged creatures won’t bite, we had a wonderful time. She even returned to our room at the Parrot Key Resort and persuaded her brothers to go butterfly catching at the pool. No animals were harmed during the production of this story. Seriously.

Do the Keys deserve their reputation? Of course they do. But they also should be known for their wild, and child-friendly ways. We have the pictures to prove it.

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