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Center Provides New Look at Underwater Environment in Florida's Keys

One of the newest attractions for visitors to Florida, the southernmost point in the continental United States, celebrates the undersea world in and around the famous Florida Keys archipelago. VOA's Paul Sisco has more.

The new Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center is a cooperative effort by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Park Service and the state of Florida.

"The beauty of the Eco-Discovery center is that you can get under the water without getting wet, but it is going to be an inspiration so that when you do get to the water you are going to treat it in a sensible way and again make it available for future generationsm," said James Connaughton, President Bush's senior adviser on the environment. He says you can visit without getting wet.

The center showcases the rich variety of habitats -- both underwater and onshore -- in and around the Florida Keys. The chain of more than 15-hundred islands curls into the sea off the southern tip of Florida, at the boundary between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Florida is well known for its sunny beaches, the Kennedy Space Center and Disney World. Those involved in the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center hope the interactive underwater exhibits (that opened last month) will become another major attraction for visitors.

The center has a walk-through version of Aquarius, the world's only operational underwater laboratory, which rests 20 meters below the surface in the 10,000-square-kilometer marine sanctuary surrounding the Florida Keys. Scientists spend up to two weeks at a time on board Aquarius, studying sea life.

Visitors to the mock-up laboratory can hear recordings of researchers at work, view sea creatures through portholes, and take an interactive video tour of the Keys' undersea world.

"The keys are a resource, not just for Florida”, says Connaughton. “They are a resource for the nation, and are actually recognized as a resource for the world. They are one of the easiest resources to access, and they can teach us so much about the vitality [of the seas] and the need for ocean conservation."

Through an underwater camera, visitors will be able to watch the Keys' spectacular annual coral spawn. The islands themselves were formed by fossilized remnants of ancient coral reefs. The full moon in August helps trigger the rarely seen coral spawn, which generates new growth and keeps existing reefs alive.

Scientists study coral's life cycle and reproductive process in the hope they can improve the marine creatures' ability to survive and thrive.

Coral colonies die each year from human disturbances and natural causes such as hurricanes and disease, and they are considered one of the planet's most endangered ecosystems. Like rain forests, corals harbor and support many thousands of species of plant and animal life.

Now divers and nondivers alike, of all ages, can uncover and discover the mysteries of the sea by visiting the new Eco-Discovery center in Key West, Florida.