Jackie Barros was looking for something different to do this time around and she found it.
The Charleston, S.C., vacationer stumbled across the Florida Keys Aquarium Encounter in a newspaper advertisement during her annual Fourth of July trek to the Keys and decided to make the up-close encounter a family day for her husband, two children and a niece and nephew from Miami.
"It was amazing," she said of her time in the Coral Reef Experience, one of two sections in the fish tank filled with 50 varieties of fin fish, including stingrays, sharks and Goliath groupers. "I have never seen this many fish at one time, or the variety of fish. They were very gentle."
Only open to the public since July 1, co-owner Ben Daughtry was more than happy to share his love of the extensive marine life that inhabit the waters of the Gulf, Atlantic Ocean and nearby Caribbean.
"We want the people to feel the fish, not only see them," he said Thursday afternoon. "It is a very natural setting, with the mangroves surrounded by water and 12,000 square feet of tiki huts on a canal system stocked with fish."
Some 18 years in the making, Daughtry and his partner, Forrest Young, found the two-acre oasis in the middle of the mangroves near the Vacca Bridge and knew it was the perfect place for the business. Both are also owners in Dynasty Marine Associates, a Marathon-based company that has provided fish for public aquariums around the world for more than 30 years.
"It is swampland to most people but was ideal for what we were looking for," the business owner said of the gulf-side site.
The pair set out to create an outdoor area where families could spend part, or all, of the day, not only viewing the fish from inside a swim tank, but also walking alongside tanks where they can touch different species without getting into the water.
There are three levels of encounters:
1) Getting into the tank with an instructor and diving to the bottom to feed the fish or, stay on top of the reef and feed the fish as they swim by;
2) Feeding sting rays inside a tank as you sit on a ledge;
3) By touching the fish from the outside of the tank while they swim by.
"We want to teach a conservation-based program so people can learn to be good stewards of the ecosystem," he said.
Prior to starting the 30-minute experience, there is a video to watch and hands-on training about how to use the breathing apparatus during the encounter with the fish in the large tank, Daughtry said.
The tank is divided by a clear acrylic wall, keeping the more aggressive fish like sharks, jacks and groupers directly away from the swimmers, but yet allows them to feed the fish through a hole in the wall.
"There is a chance some of those fish could nip someone, so we keep them separate," Daughtry said.
There are also stingray tanks where people can touch fish from the rim of the tank, or wade up to their waist and feed them as they "basically come and sit on your lap," Daughtry said.
Next is the invertebrate water tank, a touch tank with fish like the Bahama star fish. And, finally, there is a nursery tank where small rays and nurse sharks are kept as they grow.
When Barros arrived with her family, she wasn't sure what to expect. When she left, she was thrilled with the time spent at the Aquarium Encounter.
"Looking from the outside of the tanks, we couldn't tell the colors of the fish," she said. "In the water, it was overwhelming at first, there were so many colorful fish. This will definitely be one of the highlights of our vacation in the Florida Keys."