Florida Keys Reveals Interactive Visitor Center:

2023 Sea to Shining Sea Award

By Gigi DuFour and Dayna McLaughlin

December 2023

For 10 years, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has recognized outstanding achievement by presenting the Sea to Shining Sea Award for Excellence in Interpretation and Education. The award recognizes success in advancing ocean and climate literacy and conservation through national marine sanctuaries. It also recognizes innovation and creative solutions to raising public awareness and appreciation of the National Marine Sanctuary System.

This year, the award is presented to Lindsey Crews and Emily Kovacs: Raising the Interpretive Bar at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center.

a person with blonde hair wearing a blue shirt and holding a trophy
Lindsey Crews, science and outreach coordinator at Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, holds the Sea to Shining Sea Award. Photo: Tracy Hajduk/NOAA

“If you can’t get out on the water, stopping by a visitor center is a great way to explore your sanctuary.”
a person points at a large map on an exhibit table
Emily Kovacs, former manager of the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, engages visitors. Photo: NOAA

Visitor centers and interactive exhibits are some of the most effective ways to teach the public about the National Marine Sanctuary System.

Two important goals in the latest Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Strategic Plan are 1) to increase and broaden public support for ocean conservation and the National Marine Sanctuary System, and 2) ensure an inclusive and innovative workplace. Keeping these goals in mind, the communications and engagement teams are working to reach more diverse audiences, including those who speak a language other than English, and people with disabilities. According to Pew Research Center, there are about 42.5 million Americans with disabilities, including people with hearing, vision, cognitive, and walking difficulties. Additionally, a recent U.S. Census Survey found that more than 20% of U.S. residents speak a language other than English. It’s important to ensure that when we offer information on our websites or at our visitor centers, that we present information in a way that is inclusive and accessible to everyone who wants to learn.

Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Makeover

Since 2007, the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center has been a central place for locals and tourists to learn about natural and cultural resources in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, reaching over 70,000 people every year. Visitors learn about the importance of the National Marine Sanctuary System and how they can spread awareness about important environmental issues in their own communities. The exhibits teach climate change communication, sustainable tourism, ecosystem connectivity, and more.

an exhibit panel with a large image of a coral reef
The exhibits in the visitor center provide information and interpretation about Florida Keys and the sanctuary. Photo: Dayna McLaughlin/NOAA
an exhibit with a tv screen, photos of corals, and a microscope
One of the new coral exhibits features a touch screen and a microscope. Photo: Dayna McLaughlin/NOAA

In 2018, the center started a redesign process to improve interpretive messaging and modernize the exhibit space. The redesigned center features interactive and accessible exhibits that engage all ages, abilities, and types of learners, helping them to understand ocean and climate literacy concepts and connect with national marine sanctuaries. Innovations at the center included all exhibits featuring a “call to action,” exhibit text and audio tours translated into numerous languages, and interpretive, interactive designs throughout the over 6,000 square feet of exhibits.

three paddleboards with paddles in front of an exhibit panel with a large photo of a canal surrounded by mangroves
The paddleboard exhibit is accessible to all, regardless of mobility. Photo: Dayna McLaughlin/NOAA

A truly remarkable aspect of the Eco-Discovery Center is that it is the first National Marine Sanctuary System visitor center to be certified “sensory inclusive” by KultureCity. “This certification demonstrates our commitment to being welcoming and inclusive to individuals with sensory needs,” said Crews.

Working With Partners

Kovacs and Crews also collaborated with multiple partners, including National Park Service, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA Weather Service, and Mote Marine Lab. It is because of Kovacs and Crews’ outreach and ability to tap into knowledge within their professional networks, that the exhibits are able to be engaging and educational for all visitors.

a table with several objects on it including a skull
Sensory bags are available to help visitors who experience sensory overload. Photo: Emily Kovacs/NOAA

Congratulations to Lindsey Crews and Emily Kovacs for their commitment to hard work in increasing the public’s accessibility to National Marine Sanctuary System education, and dedication to their local national marine sanctuary community.

Visit a National Marine Sanctuary!

Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center is one of the many National Marine Sanctuary System visitor centers around the country. Learn about the protected natural and cultural treasures, how and when to see wildlife, recreational opportunities, sanctuary activities and events, and much more in any visitor center. Explore hands-on exhibits, attend an educational and engaging program, and investigate the science and history of these special places! Sanctuary visitor centers are committed to being open, inclusive, and welcoming to all visitors.

Admission is free at all visitor centers.

Gigi DuFour is an intern with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. Dayna McLaughlin is the national interpretation coordinator at NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.