Great White Heron NWR was established in 1938 as a haven for great white herons, migratory birds, and other wildlife. The refuge consists of thousands of acres of open shallow saltwater and mangrove islands, and is known locally as “the backcountry." The refuge provides nesting, feeding, and resting areas for wading birds, shorebirds, raptors and hundreds of other species of birds. Several species of sea turtles (loggerhead, green and hawksbill) forage here and nest on the beaches within the refuge. Florida manatee and Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphin are commonly seen within the shallow waters.

With few exceptions the refuge’s backcountry islands are pristine uninhabited islands in federal ownership. Many of them have been designated part of the federal National Wilderness System.

The USFWS co-manages the submerged lands managed by the State of Florida through a Management Agreement for Submerged Lands within Boundaries of the Key West and Great White Heron NWRs (Management Agreement). Adopted in 1992, the Backcountry Management Agreement prohibits the use of certain watercraft and activities and creates zoning regulations for certain islands. The Service also partners with NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to manage these islands that are formally refered to as "Wildlife Management Areas".

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National wildlife refuges offer us all a chance to unplug from the stresses of daily life and reconnect with our natural surroundings 

Great White Heron NWR is truly one of nature's masterpieces, encompassing thousands of acres of shallow saltwater and mangrove island habitat. This Florida refuge extends from north of Marathon westward to just north of Key West, a distance of approximately 50 miles. The refuge waters are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for water-based activities such as boating, fishing, wildlife viewing, photography, snorkeling and diving.   

Great White Heron NWR is accessible only by boat. To reach the refuge, visitors with boats can use a variety of public and private boat ramps throughout the Lower Florida Keys.  Private charter fishing and eco-tour services are also available and are a great way to visit the refuge if you don’t have your own boat. 

A great place to start your visit is at the Nature Center for the four Florida Keys NWRs, located at 30587 Overseas Highway on Big Pine Key.  

General regulations applicable to the entire Great White Heron NWR- 

Allowed Activities: 

  • Sport and commercial fishing in accordance with state fishing laws.  

  • Recreational boating with conventional propeller-driven crafts, kayaks, canoes, and sailboats.  

  • SCUBA diving and snorkeling.  

  • Wildlife viewing and photography.  


Prohibited Activities: 

  • Use of personal watercraft (jet skis), hovercrafts or airboats.  

  • No pets on beaches.

  • Landing airplanes, helicopters or ultralights.  

  • Camping on islands.  

  • Search for or removal of antiquities.   

  • No hunting or discharging of firearms.  

  • Feeding or harassing wildlife strictly prohibited.  

  • No littering. Be especially careful of monofilament fishing line; please take it home and dispose of it there. 

  • No waterskiing, towing of tubes, or similar. 

Additional Island Specific Zoning Regulations --

Some slands within the refuge with additional specific regulations are listed as Wildlife Management Areas, for example Boca Grande Key, Marquesas Keys, Snipes Keys, Marvin Key and Contents Keys - click the link for maps and detailed information.

Island Specific Zoning for Wildlife Management Areas

Location and Contact Information

      Our Library

      Key West Great White Heron Tear Sheet with Map

      Information sheet for Key West and Great White Heron NWRs.