MARATHON, Florida Keys — When a high school-age employee at Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters had her winning science fair project that explored the feeding behaviors of bonnethead sharks displayed at her workplace for thousands of visitors to observe, it was a big deal.
It was also a big deal to the Marathon attraction's co-founder, Ben Daughtry. Daughtry's passion about creating educational experiences in marine conservation led him to open the unique marine life attraction that offers visitors immersive experiences with reef fish, invertebrates, stingrays and even sharks — without entering the ocean.
"If you can add in an educational aspect and make people understand what they're doing, and at least get some sort of experience and exposure as to what's going on out there [in the ocean] and what's worth conserving, I think you can generate a deep-seated feeling that they'll take home with them," said Daughtry, who spent nearly 20 years guiding Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters from concept to completion.
Born in Key West and the grandson of a Keys commercial fisherman, Daughtry graduated from Marathon High School with just 66 classmates: 22 girls and 44 boys.
"It was like a private school," said Daughtry, 41. "Most of my closest friends now I have known all my life. I don't think many places can say that — it's a unique place and I absolutely love it."
The idea for Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters was born during a 1996 visit to a similar aquarium experience on the Caribbean island of Curaçao.
"At the end of it, I just sat for an hour or two and listened to people and what they said about it. Novice divers as well as dive instructors all said, 'Man, what a cool experience,'" recalled Daughtry. "What a perfect opportunity for the Florida Keys, which has divers come from all over the world, to do that kind of thing."
Daughtry's life path, however, featured some fateful twists. A candidate for a U.S. military ROTC scholarship to any school of his choice, he suffered an eye injury while still in high school, "goofing off in the gym and not taking a midterm exam." An inadvertent hand-to-eyeball foul play resulted in one of his hard contact lenses shattering in his eye, tearing his retina.
Because the injury weakened his eyesight, he lost the scholarship.
Daughtry went on to study criminology and criminal justice at Florida State University and interned with the Florida Marine Patrol after graduation. He said it was a U.S. Customs catamaran boat parked in Islamorada that captured his attention in the post-"Miami Vice" days of on-water law enforcement.
"I always thought it'd be cool to ride around in these seriously go-fast boats working for the federal government," he said. "I thought I could live here, drive around on boats, be a part of customs, and how cool would that be?"
Again, because of his need for corrective lenses, he was not able to pass an eyesight test required for a law-enforcement job. So what was his next potential direction?
A skilled divemaster before he turned 20, Daughtry considered training locally at Hall's Diving Center and International Career Institute to become a dive instructor and "be a dive bum somewhere in the south Caribbean and see what happens."
However, the owner of Dynasty Marine Associates, a rare marine acquisitions business in Marathon where Daughtry had worked as a teenage box boy — packaging marine life and tropical fish for transport — took a chance and hired him for a six-month trial.
"I never looked back after that," said Daughtry.
Now a shareholder in the business, he splits his time between Dynasty Marine and the aquarium.
Daughtry considers himself a conservationist and is active with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council and advocates on issues affecting marine fishery practices.
"We are marine life commercial fishermen, but our goal is to keep everything alive ... meeting the need to supply animals to public aquariums for educational opportunities and to [scientific] institutions for research as well," he explained.
He added that millions of children and adults at aquariums around the world — Dynasty Marine has delivered animals to every continent except Antarctica — can see and become educated about animals from Florida Keys waters and learn to recognize the value of saving reefs around the world.
After growing up in the Keys island chain and seeing more Keys natives return after college as entrepreneurs starting their own businesses, Daughtry believes hard work equals success. Most of his classmates worked on local fishing boats as teens to earn spending money and are now running their own charters.
"I love the fact that there are second generations of young adults that are starting businesses or getting into the local family businesses and being successful," he said.
Although he admits that if he were still single he would work seven days a week, Daughtry now spends off-days on the water fishing or snorkeling with his wife Nicole and two boys, 6-year-old Kye and 3-year-old Kase.
"When I was diving 200 days a year, the last thing I wanted to do was come home and go back out on a boat — but now I really enjoy it with the kids and my wife," he said. "It's been a nice shift for me, going out for pure fun.
"And I have a fantastic eye doctor now," he joked, referring to his marriage to Nicole, a local optometrist who had visited the Keys with her family during lobster seasons since she was a teen.
Ironically, he notes, his impaired vision both prevented and presented opportunities in his life.
"Things happen for a reason, so I don't question them," Daughtry said.
Daughtry's passion about the ocean, educational experiences and lessons in marine conservation led him to open the unique marine life attraction that offers immersive experiences with reef fish, invertebrates, stingrays and even sharks.
Ben with wife Nicole, and sons Kye and Kase.
Kids of all ages enjoy the touch tanks with starfish and other critters at Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters.
Ben with oldest son Kye for a day on the water.