When Sam Trophia was nine years old, he observed a caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a Monarch butterfly. By age 15, he was studying and raising Monarchs — and not long afterward, he helped gather groundbreaking data on Monarch migration.
These efforts sparked Sam’s enduring fascination with the fragile creatures sometimes called “flowers of the sky” — a fascination that inspired his satisfying career as an artist.
Ten years ago, in 2003, Sam and his business and life partner George Fernandez debuted a wonderland that shares the world of butterflies with the public: the 13,000-square- foot Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory at 1316 Duval St.
Centered around a 5,000-square-foot glass-domed butterfly habitat, the conservatory is one of three major butterfly facilities in Florida and just 23 in the entire United States. It houses several hundred butterflies from 50 to 60 species, plus a lively population of tiny birds, in a breathtaking tropical garden that calls to mind a perfect, unspoiled rainforest.
When you enter the conservatory, you’ll first explore educational displays that offer insights into aspects of the butterfly’s life — identification and country of origin, anatomy and physiology, and the awe-inspiring annual migration of the Monarchs.
But you’ll really feel the magic when you step into the butterfly habitat itself. There you can stroll among hundreds of delicate winged creatures, ranging from the glittering Blue Morpho to the vivid Emerald Swallowtail, as they soar and dip and dance between more than 3,500 tropical plants and trees.
It’s easy to lose track of time when you’re following their mesmerizing flight — and if you’re lucky, one of the colorful “flowers” might flutter to rest briefly on your arm or shoulder.
But that’s not all. In one corner of the habitat, you can watch butterflies actually being born — getting a rare glimpse of the hatching process through the wide windows of the “miracle of metamorphosis” observatory.
Actually, the “hatching” of the center was as intricate and wonderful as that of a butterfly. Sam and George spent five years planning it, took research trips to 13 butterfly facilities throughout the world, and invested more than $5 million into making it as perfect as possible.
Recently, some other unique creatures joined the butterflies in the world-class habitat: two pink flamingos.
A male and a female, the lovely pale-pink birds were bred in Toronto. Coincidentally, since the species is often associated with love and romance, the prized wading birds were born on Valentine’s Day 2012.
They “migrated” to Key West after their breeder worked closely with Sam and George to ensure that the flamingos would acclimate to their new home.
And acclimate they did. Visitors to the conservatory can watch them in their private pond as they “dance” — gently moving their feet to stir up food in the water — and enjoy their days in the rainforest-like habitat far from Canada’s much chillier climate.
The only thing these lucky birds don’t have is names. In fact, a public contest to name the two flamingos launched Oct. 12. Name “ballots” can be submitted either in person at the conservatory or on its Facebook page, and the winning names will be announced at the end of November 2013.
As well as flamingos and butterflies, the conservatory also houses a stunning collection of Sam Trophia’s butterfly artwork. He has spent more than 25 years preserving the beauty of the fragile creatures he loves in original artwork.
Whether you’re interested in viewing that extraordinary art, learning about and walking among butterflies or naming the flamingos, put the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory on the must-see list for your next trip to Key West.