Total this tour: 602.5
Extremely hot and stagnant last night. The tent fan helped a bunch, but I took a rather desperate shower around 6AM – never been that sticky in my life.
Yesterday, while having brunch at the Tiki Bar in Marathon, Jack and I had set up a little side outing for today. Way back in 2002, I visited the keys and had done some wonderful diving at the Looe Key Marine Park, so we called a dive shop to see if they’d take us out snorkeling. Now we’re set to shove off at 8:30AM this morning!
The trouble was, we needed to find the dive shop first. Both our cell phones were depleted, so we couldn’t call or look up a map. We hit the road at 7:15AM, knowing the shop was on Big Pine Key about 7 miles south of the park. I think some extra adrenaline had us motoring along fairly well. We stopped at a convenience store to ask directions. When they didn’t know, I decided to try to power up my phone from a wall outlet, but it was so depleted it refused to cooperate right away.
Instead of waiting, we rolled further south and finally stopped at the Big Pine Key Restaurant. Fortunately, they provided us with solid directions to Innerspace Dive Center. When we got there after all that, we saw it was only 7:45AM – not even open yet!
Innerspace Dive Center on Big Pine Key
Soon enough we met John, the shop owner, and then Brian, our captain for the morning. A quick fitting for mask and footy fins, a comically delivered Coast Guard briefing, and then off in Brian’s private boat, named “Finally.” And for a private tour, too – we were Brian’s only clients. We plowed SSW into SE winds, so the ride was bouncy, maybe 8 or 9 miles total.
On board Finally
Heading out to Looe Key
Arriving at the Looe Key Marine Reserve buoys, I could hardly believe my eyes. Empty! My memory of this place, from back in July of 2002, was of wall-to-wall boats occupying every buoy and then tied off each other. Thousands of snorkellers and hundreds of divers. But not today. Today nothing.
We were to find out why. At first the visibility looked a bit odd. A closer look revealed the cause. Jellyfish. Thousands upon thousands of them. Moon jellyfish between the size of softballs and dinner plates.
Jack and I felt the same way about it, though. We’re here. Let’s jump in anyway. Underneath the jellyfish the visibility was actually decent, and there was plenty of other things to see. The greatest difficulty was in navigation. One had to constantly keep an eye on the surface, trying to find openings between the jellyfish masses, and hoping not to steer into a “dead-end.” An alternate approach was to dive beneath the jellyfish layer, explore a bit, and then hope you could find a clear spot to surface.
More than once I ended up in the thick of them. On top they are slippery, almost slimy, and I would gently push them away when cornered. Despite attempts to keep away from the tentacle sides, I ended up getting stung 8 or 12 times. Once on the ear, once on the cheek, on the neck, a few on the inner thighs. Not so bad really, a prickly feeling that only lasts fifteen minutes. Moon jellies are not too bad as jellyfish go. In fact they are very beautiful otherwise.
My favorite reef sights (among all the regulars) were schools of midnight parrotfish. Very handsome fish sporting black and blue uniforms. There was also a resident sea turtle and I spent a lot of time cruising with him. I’m figuring he was a resident because he was as unbashful as I’ve seen – must have been very used to snorkellers.
We exited after about an hour, and Brian asked if we wanted to spend more time here. Both Jack and I declined – it was really too much distraction to steer around the jellies. We motored to the opposite end of the marine park, but found the moonies just as thick. Time for Plan B.
Brians checked out a favorite spearfishing area of his. No jellies but the visibility is poor. He finally defaulted to a patch reef located in 5 to 10 feet of water. The visibility was sort of yellowish but at least jelly-free. We enjoyed relaxed viewing of all the reef regulars, including grey angelfish, green moray eels, big Southern stingrays, grunts galore, snappers, red hinds, graysbys, scamp, scrawled filefish, and one friendly Nassau grouper. The corals looked pretty ragged, but I can see that a storm could easily damage them this shallow. We both really enjoyed this – a very good site for snorkelling.
Brian finished up the morning with a spin to Picnic Island, a locals party spot in Newfound Harbor. The place is pretty much perfectly designed for a cooler and a lawn chair. He anchored the boat and we waded in to a tiny sand spit with a few mangroves. Rusty beach chairs, a rope chair swing, and some signs were the only features, but Brian told us of a series of concerts sometimes held out here with lots of partiers.
Brian moored at Picnic Island
The scene on Picnic Island
Jack on Picnic Island
Tangle of mangrove roots
We tried out the chair swing. I could definitely imagine dangling out here three sheets to the wind some evening.
At Picnic Island
Finally it’s time to head back in, and especially since we’re his only guests, we tip Brian well. This side trip has been a very worthwhile ‘something different’ for us.
We backtracked to the Big Pine Key Restaurant for lunch. There I enjoyed a truly scrumptious mahi sandwich, with a piece of fish at least 2X the size of the bun. The place was hopping too – they are doing something right.
Big Pine Restaurant
Finally, back to the tour! Winds were definitely picking up from the W and SW, and so the tour was not going to end so easily. We rode westward through Summerland and Sugarloaf Keys, enjoying every moment out over those lovely bridges. Around mile marker 20 we stopped at the Baypoint Market, which proclaimed “Ice Cream” outside. Unfortunately we found a sullen clerk inside with one of those “take it or leave it” attitudes. Jack finally asked for a vanilla milkshake, but the guy said they had no vanilla. I sorely wanted to get a snack, but decided to boycott this turkey and just walked out. [Perhaps the owners will read this.]
Starting the home stretch
These guys were up to 4' long and tough to photograph
Amazing water colors
Don't stop here
We continued our slog into the headwind. Tough work. Still, fueling the effort was a measure of adrenaline in reaching our finish line. Around the 12 mile marker a friendly Italian cyclist rode by and hollered out that we should get off the A1A shoulder and take the bike path. ”It goes all the way. I know! I live in Key West!”
We did just that, finally working our way down to Roosevelt Boulevard. A sign proclaimed we’d made it to Key West, so we stopped for the ever-popular timed photo by the sign. A final beautiful spin on Roosevelt Boulevard south of town was a good way to relax into the tour’s finale.
Roosevelt Boulevard, Key West
All over but the drinks
Jack and I ended up at a super-chill place called Louis’ Backyard, with patio and cold beer and drinks, gazing out at the crystal blue waters of the Atlantic. Does it get any better? The perfect way to finish this tour.
Louis' Backyard, Key West FL
High time for a beverage
We celebrated with Linda, who’d driven down from Naples to meet us, and joined us for drinks. As an ultimate conclusion, we inched another block or two south to find the “Southermost Point” in the keys [technically, the southernmost point you can conveniently get to using roads].
We made it!
Back with my girl
Another great tour in the books. The finest taste of Florida I could imagine.