Keys Marathon

Bette Zirkelbach: A Positive Force to Reckon With

Julie Botteri | January 2014

People who know Bette Zirkelbach have learned not to act surprised when she responds to a “Hey, what are you doing?” query with an answer like, “Well, I just finished super-gluing some turtles.”

Bette is dedicated to the health and well-being of the turtles she calls her "babies with flippers."

A slim yet stalwart woman from Delaware, Bette is the manager of Marathon’s Turtle Hospital — and she’s been one of the driving forces behind the unique facility since 2006. Before that, she spent more than a decade at Marathon’s Dolphin Research Center as director of facilities.

The Turtle Hospital treats an average of 50 to 75 turtles per year. At any hour of any given day, Bette and her trained staff can be called to meet critical care patients arriving at the hospital in one of its two ambulances (yes, ambulances for turtles — seriously!).

If impactions or internally trapped air have caused a turtle to float, the staff uses an animal-safe, epoxy-like “super glue” to attach small weights to the patient’s shell to help it to dive and descend.

During its 27-year history, the hospital has been involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of a stunning 1,300-plus injured and sick sea turtles — and their release back to the wild. Turtle releases often take place at beach locations in the Florida Keys, close to where the turtle was first rescued, and the public is invited.

“People leave inspired … inspired to want to do something,” said Bette. “I think it helps to broaden their horizons and they start to think about human impact on our environment.”

Bette (left), fellow staff members and volunteers release a rehabilitated sea turtle. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Living consciously has been a part of Bette’s moral fabric since she was in her twenties.

On Earth Day 1990 in Washington, D.C., after hearing disturbing dialog about cattle farming methods, she became a vegetarian.

“If it has a face and I have to look it in the eye, I cannot kill it or eat it,” she said, though adding that she and her two children Bing (11) and Belle (9) embrace an environmentally friendly “pescatarian” diet that includes fish and crustaceans.

The 90s also were a time when she had to choose between continuing to manage her family’s successful industrial business or devoting her life to her passion — animals. By then, she had volunteered for countless hours with marine mammal stranding and wild bird rescue networks, as well as training service dogs in the Northeast.

“The family business was challenging, but taught me good management skills and I became a great networker,” said Bette, who got her college degree in biology and was largely self-taught in business skills.

Bette (left front) and the Turtle Hospital team examine a patient to make sure his recovery is complete. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“I was brave enough to leave a six-digit income and follow my heart,” she said. “Now I feel good about what I’m doing with my days.”

It’s also good for the people around Bette — whose firecracker energy and electric smile seemingly act as a magnet for other enterprising go-getters.

Her often-harried days can include animal rescues and caring for turtles around the clock, plus work on Turtle Hospital medical and public relations elements. Ninety-minute hospital tours, offered several times daily, convey the importance of the nonprofit’s mission to rescue and rehabilitate (and also to educate people).

Despite her packed schedule, Bette maintains balance by imparting positive efforts and energies wherever they’re most beneficial.

“Running the Old Seven Mile Bridge is my favorite thing to do,” she advised. “Mornings I can see two tarpon in the water, or an osprey landing at the end of the bridge — I see more life there than anywhere.”

Bette enjoys baking cupcakes and cakes when she can find some spare time.

Her inspiration comes from forward-thinkers like Dr. Sylvia Earle, one of the world’s leading female scuba divers and marine researchers.

“Our time right now is a sweet spot on the planet, if we pay attention now,” Bette explained. “So I feel a responsibility globally to our species.”

Equally strong is her sense of dedication to the turtles.

I have all these babies with flippers,” she said. “My life is full.”

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For the New Year … Resolve to Savor the Keys ALL Year

Carol Shaughnessy | January 2014

It’s the fragrance of frangipani and the ever-present scent of saltwater. The feel of summer heat on sun-browned skin. The soft, rhythmic wash of waves lapping the shore, or the faint sound of tropical tunes playing on the back deck of the house next door.

Blossoms cascading over a white picket fence is a quintessential Keys sight.

Blossoms cascading over a white picket fence are a typical (yet captivating) sight in the Keys -- a perfect visual "centerpiece" for your oasis.

But the Florida Keys experience is much more than those sensory elements. It’s a laid-back attitude; an atmosphere of welcome; an approach to living that blends individuality, a refusal to take life too seriously, and a near-reverence for relaxation.

And you don’t have to give it up when your vacation ends. In fact, with a little thought and imagination, you can savor it throughout the new year (and beyond!).

Whether you’re a first-time visitor sorry to leave the island chain or a wannabe resident whose real-world schedule leaves little time for tropical escapes, you can create an oasis at home that allows you to transcend daily hassles and recapture the magical Keys mindset.

The process is simple. Select a small space in your home — a shelf, a tabletop, or corner — and gather items that remind you of the Keys. You might choose photos of Victorian homes dripping gingerbread and hibiscus blooms, a blazing orange sunset, an underwater world alive with tropical fish and reef life, or the bow of a boat against turquoise water.

Or maybe your Keys memories center around sun-drenched boats at anchor, with a hint of saltwater tang flavoring the breeze.

Maybe your Keys memories focus on boats at anchor, with a hint of saltwater tang flavoring the breeze.

Include cocktail coasters from your favorite Keys watering hole, a small piece of locally-created artwork, your dive log, or maybe some beach pebbles. Find some colorful tropical fabric and set your mementos on it.

But that’s only the beginning. The Keys aren’t just a visual paradise. They surround the senses — and, to truly recreate the island chain’s ambiance, so should your oasis.

Add a bottle of fragrant sunscreen. When you open it, you’re practically guaranteed to trigger a powerful olfactory memory of hours spent lazing on the beach. Or light pillar candles with tropical aromas, or slice a fresh lime for a tangy reminder of your favorite frozen Margarita.

Create your oasis to remind you of lazy, sun-drenched days in the Keys, and the ultimate relaxation you felt. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Create your oasis to recall lazy, sun-drenched days spent relaxing in the Keys. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Don’t forget the sounds of the islands: palm fronds rustling in the constant breeze, languid waves lapping shore or boat, tropical rock music drifting through the air from somebody’s CD player. All can be recreated in your oasis. Whether you favor Buffett’s latest, the guitar mastery of Dave Feder, the infectious rhythms of Howard Livingston & Mile Marker 24, or the natural noises that flavor balmy oceanside days and nights … they’re available on tape or CD.

Once you’ve completed your Florida Keys corner, make visiting it a regular pleasure in 2014. Close your eyes, cast your mind back to a favorite memory of the easygoing islands, and let your cares float away on a sunscreen-scented breeze. What could be a better reminder to slow your pace and savor the things that matter most?

Of course, enticing as it is, your oasis can’t compare to an actual escape to the Florida Keys. Particularly now that temperatures have dropped in much of America, consider a winter break in your favorite subtropical haven. Chances are, you deserve it — and it’s a wonderful way to kick off a brand-new year!

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Experience the Keys Like a Local

Carol Shaughnessy | December 2013

Two days after arriving in the Florida Keys, the realization hit me: I had found my home. This crescent of subtropical islands, where blue-green water unrolled to the horizon and palm trees rustled in the balmy February breeze, was where I belonged forever.

For a real locals' treat, stroll through the eclectic marina community at Safe Harbor after savoring seafood at the Hogfish. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Unlikely? Not really. That sense of absolute belonging has turned scores of casual Keys visitors into longtime “locals” who create satisfying lives close to nature and far from the mundane pressures of the “real world.”

Yet you don’t have to be a local to share some of the elements that make Keys life so happily addictive — as long as you’re open to exploring and experiencing the islands’ offerings.

For example, try one of my favorite Key West pastimes: biking or strolling through the Old Town neighborhood as evening falls. Just off Duval Street, the island’s lively shopping and dining center, you’ll pass lovingly restored Victorian homes and cottages with the luscious scent of jasmine drifting from flower-filled yards. Though I’ve done it hundreds of times, roaming those residential lanes at dusk still carries a quiet magic.

Speaking of favorites, a trip to the Hogfish Bar & Grill, a hard-to-find hideaway on Stock Island just off Key West, tops my list of treats. Sit outdoors overlooking the marina, and sample the world-class smoked-fish dip and fresh hogfish (a diver-caught fish with a light flavor).

The Keys' waters are protected within the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, offering an unspoiled region for tranquil exploration. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

After eating, stroll down the dock, greet the resident dogs and cats, and discover offbeat sculptures by local artisans living and working in dockside lofts. This small haven for live-aboard houseboats and sailboats is a true hidden gem. 

In the Lower Keys, explore the backcountry shallows, a nature-lover’s paradise. And for another “sport” enjoyed by locals, head for the one-of-a-kind Big Pine Flea Market at mile marker (MM) 30.2.

Open weekends from October through July, the outdoor market features pop-up “stores” with everything from nautical gear and lobster floats to semiprecious jewelry, T-shirts and sundresses. Exploring the lively marketplace has been a Lower Keys tradition for more than 25 years.

In the Middle Keys — a boating hotspot that’s home to the famed Seven Mile Bridge — downtime means being on the water. Kayaking is hugely popular and a launch at Sombrero Beach, MM 50, makes water access easy.

Join fitness-minded locals (and their dogs) walking the Old Seven Mile Bridge to Pigeon Key and back. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Marathon-based outfitters offer rentals and trail maps for solo explorations, as well as escorted eco-tours through Sister Creek and the Boot Key Nature Preserve. Don’t forget your camera to capture shots of mangrove forests alive with native birds. 

And while the Keys are famous for their blazing sunsets, many Middle Keys residents favor the sunrise. For an unrivalled view, join early risers (and their dogs!) strolling along a section of the Old Seven Mile Bridge over the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.

In Islamorada, life is mostly about fishing. Backcountry sport fishing and saltwater fly fishing were pioneered in the Upper Keys area, and it’s home to scores of world-class charter captains — some of them second- and third-generation — with a passion for the respected Keys profession. 

Soak up their tales over cocktails at the Lorelei, a local hangout whose on-site marina is headquarters for both offshore and backcountry captains. The Lorelei is easy to find — a giant mermaid sculpture reclines at its entrance at MM 82.

A Florida Keys flats guide idles away from the dock at dawn, heading out for a day of fishing off Islamorada. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Key Largo residents might be tempted to keep one of their beloved eateries a secret, but fortunately they don’t. Ask where to have a great home-style meal, and they’ll mention Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen at MM 99.

Founded in 1976, the unassuming café was named for the mother of original owner Jeff MacFarland. Sisters Angela and Paula Wittke purchased it in the late 1980s, and today’s menu features dishes ranging from biscuits and gravy for breakfast to fresh-off-the-boat fish.

Whatever else you choose to do in the Keys, enjoy plenty of water activities. For locals like me, the turquoise ocean is a necessary part of life. Free time is spent snorkeling the shallows, stalking gamefish in the backcountry, diving a starkly beautiful shipwreck site, lazing on a secluded beach or boating with friends.

From on-the-water adventures to restaurant picks, the suggestions here are just a few ways to experience the Keys like a local. But be warned — you might become mesmerized by the offbeat island chain and find yourself returning again and again, powerless to resist its magical appeal.

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The Saga of Santa Keys

Carol Shaughnessy | December 2013

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the Keys
smiling holiday revelers savored the breeze.
But in other locations, nobody was smiling
as they braved freezing temperatures far from the islands.

A trio of canine "kids" awaits the arrival of Santa Keys. (Photo by Mary Threlkeld)

While Keys visitors partied in warm outdoor bars,
toasting friends with mojitos sipped under the stars,
Christmas spirits had plans for the cold “refugees”
who were physically elsewhere but craving the Keys.

That’s why, out on the beach, there arose such a squawking
of unsettled seagulls in seagull talk talking
that drivers of cars cruising next to the ocean
couldn’t figure out what had caused all the commotion.

The moon on the shining white crescent of beach
made the shoreline of Cuba seem almost in reach
when what to the drivers’ amazement appeared
but a Santa in flip-flops and seaweed-decked beard.

The legendary Santa Keys drops in on a finned fan during his holiday journey. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Now, this Santa was wise and this Santa was bright
and he sure sympathized with the northerners’ plight.
In his past life, before heading south for the sun,
he too spent the winter months freezing his buns.

So he hijacked a sturdy old boat used for fishin’,
found some Key deer to pull it and started his mission.
Sailing skyward to surf on a tropical breeze,
he steered his ship north bringing gifts from the Keys.

As palm fronds before a wild summer storm fly
(when the shutters are closed and the water is high),
Santa Keys cruised the northern states with his Key deer
spreading visions of warm blue seas and island cheer.

Santa Keys chills out at The Mermaid & The Alligator inn after his strenuous holiday mission. (Photo by Carol Tedesco, Florida Keys News Bureau)

At each house where the residents longed for the tropics,
he left small Keys tokens stuffed deep in their stockings.
There were conch shells and flip-flops and Key lime tidbits,
Margarita mix too — and “Buffett’s Greatest Hits.”

There were fishing reels, dive logs and lotions for sun
Conch Republic flags, stickers that read “U.S. 1,”
tiny replicas of Key West’s Southernmost Point
and shrimp sauce from a funky old Keys seafood joint.

When he dropped the last gift at the last snow-topped house,
Santa Keys told his Key deer to steer a course south.
His farewell drifted back on a sweet balmy breeze:
“Merry Christmas to all — now come visit the Keys!”

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Decking the Hulls … and Other Keys Holiday Highlights

Carol Shaughnessy | November 2013

Maybe because the Florida Keys have never experienced a traditional white Christmas, those of us who live along the island chain are extraordinarily enthusiastic about showing our holiday spirit.

Volunteers at Key Largo's First Baptist Church give Santa a helping hand by collecting gifts for Operation Christmas Child.

For example, recently volunteers in Key Largo acted as Santa’s helpers for kids in need. Gathering at First Baptist Church, they collected huge numbers of colorful gift-filled shoeboxes donated by people throughout the Keys for Operation Christmas Child, a project of the international Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse. Thanks to the organization’s wide-reaching effort, more than 100 million kids in more than 130 countries have received shoebox gifts since 1993, bringing them a priceless message of hope during the Christmas season.

As well as opening our hearts during the holidays, we tend to go overboard on decorations (if you’ve ever seen an inflatable 10-foot-tall reindeer perched atop a small houseboat, you’ll know what I mean) and throw ourselves gleefully into extended merrymaking.

That’s why it should come as no surprise that, from Key Largo to Key West, the calendar is packed with events to celebrate the season. Jump-start your holiday spirit by checking out some highlights here — all spiced with an individualistic Florida Keys flair.

Get your photo taken for a dolphin Christmas card at Marathon's wonderful Dolphin Research Center. (Photo courtesy of Dolphin Research Center)

Holiday Photos with a Dolphin (Marathon): Now through Sunday, Dec. 22. Yes, Virginia, you really CAN send a dolphin Christmas card this year. At Dolphin Research Center, mile marker (MM) 59 bayside on Grassy Key, participants in the Meet the Dolphin program can also pose with the dolphins for a holiday photo. Bring your own holiday-themed props, and DRC’s photographers will shoot high-res digital images. The program is offered several times each day on a walk-in basis, and costs just $25 per person plus general admission. Get your photos on a flash drive for $20 for one person or $35 for up to four people in the same shot.

Ninth Annual Holiday Festival (Islamorada): Friday, Dec. 6, 4-10 p.m. This extravaganza features a tree-lighting ceremony at Founders Park, MM 87, a holiday parade with decorated floats, and a 20-ton mountain of snow (yes, REAL snow!) for mitten-clad munchkins. Other attractions include a Vino Village with gourmet food and fine wines, seasonal contests, a Santa Paws Pet Parade for holiday hounds and Christmas cats, and live music and dance performances.

Find unique holiday gifts, handmade by local artisans, at the annual Big Pine & Lower Keys Island Art Festival.

Big Pine & Lower Keys Island Art Festival (Big Pine Key): Saturday, Dec. 14, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Experience the joys of art and music, and find some unique holiday gifts, at this festival held on the wooded grounds of the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce, MM 31 oceanside. Family fun highlights include live music by favorite local entertainers, exhibits and booths featuring the original work of artists and artisans, raffles, and vendors offering food and beverages. Parking and admission are free.

Boot Key Harbor Boat Parade (Marathon): Saturday, Dec. 14, 6 p.m. Boaters “deck the hulls” with festive finery for this lively lighted gala. At the traditional Middle Keys holiday event, vessels from dinghies to mega-yachts cruise the harbor in a sparkling procession. The best viewing sites include Lazy Days South, Marathon Marina, Sombrero Dockside Lounge and Burdines Waterfront around MM 47-50. 

Southernmost Christmas Tree Celebration (Key West): Sunday, Dec. 15, 3 p.m. Enjoy free conch chowder and then board the Conch Tour Train to head for the continental United States’ Southernmost Point — to help set up the honest-to-goodness Southernmost Christmas Tree at sunset overlooking the Atlantic Ocean! The event is an annual community thank-you presented by the Monroe Association for ReMARCable Citizens. The fun starts at 1401 Seminary St.

"Decking the hulls" for a festive boat parade is a Keys holiday tradition.

Pops in the Park Holiday Concert (Plantation Key, Islamorada): Saturday, Dec. 21, 4 p.m. The beloved Keys Community Concert Band will perform a free concert titled “Holiday Happiness” at Founders Park — a “hometown” favorite event that blends balmy breezes and heartfelt holiday spirit. Performances are outdoors, so feel free to bring blankets or lawn chairs for relaxing.

Naturally, these are only a few of the Florida Keys’ holiday happenings. Check out the full calendar of events here, and join me and other slightly holiday-crazed locals to enjoy any or all of them.

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Exploring Your Creativity … and Painting with Dolphins

Carol Shaughnessy | November 2013

If you’re visiting Marathon in the Middle Keys, and want to indulge your artistic side — or share a creative bonding experience with friends or kids — there’s a great new place where you can do just that.

Art classes and pottery painting are "drawing" kids and adults to The Art Studio, a new Marathon emporium. (Photo courtesy of The Art Studio)

It’s called The Art Studio, appropriately enough, and it specializes in workshops and classes. Imagine yourself learning to throw clay, fuse glass, sculpt, craft one-of-a-kind jewelry or develop your talent for painting in oils, watercolors and acrylics.

Many classes span two-hour time slots for a two-week period, so they’re perfect if you’re planning a leisurely stay in the Keys.

And if you’re interested in painting and glazing self-selected ceramics, The Art Studio is the spot. Plus, a kids’ corner is available for groups, birthday parties, events and activities.

Studio hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Begin your adventure in art by clicking here.

Speaking of artistry, in the Middle Keys you can paint with one of the most unusual creative partners in the world: an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin!

Mandy Rodriguez, the guiding spirit behind Dolphin Research Center, shares some quality time with two buddies. (Photo courtesy of Dolphin Research Center)

Dolphin artistry is just one of the attractions at Dolphin Research Center, located at mile marker 59 bayside on Grassy Key. Founded in 1984 as a not-for-profit teaching and research facility, DRC is home to a family of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions. Some were born there, and some came from other facilities or were rescued but could not be released into the wild.

Through education, research and rescue, the center and its staff promote peaceful coexistence, cooperation and communication between marine mammals, humans and the environment. The research activities are particularly fascinating — for example, a few years ago the center spearheaded a groundbreaking study that proves dolphins have the math skills to compare quantities!

In DRC’s Paint With a Dolphin program, you can interact closely with dolphins living and learning at the center, and help them transform an ordinary T-shirt into a unique piece of wearable art.

When you become a Paint With a Dolphin participant, you’ll first spend individual time with a DRC trainer and one or more dolphin artists that live in the property’s interconnecting saltwater lagoons.

Human and dolphin artists forge a bond during the collaborative painting session at DRC. (Photo courtesy of Dolphin Research Center)

After observing a behavior session with the engaging bottlenose beauties, you’ll connect with your “fellow artist” and begin assisting in the creation of the T-shirt — choosing paint colors and holding the shirt stretched on a form for the dolphin to paint. The trainer mixes the paint, puts the brush into the dolphin’s mouth and encourages the artistic experience.

Typically, everyone involved reacts with glee as the artist circles, swipes paint on the T-shirt and, upon completing the creative task, screams in excitement. The experience ends with a photo session for you and your new dolphin friend, posing for a photo with the shirt — a keepsake about as far removed as possible from the typical “tourist” T-shirt souvenir. 

The Paint with a Dolphin program is open to adults and kids — even those as young as age 3, though a participating adult must accompany each “artist” younger than 8 years old.

Want to know more about creating T-shirts and lifelong memories with Dolphin Research Center’s friendly dolphins? Click here.

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Keys Reefs: Underwater Wonderland

Julie Botteri | October 2013

Affectionately referred to as the islands you can drive to, the Florida Keys boast an unparelleled variety of marine life, a huge number of fish species, and waters that are consistently warm and clear.

Snorkelers explore the undersea realm off Key Largo in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Equally important, running alongside the Keys is the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States — which is also the third largest barrier reef in the world. It’s no wonder this crescent of islands has a reputation as one of the world’s most popular dive destinations.

On top of that, for more than a generation, conservation efforts have been focused on maintaining the Keys’ offshore environment.

Those efforts actually began in 1960, when widespread public support laid the foundation for John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park off Key Largo. It was the first undersea park in the United States, and divers and snorkelers can thank the late Miami Herald editor John Pennekamp for helping create it.

The park celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010 with an event highlighting its history and mission of protecting and preserving the natural resources within its boundaries — and it offers visitors numerous opportunities to observe remarkable underwater wildlife.

The indigenous population at Pennekamp is composed of countless species of fish and varieties of coral. The coral provides shelter for crabs, sea urchins, snails, lobsters, shrimp, moray eels, worms, chitons (mollusks), starfish, sea cucumbers, sand dollars, barnacles and sponges.

Several species of fish, such as this French Angelfish, are protected within the boundaries of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo by Stephen Frink)

The undersea park’s waters flow into the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which was established in 1990 as a marine preserve. Today the sanctuary includes an amazing 2,900 square nautical miles of coastal waters all along the Keys — from northernmost Key Largo south to the pristine uninhabited islands of the Dry Tortugas.

Not only does this area surround the entire land mass of the Keys, it also includes vast stretches of Florida Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Within its boundaries lie mangrove islands, historic shipwrecks filled with rare artifacts, tropical fish and other marine life.

Divers and snorkelers from all over the world are drawn to the Keys to view the extraordinary reef ecosystem within the sanctuary.

Marine conservation efforts include the establishment of Sanctuary Preservation Areas. In these no-take zones, fish and crustacean populations can thrive and grow, fully protected from spear or surface fishing and shell collecting — making for spectacular underwater scenery among schooling fish.

The bronze Christ of the Deep is an iconic underwater landmark off Key Largo. (Photo by Stephen Frink)

What can divers spot there? Iconic blue-striped grunts are typically seen in large numbers around protective elkhorn and high-profile coral heads. Other Keys critters on hand might include glass minnows, goatfish, gray snappers, Atlantic spadefish, horse eye jacks, copper sweepers, Bermuda chubs and sergeant majors.

French and small-mouth grunts are nearly as plentiful, and yellowtail snapper (a favorite of local anglers AND diners) cruise the reef in astonishing numbers.

But that not allby any means! It’s not unusual for divers and snorkelers to spot sea turtles, stingrays, Goliath groupers, nurse sharks or even bright green moral eels on a single bountiful trip to the reef.

The Florida Keys have a long tradition of preservation and reverence for marine life. With divers and snorkelers who are educated in reef responsibility, everyone benefits — and the coral reef can remain an unparalleled environmental treasure for generations to come.

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Why One Keys Visit Just Isn’t Enough

Carol Shaughnessy | September 2013

Let’s face it: a single visit to the Florida Keys isn’t enough. Even if you explore just one of the Keys’ five unique districts, chances are awfully good that you’ll realize your vacation is too short.

With joys from tranquil sunrises to perfectly-cooked seafood, the Florida Keys merit FAR more than a single visit. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The best solution, then, is a return trip. From secluded natural areas to little-known historic sites to environmental attractions, you can make new discoveries every time you visit the enticing island chain.

For example, did you know Key Largo contains a mecca for chocolate lovers? If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you MUST stop at Key Largo Chocolates, the Florida Keys’ only chocolatier, located at mile marker (MM) 100.5 bayside. Self-described as a “grandma and grandpa operation,” Key Largo Chocolates infuses local flavors into handmade chocolate treats — like Key lime white chocolate truffles and quirky “chocodiles” shaped like tiny crocs. 

Just down the Overseas Highway in Islamorada, pull off the road and go wading in the shallows at a lovely little oceanside beach at mile marker 73. It bears the charming name of Anne’s Beach in recognition of the late Upper Keys environmentalist Anne Eaton. Attractions include great views, picnic tables and scenic walkways — and the shallow water typically means no breaking waves.

What could be sweeter than a white chocolate crocodile from Key Largo Chocolates? (Photo courtesy of Key Largo Chocolates)

Travel a bit farther and you’ll find yourself at Long Key State Park, located on the Atlantic Ocean at MM 67.5. The Spanish named this island “Cayo Vivora” or Rattlesnake Key (really!), because it’s shaped like a snake with its jaws open.

In the early 20th century, Long Key was home to a fishing resort frequented by legendary western writer and passionate angler Zane Grey. Today, you can explore the island by paddling through its connected lagoons or hiking two land-based trails. Check out the Golden Orb Trail, meandering through five natural communities to an observation tower that offers a panoramic view of the island. 

Head down the highway through Marathon and, shortly before the Seven Mile Bridge begins, make a sharp right onto Gulfview Avenue. Perched on the waterfront at the end of the short street is one of the best casual seafood restaurants in the Keys: Keys Fisheries.

A Key deer doe, part of a now thriving Lower Keys herd, licks her chops after grazing on a plant. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Try the fresh stone crab claws, peel-and-eat Key West shrimp, savory conch chowder or indescribably amazing Lobster Reuben. You can’t go wrong at this funky spot that’s a favorite of savvy locals. 

If you’ve ever visited Big Pine & the Lower Keys, you probably looked for the tiny, shy Key deer that are protected in the area.

These skittish creatures are most likely to be roaming around at dawn or dusk, and it’s a real treat to spot one. Make a stop at the National Key Deer Refuge Visitor Center in the Big Pine Key Plaza, located off the Overseas Highway at MM 30 bayside, and learn about the unique deer and their recovery from extinction — a true environmental success story. 

Unexpected discoveries await in Key West, too. Among them is the historic, never-used Civil War–era fort called West Martello Tower, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at White Street.

Beautiful plants and trees are set against weathered brick at West Martello. (Photo by Lynne Bentley- Kemp; courtesy of the Key West Garden Club)

It’s now headquarters for the Key West Garden Club, where beautiful indigenous plants and rare palm trees bloom against the weathered brick fort — with wonders including a huge tree grown over a narrow tunnel-like archway you can actually walk through. 

And if you enjoy prowling around unusual shops, Key West offers one of the best: an honest-to-goodness “curiosity shop” called 90 Miles to Cuba.

You’ll find everything from local art to nautical antiques, vintage jewelry and Hardy Boys books. It’s located at 616 Greene St. and its hours are as eccentric as the emporium itself; just keep checking back till the weathered wooden door is open. 

As you’ve probably figured out by now, these are only a handful of the out-of-the-way spots worth exploring in the Florida Keys. So start planning your next trip to the colorful island chain … and compile your own list of hidden gems.

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Spearing a New Dive Activity

Julie Botteri | September 2013

Even after 20-plus years diving, I enjoy applying new skills underwater. They include helping marine life as well as giving back to the environment — two activities I hope every diver aspires to.

Blog author Julie Botteri (second from right) shows off her team's captured lionfish with teammates (from left) John Mirabella, Chase Grimes and Rachel Bowman.

This summer, I took pole spear in hand for my first foray into the no-season, no-size-limit activity of capturing Indo-Pacific lionfish that are invading Atlantic waters. With a team of cohorts, I joined the Sanctuary Friends Foundation of the Florida Keys’ annual weekend lionfish tournament.

When my teammates (Marathon spearos John Mirabella, Chase Grimes and Rachel Bowman) and I scouted “hot spots,” we discovered blankets of the red and white feathery fish, billowing their lovely pectoral fins as they covered small wrecks at 140-foot depths — seemingly their most coveted hiding places.

For two days, we also poked under ledges and rock outcroppings at shallower reefs. I’m happy to say that we contributed 131 fish to the tournament’s overall tally of 163 — including the smallest fish, which measured three centimeters. But that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the populations flooding Atlantic waters.

Why is an Indo-Pacific fish here? It’s believed that the popular aquarium fish was first released in Florida (Atlantic) waters during the 1980s. Now, lionfish prey voraciously on invertebrates and juvenile fish such as grunts and hamlets — normal food resources for domestic species like grouper and snapper. In fact the largest fish caught during our tournament, a 17-incher, had two baby snapper in its gut.

Each lionfish captured, like the one displayed here by Rachel, removes pressure from native fish and the Keys' marine environment.

These toothy coral reef fish, part of the scorpion fish family, have no natural reef predators except spearfishing humans. That’s why, when I landed my first shot, I was truly elated. I high-fived my partner Rachel as we both blew “Woo-hoo!” into our regulators.

Lightweight, economical and surprisingly easy to use, the average pole spear ranges from four to 12 feet in length. Since I’m a newbie spearo, most of the fish I was hunting were less than five pounds — so I opted for a five-foot, lighter and faster pole spear fitted with a sharp three-pronged (or “paralyzer”) tip. 

The highly recognizable lionfish (pesky predators also known as dragonfish, firefish or turkeyfish) almost dare you to shoot them.

Even so, it’s a daunting task for humans to outsmart them and break their quick reproductive cycle. It’s crazy how fast they repopulate — it only takes a couple of fertile females laying tens of thousands of eggs at one time; fertilized within 12 hours, the eggs hatch in three days. Three days later, the newborns are already hunting.

Divers can help eradicate invasive lionfish during a derby scheduled Sept. 14 in Key Largo waters.

Capturing lionfish is a way for divers who enjoy the Florida Keys’ coral reefs to help protect them, as well as a hands-on way to help eradicate the species — or at least whittle down the populations.

Learn how to kill, clean and fillet the spiny fish Saturday, Sept. 14, in a lionfish derby sponsored by REEF, an organization dedicated to coral reef preservation, in Key Largo at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. More than $3,500 in prize money will be awarded to divers who bring in the most, largest and smallest lionfish. Check out the details here.

After lionfish are dead, you can still get stuck pretty painfully if you come in contact with the tip of the venomous spines, located along the pectoral, anal and dorsal fins — so it’s best to wear puncture-resistant gloves at all times when handling the fish.

Spines are removed before cooking, and the meat has no poison. Delicious and delicate, the light white meat tastes similar to snapper, grouper and hogfish (one of my all-time favorite Keys fish to eat).

Local’s tip: At John Mirabella’s Castaway Restaurant, lionfish is a regular menu item. Ask for it “wrecker” style, in a yummy sauce of capers, garlic, butter and diced tomato.

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John Mirabella: Spearing Marathon Diners’ Fresh Catch

Julie Botteri | August 2013

At Middle Keys eateries, most local customers are known by name and visiting patrons receive a feel-good welcome at the door. John Mirabella, owner and operator of Marathon’s Castaway Restaurant with his wife Arlene, is at the heart of the good times — which roll as easily at his waterside seafood joint as the daily featured sushi rolls.

John and Arlene Mirabella are the guiding spirits behind Marathon's Castaway Restaurant, a favorite for its fresh seafood and welcoming vibe. (All photos courtesy of John Mirabella)

“I love these island communities. The simple way of life is a strong draw for me and many other island dwellers,” he said. “There is a strong sense of ownership in the community, and people care for and support one another.”

John was Brooklyn born and raised in Titusville, Fla., across the Indian River from Kennedy Space Center’s launch pad 39B. He served a stint in the U.S. Navy as a nuclear plant operator, electrician and ship’s diver aboard a Fast Attack Submarine. That led to working in the commercial nuclear industry for another five years.

John and Arlene met in 1994 and the pair sailed from Los Angeles to Marathon on a 36-foot Piver Trimaran. In 2000, they purchased the Castaway Restaurant and embarked on what John calls a new life.

Ask the 44-year-old restaurateur what his passion is, and the answer is simple.

“Ahhhh, spearfishing! I love it!” John enthused. “I want to go scuba diving all the time, and yes, I hunt most of the time — it’s hard not to hunt fish when you own a seafood restaurant and you are hooked on the sport anyway.

John scored this cubera snapper during one of his frequent forays into the beautiful and fish-filled Middle Keys waters.

When time allows, John and Arlene visit family scattered from the Midwest to the Philippines. The Maldives and Tahitian Islands are still on their destination bucket list, but the waters surrounding the Keys are where they most want to be.

John honed his spearfishing skills in the Keys — something he’d tried with Hawaiian slings in the Bahamas at age 10.

“What’s awesome about spearfishing is, you can’t have the wrong bait and the fish don’t have to be hungry,” he reported.

He used to fish the Keys from the surface, but during scuba diving trips he would notice the migration patterns of baitfish and other species — and know right away if there were fish to catch on a certain day, rather than sitting in the boat with fishing rod in hand and nothing biting.

“My favorite moment is when I pull the trigger, the spear goes to the fish and I realize I’m about to have a few minutes of big excitement, man versus creature, to dispatch the fish and get him on my stringer,” John said. “It’s especially exciting for me if it’s a big, strong fish like a cobia or an African pompano — something that will really challenge me.”

Spearfishing not only provides recreation, but fresh fish for his restaurant, too. Patrons savor John’s own fresh-caught snapper, grouper, hogfish, mahi-mahi, tuna, African pompano, cobia and wahoo. He even serves lionfish, an invasive Indo-Pacific fish and menu mainstay whose delicate white meat is a favorite for ceviche.

For John, fishing with friends provides both supreme enjoyment and fresh-caught delicacies to serve Castaway diners.

“We don’t kill any fish we don’t eat,” said John.

He stressed that spearfishermen are stewards of the environment, since the sport doesn’t contribute to any by-catch and promotes cleanliness in the environment.

“I don’t leave any trash or damage in my wake, and I seldom drop my anchor because we mostly drift dive around manmade structures and wrecks,” he explained. “I’m not sure why anyone would think that spearfishing is bad for the ocean.”

What’s John Mirabella’s advice to aficionados ready to come to the Middle Keys with friends and learn how to spearfish? Learn from watching the pros and remember that, as with most skills, practice makes perfect.

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