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Underwater Music Festival Rocks the Keys Reef

Carol Shaughnessy | July 2014

Almost 500 divers and snorkelers explored part of the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef last weekend, while rocking to a sub-sea concert during the 30th annual Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival.

Costumed divers pretend to play "musical instruments" while enjoying the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival. (Photos by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Costumed divers pretend to play “musical instruments” while enjoying the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival. (Photos by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Yes, an underwater concert. The quirky songfest took place in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary at Looe Key Reef, some six miles south of Big Pine Key. For the past three decades, the event has drawn several hundred divers and snorkelers each year to immerse themselves in the Keys’ colorful marine environment.

Lower Keys resident Bill Becker and a buddy started the offbeat festival as an arts and cultural offering, but they didn’t really expect it to last.

“Originally this was just supposed to be a one-time event,” said Bill. “People loved it. They said, ‘What a great idea. It’s normally a silent world down there, but with music now it just enhances the whole diving experience. Let’s do it every year.’ That was 30 years ago.”

This year as in the past, the four-hour marine musical event was staged by Keys radio station US1 Radio 104.1 FM — where Bill Becker is the longtime news director — in partnership with the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce. He programmed an ocean-themed playlist of selections that were broadcast underwater via speakers suspended beneath boats above the reef.

During the Underwater Music Festival, some divers spotted "mermaid" Samantha Langsdale frolicking beneath the waves.

During the Underwater Music Festival, some divers spotted “mermaid” Samantha Langsdale frolicking beneath the waves.

“We play a lot of the usual stuff — the theme from ‘The Little Mermaid,’ Octopus’s Garden, Yellow Submarine, a lot of Jimmy Buffett,” Bill explained. “New Age music sounds terrific underwater. We do the theme from ‘Jaws’ to keep the divers on their toes.”

Participants described the music as sounding clear and ethereal, and the underwater visibility as about 50 feet. And while Bill also included some whale songs, the broadcast didn’t attract any whales. (Smaller fish, though, actually seemed to like the underwater music — divers reported seeing them apparently swaying to the beat.)

“It’s the only place we know where music is put underwater for the divers, snorkelers, and marine life,” advised Bill.

But fish weren’t the only creatures to be spotted underwater. Some divers wore costumes (in fact, several were dressed as characters from the classic television show “Gilligan’s Island”) and pretended to play underwater musical instruments sculpted by Keys artist August Powers.

The talented artist creates a new piece for the festival every year, and each one blends elements of an actual instrument and an underwater denizen. Standouts have included his trom-bonefish and clambourine, and this year’s “Belushi Blues Fish,” a guitar-like fish sporting a “Blues Brothers” hat and shades.

Mike Limerick "plays" a riff on August Powers' sculpted "Belushi Blues Fish" instrument.

Mike Limerick “plays” a riff on August Powers’ sculpted “Belushi Blues Fish” instrument.

Snorkeler Uli Clef from Munich, Germany, said he was particularly impressed with the vivid colors and tropical fish he saw underwater.

“Music underwater — I’ve never heard of that before, so that’s really a unique thing,” he said when he surfaced. “All these colorful fishes … that’s perfect.”

As well as offering enjoyment for dive enthusiasts, the broadcast featured diver awareness announcements promoting reef preservation.

“We try to get divers to be aware of their impact on the coral reef so that they lessen that impact and this reef can be here for generations to come,” said Bill Becker.

And that should be music to every ocean-lover’s ears.

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Hemingway Days Spotlights Past and Present Literary Talent

Carol Shaughnessy | July 2014

When Lorian Hemingway judged the first Hemingway Days short story competition in 1981, she and her fellow judges sat in a Lower Keys cottage reading and evaluating the few dozen entries with care. They couldn’t possibly imagine that the competition would grow into a highly respected international literary contest.

Lorian Hemingway and Casa Antigua grand dame Mary Ann Worth share a quiet moment  in the historic property's atrium garden. (Photo by Tom Oosterhoudt, Conch Color)

Lorian Hemingway and Casa Antigua grand dame Mary Ann Worth share a quiet moment in the historic property’s atrium garden. (Photo by Tom Oosterhoudt, Conch Color)

Now, more than three decades later, the competition draws more than 1,000 entries each year from around the U.S. and other countries as far-flung as India and Romania. Lorian and her small judging panel — including Dr. Rob Merritt, a noted author and Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Bluefield College — still give every story their complete attention and respect.

The contest’s culmination is the literary highlight of Key West’s Hemingway Days, scheduled this year for July 15-20. The festival celebrates the work and exuberant Key West lifestyle of legendary writer Ernest Hemingway, who lived on the island throughout the 1930s.

Coordinating the competition is a pleasure and a passion for Lorian Hemingway, author of three critically acclaimed books, “Walking into the River,” “Walk on Water” and “A World Turned Over.” She’s also Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter and, like Ernest himself, feels a deep and elemental tie to Key West.

Author Lorian Hemingway shared her grandfather's fondness for Shine. (Photo by Michael Whalton)

In this early photo, author Lorian Hemingway chats with her grandfather’s old sparring partner,  Shine Forbes. (Photo by Michael Whalton)

Since its beginnings, the competition that bears Lorian’s name has been dedicated to recognizing and supporting the work of emerging writers — those whose fiction has not yet achieved major success.

“I consider it my job to honor the talent of emerging writers,” Lorian explained “And if those who enter this competition are compelled to continue to write as a result of receiving the recognition they so deserve, then we are all richer for it.”

Winners earn cash prizes as well as all-important validation of their worth as writers. In fact, over the years the contest has awarded nearly $75,000 to talented emerging writers.

The 2014 winners will be announced at 8 p.m. Friday, July 18, at Casa Antigua (314 Simonton St.). Famed as Ernest Hemingway’s first Key West residence, Casa Antigua is now a showplace with a magnificent atrium garden that’s open to the sky.

Casa Antigua, Ernest Hemingway's first Key West haven, is the site of the short story awards event.

Casa Antigua, Ernest Hemingway’s first Key West haven, is the site of the short story awards event.

The property is home to local publisher Tom Oosterhoudt and his mother Mary Ann Worth — and each year, they generously open it up for Lorian’s awards reception. The free-admission event includes a reading of the winning story, a presentation on Casa Antigua’s history by Tom Oosterhoudt, and rare tours of the architecturally unique property.

But that’s not the only attraction for readers and writers during Hemingway Days 2014. They can also enjoy an evening of readings by contemporary authors Wednesday, July 16. “Voices, Places, Inspirations” is set for 7:30 p.m. at the Hyatt Key West Resort and Spa at 601 Front St.

Scheduled participants include Michael Haskins, whose popular Key West crime thrillers feature “Mad Mick” Murphy; David Sloan, author of “The Key West Bucket List” and co-author of “Quit Your Job and Move to Key West,” among others; Steven Hull, who penned the gritty Hunter Benson series; journalist Mandy Bolen Miles, renowned for her “Tan Lines” books and columns; journalist Terry Schmida, whose “True Crime” series explores perfidy in paradise, and Canadian actor/playwright/author Brian Gordon Sinclair, creator of “Hemingway On Stage.”

Is this Ernest Hemingway? Or is it Brian Gordon Sinclair? (Hint: the bearded writer in the photo never lived in Key West.)

Brian Gordon Sinclair, shown here as Ernest during a “Hemingway On Stage” performance, is among the readers starring in “Voices, Places, Inspirations.”

The free-admission event, which includes a meet-the-authors reception, is presented by Literacy Volunteers of America–Monroe County. LVA–Monroe offers free, confidential, one-to-one and small group literacy training to Florida Keys residents eager to improve their reading, writing and English communication skills.

In addition, festival attendees can celebrate Hemingway’s little-known poetry during a reading at a site the author used to frequent. At 5 p.m. Thursday, July 17, the Key West Poetry Guild presents “The Poems of Papa” at the funky and fabulous Blue Heaven restaurant (729 Thomas St.) — where Ernest once refereed neighborhood boxing matches. Admission is free.

Want to know more about Hemingway Days 2014? Check out the full schedule of events here, and then head for Key West to join the festivities!

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“We Do” … in Key West

Steve Smith | July 2014

It is 6:30 a.m. this past Tuesday, and I’m on the Florida Keys Overseas Highway, heading to Plantation Key Courthouse to attend a history-making hearing on the right of two Key West men to marry in our county and in the State of Florida.

Blogger Steve Smith  is flanked by William Jones (left) and Aaron Huntsman on the day of their historic hearing.

Blogger Steve Smith is flanked by William Jones (left) and Aaron Huntsman on the day of their historic hearing.

Aaron Huntsman and William Jones, both employees of the 801 Bar and Cabaret on Duval Street, applied for a marriage license at our local courthouse and when denied, filed a suit this past April.

More than two dozen Key West residents made the 87-mile drive at sunrise to support our friends and brothers during their day in court. The rest of the almost full courtroom was comprised of people from all parts of the Keys, showing support for marriage equality.

The future outcome of Aaron and William’s challenge may very well add to the rich gay history of Key West and the chain of islands between us and the Florida mainland.

These days, it’s rare we read a newspaper without an article about marriage equality — hardly something that we saw five or 10 years ago. I am pleased to say that my husband and I recently celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary, having been married in Massachusetts shortly after it became the law of the state — while other states passed legislation prohibiting same-sex marriage.

The historic red brick Key West Museum of Art and History at the Custom House overlooks Key West Harbor. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The welcoming island of Key West has long been an ideal destination for sun-drenched romantic getaways. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Today many of these laws have been ruled unconstitutional. Some states have begun marriage equality, while others put a hold on issuing licenses pending appeals.

For years, same-sex couples have celebrated their commitment ceremonies in Key West, and “Conch Republic” marriage licenses have been available from the Keys’ lighthearted “republic of islands.”

When Florida laws are changed, our island will open its doors and welcome same-sex marriages.

Key West is a tiny two-by-four-mile island, but there are so many special places at which to plan your wedding such as the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden, on one of our many beaches, on boats as the sun sets, or at the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory.

Other unique and historic venues include the home of writer Ernest Hemingway, the Harry S. Truman Little White House Museum, the Oldest House and Garden on Duval Street, and the Audubon House. A couple can even hold a wedding and reception at our historic lighthouse, opened in 1848.

I celebrated our anniversary with two visitors from London, Charlie Condou and his husband Cameron Laux. While my husband Paul was finishing a long workday, Charlie, Cameron and I watched the sun set as we sailed on Danger Charters’ Wind & Wine excursion.

Cameron and Charlie joined blogger Steve (right) -- and a photo-bomber -- for a Key West sunset sail.

Cameron and Charlie join blogger Steve (right) — and a photo-bomber — for a Key West sunset sail.

As our sails were fully engaged we sampled imported cheeses, sausages, fine wines and champagne. Once back on land, we met Paul for our celebratory dinner at Abbondanza Italian Restaurant.

Make plans to hold your commitment ceremony here in the Florida Keys and stay tuned for the result of Aaron and William’s challenge. You will never forget your time here as you become a part of a community that welcomes and embraces you, and shares its magic that will keep you returning.

Click here to subscribe to the Florida Keys & Key West’s LGBT travel blog.

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Discover Vegan Black Metal Magic at Deer Run

Carol Shaughnessy | July 2014

It’s time to chop some onions with an ax! (Okay, not really with an ax …). But in this “Keys Voices” feature — written by Jennifer DeMaria, co-owner of Big Pine Key’s super-appealing environmentally-focused Deer Run Bed and Breakfast — you’ll discover that gourmet vegan food and metal music have an offbeat synergy (at least in the Florida Keys, which are admittedly a bit offbeat themselves).

Big Pine Keys' Deer Run bed-and-breakfast takes its name from the tiny, engandered Key deer that wander its tranquil grounds. (Photo courtesy of Deer Run)

Big Pine Key’s Deer Run bed-and-breakfast takes its name from the tiny, engandered Key deer that wander its tranquil grounds. (Photo courtesy of Deer Run)

What to know more? Jen shares the details in the paragraphs below.

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Join us Aug. 15-17 at Deer Run for an outstanding once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — highlighted by a cooking appearance and dinner with the Vegan Black Metal Chef.

The Vegan Black Metal Chef has two main purposes: to help bring consciousness into people’s lives and actions, and to help answer the question, “what do vegans eat?” He showcases vegan culinary skills in a fun, unique and informative way, and makes great music too!

The Vegan Black Metal Chef’s first cooking video on YouTube earned well over 2.5 MILLION views, and he travels domestically and internationally to spread the message of consciousness. He’s also a professional musician who writes and performs his original black metal music, and donates a portion of sales proceeds from his music to animal-friendly causes.

Metal music, vegan delicacies, and magic collide when the Vegan Black Metal Chef takes command.

Metal music, vegan delicacies, and magic collide when the Vegan Black Metal Chef takes command.

The Deer Run weekend package includes lodging, a full organic vegan breakfast daily, a guided six-hour eco-kayak tour in the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge with Captain Bill Keogh, nightly wine or cocktails, and the highlight cooking demonstration and dinner by the Vegan Black Metal Chef — who will chop, dice, slice and ax his way through organic grains, veggies and much more.

If you don’t know Deer Run, you have a great treat in store. Over the past decade my partner Harry and I have evolved it from a conventional inn to an internationally acclaimed “green” vegan B&B at the forefront of the sustainable tourism industry.

Deer Run lies down a winding road on Big Pine Key, nestled on a secluded, tree-shaded Atlantic Ocean beach close to two wildlife preserves. The grounds feature surprising nooks, shady areas and a hammock for lounging, a saltwater spa and saltwater pool, and a small treasure of a beach. It’s not unusual to see tiny Key deer, an endangered species that’s protected and cherished in the Lower Keys, wandering unconcernedly along the beach and shoreline.

Harry and I are both long-time vegans and dedicated animal-rights activists who support fair trade, small farmers and businesses and organic farming. With this retreat, we wanted to do something not done before in the veg community.

Each morning, Jen dreams up feasts to delight Deer Run's hungry guests.

Each morning during the retreat, Jen will dream up vegan feasts to delight hungry guests. (Photo couresty of Deer Run)

I’ve been a fan of the Vegan Black Metal Chef for years. He brings a breath of fresh air to the vegan movement, and is able to connect with people through music as well. He’s a visionary who brings a lot of fun, with absolutely no pretentiousness, to those living or striving to live with more consciousness.

This retreat event is limited to six people, so obviously reservations should be made early. If you want more details, or have any questions at all, please call me at 305-872-2015.

Deer Run’s Vegan Black Metal Chef weekend is exclusive, fresh, forward-thinking and mindful — while showcasing the amazing slice of paradise known as the Florida Keys. We hope to see you there!

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Key Lime Pie to Star in Key West Festival and World Record Attempt

Carol Shaughnessy | June 2014

It will require the juice of nearly 6,500 Key limes. Enough sweetened condensed milk to fill almost 1,000 margarita glasses. Enough graham crackers to outweigh the average Major League baseball player. And a pound of brown sugar for each of the 42 bridges on the Florida Keys Overseas Highway (plus four).

Paul Menta (left) and Jim Brush (right) smooth creamy filling into the giant pie's crust. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Paul Menta (left) and Jim Brush (right) smooth creamy filling into the 2013 world-record pie’s crust. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

It’s the world’s largest Key lime pie — and it’s slated to debut Friday, July 4, on Greene Street just off Key West’s famed Duval Street.

Yes, the four-person team of fanatics that earned a world record last year for creating the largest Key lime pie EVER is at it again. And this time they’re even more determined than they were last year.

“You cannot go anywhere below Miami and not find Key lime pie on the menu,” said head fanatic David Sloan. “It’s the official pie in the entire state of Florida.”

He’s right. In 2006, the tart, creamy dessert born in Key West in the late 1800s was voted the state pie by the Florida legislature. And David Sloan, coincidentally (or not so coincidentally) the author of “The Ultimate Key Lime Pie Cookbook,” is on a crusade to make his favorite confection famous around the world.

Key lime pie-makers (from left) Paul Menta, Jim Brush, David Sloan and Marky Pierson savor their triumph. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Key lime pie-makers (from left) Paul Menta, Jim Brush, David Sloan and Marky Pierson plan to top their 2013 triumph with an even larger pie in 2014. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

He’s not alone in this quest. Fellow fanatics include Marky Pierson, the festival’s co-founder and an artist whose work recently wowed visitors to the acclaimed Custom House Museum; chef and award-winning kiteboarder Paul Menta, who not long ago opened the Key West First Legal Rum Distillery; and Jim Brush, owner of the Key West Key Lime Pie Co., who’s an expert at thinking “outside the pie pan.”

In 2013, the quartet spearheaded the inaugural Key Lime Festival — and they intend the 2014 festival (like the pie!) to be bigger and better.

It’s set for July 3-5 with a schedule that features the wacky Miss Key Lime U.S.A. Pageant, pie-eating and cooking contests, and other tasty temptations. The fun starts Thursday, July 3, with a 2-5 p.m. Key Lime Cocktail Sip & Stroll featuring (what else?) Key lime martinis and margaritas at local watering holes.

Offbeat author David Sloan, who penned "The Ultimate Key Lime Pie Cookbook" and created the Key Lime Festival, decorates a  pie. (Photo by Rob O'Neal)

Offbeat author David Sloan, who penned “The Ultimate Key Lime Pie Cookbook” and co-created the Key Lime Festival, decorates a pie. (Photo by Rob O’Neal)

The “main course” is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, July 4: a lively street party that sets the stage for the debut of the world’s largest Key lime pie. While the 2013 pie was more than 8 feet in diameter and did indeed earn a world record, Sloan and his cohorts plan to shatter that record — by creating a Key lime pie that measures a whopping 9 feet in diameter.

Of course, you can’t just meander into a cooking supply place like Williams-Sonoma (or even Key West’s beloved Restaurant Store) and purchase a 9-foot pie pan. Last year the quartet constructed a custom pan, which was approximately the size of a pickup truck bed. This year … well, to misquote that classic line from the “Jaws” film, “They’re gonna need a bigger pan.”

As well as watching the final pie-making on July 4, spectators can sample the historic Key lime confection when slices are sold to benefit the Key West Firehouse Museum.

Lively lovelies starred in the 2013 Miss Key Lime U.S.A. Competition. (Photo courtesy of Key Lime Festival)

Lively lovelies starred in the 2013 Miss Key Lime U.S.A. Competition. (Photo courtesy of Key Lime Festival)

If that’s not enough, other festival attractions include a Key Lime Pie Eating Contest and a pie-making challenge for amateur and professional bakers.

And let’s not forget Saturday night’s Miss Key Lime U.S.A. Pageant, a tangy takeoff on the Miss America competition. The contestant who scores highest in the talent, costume, vintage style and Q-&-A categories will take the crown and step into the “limelight.”

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Reflections on Pride and the Journey

Steve Smith | June 2014

Many communities have enjoyed their 2014 annual Pride celebrations — and Pride across the world comes in many forms. I have experienced Pride festivals with more than 200,000 people, and I have been to festivals that are small community events with only 200 or so participants.

Key West's Pride celebration honors the welcoming island community and the ongoing LGBT journey.  (Photos courtesy of Key West Pride)

Key West’s Pride celebration honors the welcoming island community and the ongoing LGBT journey. (Photos courtesy of Key West Pride)

In some towns a Pride event is the only way the community comes together, sheds its fear of “coming out,” and the men and women embrace each other as they laugh, cry, and share stories of life.

It was not too many years ago that gay bars had no windows, and were hidden from view down alleys and behind closed doors. Protection from job discrimination was non-existent — you could be fired for being gay. San Francisco’s Twin Peaks Tavern was the first gay bar in the nation that actually had substantial glass windows. Today our bars and clubs welcome everyone, and we truly strive to live by the philosophy that we are One Human Family.

The world as we know it has changed dramatically. We can hold our heads up proudly and be the individuals we are, socialize publicly, be out at work and hold a public office. In 18 states and the District of Columbia, as well as in 17 countries, same sex couples can now get legally married.

The world certainly has changed for the better. However, we must always remember that this is the result of brave men and women who stood up and asked to be recognized for who they are and given equal rights. The journey is not complete, but individuals like openly gay U.S. Army veteran and writer Rob Smith are helping the world to understand who and what we are.

Openly gay Iraq war veteran, author and activist Rob Smith was the grand marshal of Key West's Pride parade.

Openly gay Iraq war veteran, author and activist Rob Smith was the grand marshal of Key West’s Pride parade.

Rob Smith paid his first visit to Key West this month during our Pride week and served as grand marshal of our parade. Subsequently, in a commentary published in the Advocate, Rob mentioned that he had not been aware previously of how important gays were to the history and growth of Key West and its population of 25,000.

Rob wrote, “I didn’t know that it (Key West) was the home of so many wonderful LGBT people and allies who work very hard to make their place in the world an incredible one for the community. What I experienced in Key West was a close-knit group of community organizers, entertainers, LGBT business owners, allies, and welcoming members of the local Metropolitan Community Church who were working together to ensure that their home was as safe a space as possible for their LGBT citizens.”

He went on to thank our citizens for inviting him to be the grand marshal of Key West Pride and helping him learn about the contributions and successes of people in small to medium-size communities in the modern LGBT rights movement.

Each year, Key West's Pride parade features a 100-foot section of the island's historic rainbow flag.

Each year, Key West’s Pride parade features a 100-foot section of the island’s historic rainbow flag.

You can learn more about our island and what makes us unique by watching “Key West: City of Colors.” This documentary tells the story of Key West and its diversity through the words of those of us who call it home. The film also chronicles the creation of Key West’s 1.25-mile sea-to-sea rainbow flag, and explains how it fits historically in the fabric of all our lives.

Most important, though, it tells the story of an island and its people. Once you’ve watched the uplifting documentary, come down and discover both for yourself.

Click here to subscribe to the Florida Keys & Key West’s LGBT travel blog.

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Find Florida Keys Adrenaline Adventures … All Year Round

Carol Shaughnessy | June 2014

Every day is an adventure in the Florida Keys, where the subtropical climate and scenic natural setting make an ideal backdrop for high-energy sporting activities all year round.

Entrants the Lazy Dog Paddleboard Race are tasked with paddling a 3-mile ocean course. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Entrants in the Lazy Dog Paddleboard Race are tasked with paddling a 3-mile ocean course. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

You can easily enjoy watersports and eco-excursions, unparalleled diving and offshore, inshore and flats fishing — no matter what the time of year. But the Keys also offer an energetic calendar of organized sporting events: marathons for runners, swim competitions, triathlons, cycling treks and much more.

For example, adrenaline enthusiasts can compete either on foot or on paddleboards in the Malibu Rum Hemingway 5k Sunset Run and Paddleboard Race set for Saturday, July 19.

It’s a highlight of the annual Hemingway Days festival, which celebrates the writing and exuberant outdoor lifestyle of the legendary author who spent the 1930s in Key West. You can test your strength in the 3-mile ocean paddleboard challenge, 5k run through historic Old Town — or even register for both!

And if you’re a paddleboard or self-propelled watercraft fan, Keys attractions also include the 12-mile Key West Paddleboard Classic. The race usually occurs in May, and the course takes you all the way around the United States’ southernmost island.

A field of 1,500 runners crosses the "hump" of the Seven Mile Bridge near Marathon during a past Seven Mile Bridge Run. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Runners cross the “hump” of the Seven Mile Bridge near Marathon during a past Seven Mile Bridge Run. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Have stamina to spare? Then consider competing in one of the Keys running events that test physical limits and personal resolve to the max. Chief among them is the KEYS100 Ultramarathon, also held in May, where U.S. and international contestants race 100 miles (yes, really!) from Key Largo to Key West.

Other Florida Keys running competitions include April’s Seven Mile Bridge Run across the longest segmental bridge in the world, and the Key Largo Bridge Run each November. And if you’re visiting Key West, enter the renowned Key West Half Marathon in January or the Southernmost Marathon & Half Marathon in October.

Looking for a shorter challenge? The Lower Keys’ No Name Race and the Middle Keys’ Sombrero Beach Run offer scenic trails and camaraderie during the island chain’s sunny winter months.

Besides running, the Florida Keys are home to swimming events that have inspired athletes for many years. They include the Florida Keys Community College Swim Around Key West, held each June, and Key Largo’s Orange Bowl Swimming Classic in January — a test of ability for the best collegiate swimmers in the U.S.

But that’s not all. If you enjoy mixing sports with history, check out Islamorada’s 8-mile Swim for Alligator Light. Generally scheduled for September, it helps raise awareness about the need to preserve the island chain’s aging lighthouses.

Larry Herlth begins a roundtrip swim to Alligator Reef Lighthouse. Swim founder Herlth, a Florida Keys artist,  created the event to call attention to preserving aging Florida Keys' lighthouses. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Larry Herlth begins a roundtrip swim to Alligator Reef Lighthouse. The Florida Keys artist created the Swim for Alligator Light to call attention to preserving Keys lighthouses. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

In addition, the Florida Keys host triathlons and cycling races that draw thousands of participants eager to vie for victory in multiple sports disciplines. If you’re one of them, start training for the annual Key West Triathlon. Held each December, it brings endurance-sports enthusiasts to compete in a fast-paced swim in ocean waters, bike ride and run along the Atlantic Ocean shoreline.

If cycling is your passion, the Keys also offer opportunities to enjoy biking vacations and tours. Among the most popular are the annual 200-mile BubbaFest Bike Tour, generally held in November, and the lively excursions hosted by Key Largo Bike and Adventure Tours.

Want to know more about Florida Keys athletic competitions (and other intriguing events)? Click here for a full calendar of challenges and adventures.

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The Emerald Rain: True Treasure Tales Star at Mel Fisher Days

Carol Shaughnessy | June 2014

How does it feel when it rains emeralds? Cris Gober found out, and he won’t ever forget the sight.

A diver examines gold bars and chains on the site of the Nuestra Se–nora de Atocha shipwreck about 35 miles off Key West. (Photo by Pat Clyne/Mel Fisher Maritime Museum)

A diver examines gold bars and chains on the site of the Atocha shipwreck about 35 miles off Key West. (Photo by Pat Clyne, Mel Fisher Maritime Museum)

When Cris was a graduate student, he was part of an underwater archaeology team excavating a 17th-century Spanish shipwreck in the waters off Key West. One day, while he was on the ocean floor working on the wrecksite, he looked up — and saw hundreds of sparkling green emeralds floating down through the water toward him like raindrops.

The emeralds had been hidden under some sand and sucked up by a tool, similar to a vacuum cleaner, that was used by experts to clear sand and silt from sites on the ocean bottom. The device’s hose released the jewels just under the surface of the water and they began floating back to the depths — so Cris, like everyone else caught in the emerald rainshower, delightedly picked up as many of the “raindrops” as he could. 

The year was 1985, and treasure hunter Mel Fisher had just discovered the fabulous riches of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha. Carrying gold and silver from the New World home to the King of Spain, the Atocha sank about 35 miles southwest of Key West during a 1622 hurricane.

Mel and Deo Fisher were early SCUBA pioneers before they became shipwreck seekers. (Photo provided by Mel Fisher's Treasures)

Mel and Deo Fisher were early SCUBA pioneers before they became shipwreck seekers. (Photo provided by Mel Fisher’s Treasures)

Mel’s team, including his wife Deo and their family, spent 16 years looking for the shipwreck. Their reward came when they uncovered some $450 million worth of gold and silver coins and bars, jewelry, solid gold cups and plates, rare weapons and navigational instruments, and the emeralds that “rained” down on Cris Gober and his fellow divers.

The incredible discovery made by Mel (who died in 1998) and his crew will be remembered and celebrated July 10-13, during Key West’s Mel Fisher Days.

Festival highlights include a dock party with the salvage crew, behind-the-scenes tours of the Fisher family’s private artifact conservation lab, a team treasure hunt and a rollicking street party that recalls Mel’s exuberant spirit.

Despite the historic find, the search for the Atocha isn’t over. According to the ship’s detailed manifest, scores of artifacts and treasures still lie somewhere in the waters off Key West. Mel’s son Kim Fisher leads the continuing search, and each year he and the Fisher team present the festival.

The venerable salvage vessel Magruder will be on display during Mel Fisher Days. (Photo provided by Mel Fisher's Treasures)

The venerable salvage vessel Magruder will be on display during Mel Fisher Days. (Photo provided by Mel Fisher’s Treasures)

For adventure addicts, the most appealing activity just might be the festivities’ opener. At 11 a.m. Thursday, July 10, dockside at the Schooner Wharf Bar in Key West’s Historic Seaport, current and past Fisher crewmembers will gather to share memories and tales.

But that’s not all — Mel’s famed 100-foot salvage boat J.B. Magruder will be on display for the first time, giving treasure fans a chance to view the venerable vessel that played such an important role in the Atocha discovery (and still serves the team today).

Friday’s events include 45-minute guided VIP tours of the private conservation lab at Mel Fisher’s Treasures at 200 Greene St. — spotlighting the techniques experts use to conserve priceless shipwreck artifacts.

That evening, festival attendees can search for riches of their own during the Amazing Mel Fisher Treasure Hunt. Taking place in Key West’s historic Old Town, the hunt will pit teams against each other as they try to win a “treasure chest” containing $5,000 in silver dollars.

Adventurer Mel Fisher, discoverer of the shipwrecked Spanish galleon Atocha, proved that the American dream is thriving -- at least in the Keys. (Photo provided by Mel Fisher's Treasures)

Mel Fisher’s exuberant spirit and amazing shipwreck discovery are celebrated each year during Mel Fisher Days. (Photo provided by Mel Fisher’s Treasures)

Saturday brings a lively daylong street fair in the 200 block of the island’s renowned Duval Street. Though it’s much larger in scale, the fair recalls the parties Mel used to throw for his crew and their families to raise their spirits during the long search.

Also Saturday, those who wonder how the Fisher family got so fascinated with treasure salvage will have a treat — a chance to watch rarely-seen family videos of Mel’s early expeditions, during a special screening at Tropic Cinema.

Of course the festival also features many other attractions (see the full schedule here). FYI, its entire net proceeds benefit the Florida Keys’ Wesley House Family Services.

Throughout the festival — and throughout the year — interested visitors can tour the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum at 200 Greene St. to discover priceless objects from the Atocha and other shipwrecks. And if they look carefully, they might even spot some emeralds that glisten like raindrops.

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The Rainbow That Changed the World

Steve Smith | June 2014

June brings Pride celebrations around the world in acknowledgement of the Stonewall Riots that occurred in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village. Many of you were too young to remember the significance of this historic event, but it set the stage for the beginning of equal rights for our nation’s gay community.

On June 15, 2003, Gilbert Baker's 1.25-mile-long rainbow flag was unfurled down Duval Street from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean  in a sea-to-sea proclamation of pride and diversity. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

On June 15, 2003, Gilbert Baker’s 1.25-mile-long rainbow flag was unfurled down Duval Street from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

One of the people who took up arms on that eventful night still lives in Key West, and he and I have had spirited conversations about what happened. No longer were the gays standing by and being harassed, arrested, beaten, and threatened for exercising the right to be themselves. No longer would a light bulb be turned on barely minutes before the police raided the bars. The lives of our community members took on a new meaning that night. 

Almost a decade later, in 1978, at the request of Harvey Milk, a San Francisco artist named Gilbert Baker (now residing in New York City) created the rainbow flag as a symbol of gay and lesbian pride replacing the “pink triangle.”

During the flag’s more than 30-year history, it has grown from a symbol of gay pride into an international symbol of pride for all people. In 1994, Baker created a one-mile-long six-color flag in New York CIty for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Parts of this flag were sent across the country. 

In 2003, two Key West residents met Baker at an Interpride meeting in California. They were excited about an idea to carry a rainbow flag from the Gulf of Mexico across the island of Key West to the Atlantic Ocean — and the seed was planted to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the flag’s creation. 

Gilbert Baker savors the moment as his 1.25-mile rainbow flag is unfurled down Key West's Duval Street. (Photo by Mike Hollar, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Gilbert Baker savors the moment as his 1.25-mile rainbow flag is unfurled down Key West’s Duval Street. (Photo by Mike Hollar, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Baker came to Key West and, assisted by volunteers, sewed an eight-color, 1.25-mile flag over a period of several months. This flag encompassed over 18,000 yards of nylon in the original eight colors. 

Weighing more than three tons, it was unfurled down the entire length of Duval Street from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean — carried by volunteers from every walk of life: gay, straight, bisexual, and those who embraced our community. The excitement of the event spread from sea to sea.

As with the 1994 New York flag, 25-foot and 100-foot sections of the Key West flag were shared with LGBT organizations around the world. 

We will proudly carry a 100-foot section in our Pride parade that was in Ohio’s Dayton Pride parade. The 100-foot section will be flown to Columbus, Ohio, for the Pride parade there, followed by a quick trip to Chicago’s Pride parade and back to Florida for Orlando’s Pride. In addition, 25-foot sections will be proudly carried in New York City, San Francisco, Denver and Ohio’s Youngstown.

A section of Key West's iconic rainbow flag is carried in a San Francisco Pride parade.

A section of Key West’s iconic rainbow flag is carried in a San Francisco Pride parade.

Key West is a small island with a big heart that embraces all communities: gay, straight, bisexual, transgendered, and allied friends and family. We have embraced diversity for decades, electing the first gay city mayor in the United States. Key West has openly gay and lesbian city and county commissioners, an outstanding police chief who happens to be gay, and a community that looks beyond labels and accepts everyone for who — not what — they are. 

Whether or not you’ve ever visited our warmhearted island, it’s time to step out of your home zone and come (or come back) to a place that has open arms, welcoming everyone and making them a part of our community. Happy PRIDE 2014!

Click here to subscribe to the Florida Keys & Key West’s LGBT travel blog.

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Keys Swordfish Catch Fulfills a Dream

Andy Newman | June 2014

Since Islamorada charterboat skipper Nick Stanczyk earned his captain’s license 11 years ago, he has led clients to numerous swordfish and other trophy gamefish catches off the Florida Keys.

Logan Prickett cranks on an electric-assist fishing reel endeavoring to catch a swordfish off the Florida Keys near Islamorada, (Photo by Nick Stanczyk)

Logan Prickett cranks on an electric-assist fishing reel endeavoring to catch a swordfish off the Florida Keys near Islamorada. (Photo by Nick Stanczyk)

But the 29-year-old captain never wanted to find a swordfish for a client more than he did recently for Logan Prickett of Montgomery, Ala.

Now 19 years old, Logan is legally blind and has been confined to a wheelchair since 2008. In September of that year, he had an almost fatal reaction to intravenous contrast dye administered during a routine MRI test to examine his pituitary gland.

He was without a natural heartbeat and breath for 45 minutes, and doctors told his mother Tammy Prickett he would not survive. But he did — and subsequently proved doctors wrong again when he emerged from a 12-day coma, his mother said.

Despite having significant motor-control deficits and not being able to speak above a whisper, Logan endured more than three years of physical and occupational therapy. He recently graduated in the top 10 of his magnet high school class and continues rehabilitation at home

Before the life-changing medical incident, Logan enjoyed the outdoor world of hunting and fishing. Afterward, his chances of experiencing that again seemed slim.

A swordfish leaps after being hooked off Islamorada. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

A swordfish leaps after being hooked off Islamorada. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

But during the last few years, his mother has seen her son overcome obstacles that neither of them ever envisioned.

A new opportunity arose when Logan’s neighbor and classmate, Hunter Mills, was exploring online and discovered an episode of the 2013 Weather Channel television mini-series called Reel Rivals.

The show chronicled the daily competitive lives of four charterboat fishing captains at Bud N’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada.

The segment Hunter found focused on swordfishing off the Keys. He watched it with Logan, explaining the visuals to his friend.

And so earlier this year, when Tammy Prickett began discussing a post-high school graduation trip, both teens immediately told her, “We want to go to the ‘Sportfishing Capital of the World’ to catch a swordfish.”

They chartered Nick Stanczyk, skipper of the Bn’M2. On May 30, their first day of fishing, they lost two swordfish.

“We were heartbroken,” Nick said. “Logan sat in the blazing sun for six hours next to that swordfish rod and reel and never complained.”

But the following day proved to be very different. The first swordfish that was hooked stayed on the line — as Logan, using an electric-assist reel, helped crank the 105-pounder to the boat with the rod and reel in the boat’s rod holder.

Nick Stanczyk said that when the fish was boated, Logan methodically ran his hand along the fish’s tail and bill.

Logan Prickett (center) flanked by mate Colby Mason (left) and Captain Nick Stanczyk, show off the 105-pound swordfish Logan reeled in. (Photo by Nick Stanczyk)

Logan Prickett (center), mate Colby Mason (left) and Captain Nick Stanczyk show off the 105-pound swordfish Logan reeled in. (Photo by Nick Stanczyk)

“Logan had the biggest smile of anyone I’ve ever seen,” stated Nick. “I cried. It’s the happiest I’ve ever felt for someone catching a fish.”

Nick reported that the Prickett family commissioned a reproduction mount and there will be plenty of swordfish steaks for a very large dinner party in Montgomery.

Later that same day Logan reeled in a second swordfish, but the small 40-pounder was released.

Tammy Prickett is getting used to her son fulfilling dreams and objectives.

“He wants to overcome as much as he can and prove to himself that he can,” she said of her son, who will study at Auburn University in the fall. “It shows to other people that we don’t have to let our circumstances be limited.”

It certainly does. Heartfelt congratulations to Logan for his triumphant swordfish catch — and the other triumphs he achieves as he continues to prove that life can be lived without limits.

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