Keys Voices Main Archive

Peter Anderson: Driving Force Behind the Conch Republic

Briana Ciraulo | July 2014

(Editor’s Note: The Florida Keys & Key West lost a very good friend in July 2014 with the passing of Peter Anderson after a courageous battle with cancer. In recognition of his dedicated efforts to make the Keys and the Conch Republic a better place, and promote their offbeat spirit and character, we share this profile written four months before his death.) 

Peter Anderson helped keep the spirit of the Florida Keys' Conch Republic alive and thriving.

Peter Anderson played a pivotal role in keeping the spirit of the Florida Keys’ Conch Republic alive and thriving.

“I came down to Key West on a Tuesday night in early April 1984 in my old Cadillac El Dorado with red leather seats, my clothes packed away and a couple grand in my pocket,” said Peter Anderson.

While this may sound like a relatively ordinary “moving to the Florida Keys” story, in reality there’s nothing ordinary about Peter OR his story.

Secretary General of the Keys’ Conch Republic, Peter has worked tirelessly over the past 25 years to spread the republic’s unique and heartwarming philosophy.

“As the world’s first ‘fifth world’ country, we exist as a ‘state of mind’ and aspire only to bring more warmth, humor and respect to a planet we find in sore need of all three,” he explained.

The Conch Republic, the Keys’ quirky alter ego, was established in 1982 to protest the installation of a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint that stopped traffic at the top of the Overseas Highway — the only road in and out of the Keys.

Peter and Keys musician Howard Livingston (right) share an on-camera moment and a smile.

Peter and Keys musician Howard Livingston (right) share an on-camera moment and a smile.

Because the federal government was treating the island chain like a foreign country, local leaders decided it would become one.

They staged a ceremony seceding from the United States, raised a quickly-constructed Conch Republic flag, declared “war” on the mother country, carried it out by pelting federal agents with stale Cuban bread, and surrendered after 60 seconds.

Not surprisingly, the action attracted international attention. The first Conch Republic Independence Celebration, commemorating the gutsy secession, was organized in 1983.

“We celebrate our independence annually in a public and notorious manner,” said Peter.

The 10-day festival is held in April every year and consists of events including a “drag race” for drag queens, a naval parade and battle, and a bed race (yes, really!) along Key West’s Duval Street.

Peter, shown here in his "conchsulate" office in 2003, was an untiring Keys ambassador. (Photo by Rob O'Neal)

Peter, shown here in his “conchsulate” office in 2003, was an untiring Keys ambassador. (Photo by Rob O’Neal)

Peter himself was the driving force that ensured the Keys would continue to hold the fun-filled independence celebration.

In 1990, there was talk of the event’s eighth year being the last. Peter believed the Keys’ independence deserved annual commemoration, and came together with Key West movers and shakers to continue the wacky festival.

After the success of the 1990 celebration, Captain Tony Tarracino, then the prime minister of the Conch Republic and mayor of Key West, appointed Peter the republic’s first secretary general.

“I actually decided to take the job seriously, and now we’re here 25 years later,” Peter stated.

It’s safe to say that being secretary general of the Conch Republic is a one-of-a-kind job. Peter has far exceeded people’s expectations, working to have the republic recognized as its own nation and respected by members of the world community.

With a reminiscent chuckle, he said one of his favorite memories was “crashing” the Summit of the Americas in 1994. He fought to have the Conch Republic represented as an actual country of the Americas — and succeeded, gaining global attention and respect.

Before his illness, Peter was a welcome part of ceremonial welcomes for special visitors. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Before his illness, Peter often appeared at events welcoming special visitors to the Keys and the Conch Republic. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Peter has received praise from many world leaders for his diligence in advancing the “islands nation” over the years. The Conch Republic even issues citizen and diplomat passports, giving people the chance to gain “dual citizenship” as residents of their own country and honorary inhabitants of the republic.

More than his dedication and hard work, however, his undying love and admiration for the Conch Republic is what makes Peter Anderson so extraordinary.

“Every single day as secretary general is special, whether it’s greeting foreign ships or meeting the everyday people that want to join our tiny nation,” he said. “I love my job, I love this community, and I love the spirit that formed the Conch Republic, which is alive and well today.”


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.


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!


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.


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!


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.”


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.


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.


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.


‘Sailors’ Steer Crazy Craft in Key West’s Minimal Regatta

Carol Shaughnessy | May 2014

It’s not always easy to stay afloat. And that’s particularly true if the vessel you’re navigating is made of nothing more than a 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood, two 8-foot-long two-by-fours, a roll of duct tape, a pound of fasteners and a daub or two of epoxy paint.

A buccaneer captains a tiny "pirate ship" in Key West's weird and wonderful Minimal Regatta. (All photos by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

A buccaneer steers a tiny “pirate ship” in the Minimal Regatta. (All photos by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Keeping their plywood-and-duct-tape vessels afloat was the challenge for two dozens teams in the recent “sink or swim” Schooner Wharf Minimal Regatta — a wacky annual event that has been a Memorial Day Weekend tradition in Key West for more than 20 years.

Naturally, the homemade vessels’ minimal construction meant marginal seaworthiness. And that, in turn, meant maximum hilarity for the many hundreds of spectators who lined the waterfront at the island city’s Historic Seaport to watch the aquatic antics.

Team members navigated a short course in the seaport area, trying to avoid sinking long enough to complete it — with widely varying degrees of success.

Some got “that sinking feeling” soon after launching, including an outrigger mistakenly named No Problem. One determined entrant abandoned his craft after it overturned (for the second time!) and swam the course, powering through the water with his paddle. 

Other vessels, however, remained surprisingly buoyant.

The intrepid Max Schwab donned a tutu, top hat and tights for his Minimal Regatta appearance.

The intrepid Max Schwab donned a tutu, top hat and tights for his Minimal Regatta appearance.

For the Key West Parrot Head Club, a gaggle of Jimmy Buffett fans living on the island widely credited with inspiring some of Buffett’s most enduring tunes, buoyancy entailed more than just good construction techniques and luck. Teammates also had to convince their juvenile English bulldog, Sir Brody, that he couldn’t be the boat’s designated passenger (because, as most dog-lovers know, even young bulldogs are so heavy that they generally sink like stones!).

Standout entries in 2014’s rambunctious regatta included a tiny replica pirate ship with furled sails that carried a costumed buccaneer, and a kayak named “Never Sink” captained by five-time contender Max Schwab — who was dressed, for some unfathomable reason, in a green tutu, top hat and fishnet tights.

Another boat, paddled by an obviously pregnant woman, was painted baby blue, decorated with a “baby on board” emblem and dubbed (I’m not kidding here) the Mother Ship.

A hapless regatta entrant gets "that sinking feeling" and goes down with his "ship."

A hapless regatta entrant gets “that sinking feeling” and goes down with his “ship.”

And “Gilligan” himself navigated a tiny replica of the S.S. Minnow from the classic sitcom “Gilligan’s Island,” cheered on from shore by teammates costumed as the sitcom’s iconic Skipper, movie star Ginger and perky Mary Ann. The team traveled all the way from northern Florida to take part in the maritime mayhem — definitely a longer voyage than the show’s fabled “three-hour tour.”

Teams in past years’ regattas were creative as well, building unforgettable “vessels” that included a pink 1959 Cadillac El Dorado replica, a floating miniature golf course, and a giant yellow “rubber ducky” craft — whose crew was costumed in fake duck bills and inflatable “ducky” swim rings.

Each year, prizes in the quirky regatta are awarded for the fastest boats, most creative designs, best paint jobs, sportsmanship and best costumed entries. But in this crazy challenge, winning a prize isn’t as important as AVOIDING a prize: the dreaded “sinker” award that goes to the least seaworthy vessel.


13 Laid-back Activities to Savor

Carol Shaughnessy | May 2014

You don’t have to be a Florida Keys local to share some of the elements that make Keys life so happily addictive — particularly during the long, lazy summer days that are fast approaching.

Paddle a kayak through the backcountry waters of the Florida Keys, and you'll see one of the world's most diverse marine life ecosystems. (Photo by Bob Krist/Florida Keys News Bureau)

Join Keys locals and kayak through the backcountry waters to view the unique marine life ecosystem. (Photo by Bob Krist, Florida Keys News Bureau)

What are some of the off-the-beaten-path, laid-back summer experiences that you can share with locals? How can you savor the island chain’s carefree, life-loving vibe? Try some (or all!) of the 13 Keys activities listed here.

1. In the Middle Keys, launch a kayak at Sombrero Beach, mile marker (MM) 50. Explore on your own or take an escorted eco-tour through Sister Creek and the Boot Key Nature Preserve, and marvel at the mangrove forests alive with native birds like herons, egrets and cormorants. 

2. Immerse yourself in creativity during the neighborhood art strolls held each month in Islamorada and Key West. Discover unique visual art, meet the local artisans who create it, and explore intriguing galleries alongside island chain residents enthusiastic about the cultural community.

3. Savor the sunrise while strolling along the Old Seven Mile Bridge over the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. The historic landmark parallels the modern bridge, and a 2.2-mile section of it is open to pedestrians and bicyclists.

History buffs can visit the former Over-Sea Railroad work camp at Pigeon Key, lying beneath the historic Old Seven Mile Bridge. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Take a leisurely stroll along the Old Seven Mile Bridge to tiny Pigeon Key. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

4. On weekends, browse at the Big Pine Flea Market at MM 30.2 for bargains on everything from nautical gear and lobster floats to sundresses and jewelry. It’s a Lower Keys tradition — and the socializing is as much fun as the “treasure hunting.”

5. Soak up fishing tips and tales from some of Islamorada’s world-class charter captains over cocktails at the Lorelei, MM 82, a favorite local hangout whose on-site marina is headquarters for both offshore and backcountry captains.  

6. Treat yourself to a great home-style meal of straight-off-the-boat fresh fish at Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen at MM 99 in Key Largo. Dishes and sauces are homemade from scratch — and the “World Famous Key Lime Pie” sign is not an exaggeration.

7. For a tranquil escape, explore the historic, never-used Civil War–era fort called West Martello Tower, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at White Street. Now home to the Key West Garden Club, it features beautiful indigenous plants and rare palm trees blooming against the weathered brick fort — like a huge tree grown over a narrow tunnel-like archway people can actually walk through.

Discover the tranquil waterfront oasis created by the Key West Garden Club on the grounds of historic Fort East Martello. (Photo courtesy of the Key West Garden Club)

Discover the tranquil waterfront oasis created by the Key West Garden Club on the grounds of historic Fort East Martello. (Photo courtesy of the Key West Garden Club)

8. Enjoy prowling around unusual shops? Check out Key West’s honest-to-goodness “curiosity shop” at 616 Greene St. Called 90 Miles to Cuba, it contains everything from local art to nautical antiques, vintage jewelry and Hardy Boys books.

9. Stroll along the rustic interpretive nature trails at Marathon’s 63.5-acre Crane Point to discover endangered native foliage, unusual geologic features, colorful exotic vegetation and even ancient ocean fossils. It’s a one-of-a-kind living record of Keys history.

10. If you want to chill out on one of America’s best beaches, then head for Bahia Honda State Park in the Lower Keys. Its sandy expanse was recently named one of 2014’s top 25 U.S. beaches by TripAdvisor. Bahia Honda’s deep near-shore waters mean unmatched swimming and snorkeling.

11. Sample the world-class pizza at the wonderfully funky No Name Pub just off Big Pine Key. You’ll find yourself falling in love with its historic Keys charm, laid-back regular customers and ramshackle décor that includes interior walls papered with dollar bills.

The Schooner Wharf's postcard identifies the bar as "the center of the universe" -- and for its many fans, it just might be.

The Schooner Wharf’s postcard identifies the bar as “the center of the universe” — and for its many fans, it just might be.

12. Enjoy one of the locals’ favorite sports: hop on a paddleboard to blend fun and a core physical workout. You can use the board for surfing, traversing on a “downwinder” (riding the board backed by tradewinds to cover long distances), or exploring the tranquil backcountry flats in an environmentally friendly way.

13. If you’re looking for a Key West locals’ hangout with great live music, stop by the Schooner Wharf Bar. Located on the waterfront in the Historic Seaport, it’s the kind of funky open-air place where you can bring your dog, your girlfriend and half a dozen fishing buddies — and everyone will have a good time.