Keys Voices Main Archive

Volunteering to Help Pilot Whales Means Chance to Give Back

Julie Botteri | May 2011

I admit it — I’m spoiled. And the Florida Keys are to blame. These islands have rewarded me, a scuba diver for 20-plus years, with numerous fortunate encounters with wild marine life that occasionally intertwines with human life here.

Post author Julie Botteri (second from left) volunteers her time to help Marine Mammal Conservancy care for three pilot whales. (All photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Post author Julie Botteri (second from left) volunteers her time to help the Marine Mammal Conservancy care for three pilot whales. (All photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Front-row seats to view giant whale sharks, leaping dolphins, sea turtles being returned to the ocean after recovering from illness or injury? Yes, I am spoiled.

Recently, I had an enviable opportunity to give back — give my time, myself and my energy — as an in-water volunteer for the Marine Mammal Conservancy’s efforts to save three female pilot whales. The whales are recovering in Key Largo after surviving a mass stranding on May 5 in the Lower Keys shallows.

The four hours I spent helping those whales were some of the most precious of my life.

I joined a group of 20-plus volunteers at MMC for the 8 a.m. “shift” after a briefing about the whales’ condition, how to properly place our hands on their delicate dorsal and pectoral fins, and their expected behaviors.

Marine Mammal Conservancy veterinarian Pamela Govett (left) applies an antibacterial solution on the sunburned skin of a pilot whale during the whale's recovery at MMC's Key Largo headquarters.

Marine Mammal Conservancy veterinarian Pamela Govett (left) applies an antibacterial solution on the sunburned skin of a pilot whale during the whale's recovery at MMC's Key Largo headquarters.

Rarely seen by humans, pilot whales are deep divers, unfamiliar with shallow water — and with humans supporting them to make sure the blowholes they use to breathe are free of saltwater.

As we waited to enter the shallow pen, chatter among the group was hushed yet excited and full of positive energy. I wondered what personal motivation had brought us all together on this morning.

Quickly it became clear that everyone’s intention was the same, and unselfish — pure healing.

Some spent their week’s vacation doing several shifts. A woman who splits her time between Boca Raton, Fla., and California heard about the volunteer opportunity through the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and joined because she loves the Keys.

Hannah, a student in Miami, took time away from her job performing hearing tests on infants to be in the Keys. She admitted she was afraid of the water — but had been so inspired by the whales that she helped make “Please Volunteer” flyers to post around Miami, and displayed them on her car that she parked “in crazy ways” at the beach and elsewhere so people would notice them.

Brandon Paquin (left) holds the tail of a pilot whale while MMC veterinarian Micah Brodsky (center) draws blood. Assisting (at right) is Alexandra Epple.

Brandon Paquin (left) holds the tail of a pilot whale while MMC veterinarian Micah Brodsky (center) draws blood. Assisting (at right) is Alexandra Epple.

Evans Raveneau, who stood beside me helping support the smallest of the female whales, said he’d recently lost his corporate job and was looking for a new direction, re-evaluating his purpose in life.

He was deeply moved from the first time we held the whale. “This is unbelievable,” he said, near tears.

No matter where we were from, our experience was equally memorable. As soon as you feel a pilot whale draw a full breath and its body shudder beneath your fingertips, it’s magical.

The whales’ musculature is pure power, with a presence and awareness in every fiber. My practice with Reiki energy makes me more attuned and sensitive of its abilities — but regardless, the amount of force that these whales use for propulsion is unmistakable.

MMC still needs volunteers to help with the whales' recovery. Here, vet Micah Brodsky listen's to one of the whales' gastrointestinal tract while volunteers support them.

MMC still needs volunteers to help with the whales' recovery. Here, vet Micah Brodsky (right) listens to one of the whales' gastrointestinal tract while volunteers support them.

As veterinarians and staff drew blood, applied antibiotics, tested respiration, heart rate and hearing, we held the whales firmly yet steady and calm. For the first time in my life, I saw a pilot whale eat from a tube, fart underwater and take a poop. Twice.

And I watched as the still-weaning youngster we cared for stretched and bent her tail to play “footsie” with her neighbor — just for the touch and reassurance that another of her kind was close by.

I recommend that everyone, scuba diver or not, take a moment and pay it forward. Give of yourself unselfishly to help another living thing survive, if only for a flicker in time. Reap the rewards of volunteering — they are huge.

To learn more about the Marine Mammal Conservancy’s efforts, and to volunteer your time, visit www.marinemammalconservancy.org.

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The Train That Changed the Keys Forever

Carol Shaughnessy | May 2011

On Jan. 22, 1912, when Ruby Whitlock was eight years old, she watched the arrival of the first train that ever traveled down the Over-Sea Railroad from mainland Florida to Key West.

A train crosses the Long Key Viaduct, a vital part of Henry Flagler's Oversea Highway. (Photo courtesy of the Monroe County Library Collection)

A train crosses the Long Key Viaduct, a vital stretch of the legendary Over-Sea Railroad. (Photo courtesy of the Monroe County Library Collection)

Eighty-eight years later, when she was an energetic 96-year-old, “Miss Ruby” reminisced about the arrival that changed the Florida Keys forever.

These days, when it’s possible to drive from Key West to Miami in four hours on the Overseas Highway, it’s hard to imagine the Keys not being comfortably linked to each other — and to the mainland.

But they weren’t until Henry Flagler, called a visionary by some contemporaries and a madman by others, conceived and built the miraculous “railroad that went to sea.”

Construction began in 1905. The railroad’s track ultimately stretched more than 100 miles out into open water, requiring trailblazing techniques and unbelievable effort by a crew that sometimes numbered more than 4,000 men.

The Oversea Railway was conceived by visionary millionaire Henry Flagler. (Photo courtesy of the Monroe County Library Collection)

The Over-Sea Railroad was conceived by visionary millionaire Henry Flagler. (Photo courtesy of the Monroe County Library Collection)

Flagler had made his fortune as John D. Rockefeller’s partner in Standard Oil, and he gambled most of it on the venture — a venture so extraordinary that many outsiders thought it was impossible.

It was officially named the Florida East Coast Railway’s Key West Extension, but it quickly became known as the Over-Sea Railroad. Its bridges and viaducts linking the Keys, including the astonishing Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon, earned it another title: “the eighth wonder of the world.”

“That was a great day when that train came in here,” recalled Miss Ruby, who was believed to be the last remaining Key Wester to witness the historic arrival.

“I was going to Harris School, and the Harris School kids went down to meet the train,” she said. “Everybody was hollering and whooping, throwing bouquets, hoisting up flags and singing, saying, ‘There’s the train! There’s the train!’ All of Key West was happy that day.”

Key West had every right to be happy. The debut of the railroad transformed it from an isolated outpost, reachable only by boat, to a destination easily reached by both passengers and freight.

Henry Flagler and Mayor Fograty of Key West during the arrival of the first train on January 22, 1912. (Photo courtesy the Monroe County Library Collection)

Henry Flagler and Key West's Mayor Fogarty greet crowds after the arrival of the first train on January 22, 1912. (Photo courtesy the Monroe County Library Collection)

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Miss Ruby. “Dr. Fogarty was the mayor, and he made a speech when the train came in. I can see him now, and I can see old Flagler with his straw hat on.”

Flagler himself, however, never saw the joyful crowds.

When the first train from the mainland pulled into the Key West terminal, its elderly creator stepped out his private car. He was greeted by dignitaries, citizens and hordes of schoolchildren — all cheering his fantastic accomplishment.

By then almost blind, he stood with tears streaming down his face.

“I can hear the children,” he said, “but I cannot see them.”

Less than 16 months later, at age 83, he died.

Over the next two decades, Henry Flagler’s Over-Sea Railroad carried half a million visitors across the miles separating mainland Florida and Key West. Unfortunately, it only lasted for 23 years before being severely damaged in a 1935 hurricane.

Sand sculptor Marianne Vandenbroek's creation, located at the Casa Marina Resort, portrays the historic Oversea Railway. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Sand sculptor Marianne Vandenbroek's creation, located at the Casa Marina Resort, celebrates the historic Over-Sea Railroad. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Today the Overseas Highway is the link between the mainland and the Keys. But many of the original railroad bridges can still be seen, massive and stark, stretching beside the highway’s bridges.

Other reminders can be found on Pigeon Key, a five-acre island that housed workers building the original Seven Mile Bridge. Pigeon Key’s buildings have been carefully restored, and one features an intriguing museum dedicated to the railway and its builders.

Currently, events are being planned throughout the Keys to honor Flagler’s historic railroad — with the festivities culminating on Jan. 22, 2012, the 100th anniversary of the first train’s arrival.

Henry Flagler and Ruby Whitlock are both gone now. But, chances are, those attending the centennial celebration will feel the echo of their long-ago joy.

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Saving the Whales: the Triumph of Two Survivors

Julie Botteri | May 2011

Last week I witnessed the strength of the human spirit’s resolve to maintain the delicate balance between man, mammal and nature in these islands.

Art Cooper of the Marine Mammal Conservancy attempts to help two of the whales shortly after they were discovered stranded off Cudjoe Key. (Photo by Mariela Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Bob Coakley of the Marine Mammal Conservancy attempts to help two of the whales shortly after they were discovered stranded off Cudjoe Key. (Photo by Mariela Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Thursday, May 5, a massive stranding response team of skilled veterinarians, and volunteers — more than 500 strong — joined forces with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) and Marine Mammal Conservancy (MMC) staff to save survivors of a pod of weakened pilot whales stranded in shallow Gulf of Mexico waters among mangroves near Cudjoe Key.

The nation’s eyes were trained on the people working feverishly to save survivors, who, among shifting sand bars, coral heads and changing tides, faced tenuous futures.

By Friday morning, seven live whales were safely corralled in a sea pen, a containment area functioning as a triage site.

Marine mammal rescuers load begin to load one of the soon-to-released whales onto a boat for transport to the release site. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Marine mammal rescuers begin to load one of the soon-to-released whales onto a barge for transport to the release site. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

A makeshift tent camp bustled with wetsuit-clad men and women charting vital signs, fielding calls from search and recovery boats (sadly, 14 whales perished), stockpiling food, water, trucks, transportation vehicles, boats, personnel and equipment.

Soon, there was a mobile veterinary laboratory.

During the flurry of activity, the whales remained calm.

Volunteers worked tirelessly in four-hour shifts, day and night, buoying the whales at the surface to breathe, keeping them wet and covered from the sun, hydrated and tube-fed with Pedialyte and a liquid chum.

Saturday, after collecting and analyzing blood and tissue samples, morphometrics (body measurements) and tagging dorsal fins with tracking devices, veterinarians deemed two male pilot whales viable to be released.

Watching the crane-laden barge gingerly hoist each of the two whales into slings was a breathtaking, nerve-wracking blip in time.

The first of the pilot whales is released into deep water off the Lower Keys. (Photo by Julie Botteri, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The first of the pilot whales is released into deep water off the Lower Keys. (Photo by Julie Botteri, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Slowly settling the whales on the barge’s deck, careful not to crush their heart and lungs beneath their own weight, teams kept them wet and covered in zinc to prevent blistering in the afternoon sun.

Zooming my camera within inches of the first-loaded whale, my breath caught — his giant doe eye rolled up at me, looked into me. I was awash in guilt over the strange situation he was in, amazed and blessed I could be so close.

“It’s going to be okay, buddy. Hang in there,” I said quietly.

Under way, volunteers sponged water over the whales’ delicate skin, while veterinarians monitored vital signs and respiration. The survival of these mammals was paramount.

Two of the five whales transferred to Key Largo's Marine Mammal Conservancy for rehab prepare to begin their journey in a refrigerated truck. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Two of the five whales transferred to Key Largo's Marine Mammal Conservancy for rehab prepare to begin their journey in a refrigerated truck. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Finally, we reached 523 feet of water, nine miles offshore.

Videographer Bob Care and I boarded a small boat to record the release, as eight people grabbed the sling’s straps, maneuvering the whales forward to easily slip off the edge of the barge’s foam padding into the blue.

The first whale dived down, surfaced and popped his blowhole like a snorkel, pausing, almost beckoning to the second, “Are you ready? Let’s go.”

Immediately, the second whale entered the water. The pair dove deep and disappeared. It was magical. The group of us left watching at the surface waited a moment, then whooped and hollered. They’d made it!

Marine mammal rescuers tend to four of five pilot whales transported to the Marine Mammal Conservancy in Key Largo. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Marine mammal rescuers tend to four of five pilot whales transported to the Marine Mammal Conservancy in Key Largo. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Exhausted and exhilarated, volunteers returned to the pen area, greeted by the remaining five whales’ squeals and squeaky chatter — a reminder they are not out of the woods yet.

Early Tuesday, experts successfully transported these five to a rehabilitation center 82 miles away in Key Largo, in a temperature-controlled Publix Supermarkets’ semi-trailer. Unfortunately, one of them later got too sick to save.

Rehabilitation of the remaining four could take months, but perhaps Blair Mase, NOAA’s southeast stranding coordinator, best summed up the combined efforts to safely move the animals:

“It takes a village to save some whales.”

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Portrait of Two Artists

Carol Shaughnessy | May 2011

Some people visit Key West just for the fun of it, while others come to enjoy the laid-back lifestyle. Then too, there are the artists and craftspeople who find themselves irresistibly drawn to the island for the inspiration it provides. (Though few people remember this, even former president Dwight Eisenhower began painting during a stay in Key West in the 1950’s.)

Beloved folk artist Mario Sanchez recreated the Key West of his boyhood in his painted wood carvings -- many containing elements of subtle humor. (Photo courtesy of the Key West Museum of Art & History).

Folk artist Mario Sanchez captured the Key West of his boyhood in his painted wood carvings. (Sanchez photos courtesy of the Key West Museum of Art & History and Gallery on Greene)

In fact, it’s hard to walk down the tranquil streets of Key West’s Old Town district without coming upon at least one artist intent on an easel. The colorful Victorian architecture and strong tropical light are pretty well irresistible to painters — and the atmosphere of creativity has encouraged craftsmen from palm-frond weavers to the late Mario Sanchez, who was widely regarded as the 20th century’s most important Cuban-American folk artist.

With wood, simple brushes, and chisels, Sanchez recreated the Key West of his boyhood in three-dimensional painted woodcarvings. His vivid and often humorous images feature subjects ranging from street vendors and cigar makers to dancers, gossiping women and chicken thieves.

Key West's historic courthouse is vividly portrayed in this classic Sanchez piece.

Key West's historic courthouse is vividly portrayed in this classic Sanchez piece.

In addition, Sanchez’ work portrays colorful impressions of island landmarks — including Ernest Hemingway’s one-time home, the Key West Lighthouse and the San Carlos Institute.

He began his pieces as sketches on brown paper bags. Slowly, carving and adding the bright primary colors of the tropics, he produced incredible, unforgettable primitive art.

Like Mario Sanchez’ masterworks, much of the other art found in the Keys mirrors the island chain’s characteristic lightheartedness, irreverence, and appreciation for life.

That’s especially true of the pieces created by leading American sculptor Seward Johnson, a part-time Key West resident. Johnson is world-renowned for his trompe l’oeil life-sized cast bronzes of ordinary people engaged in everyday activities.

Seward Johnson's gigantic "American Gothic" figures stood outside the Key West Museum of Art & HIstory until they were replaced by another evocative pair of Johnson giants. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Seward Johnson's gigantic "American Gothic" figures stood outside the Key West Museum of Art & History until they were replaced by another evocative pair of Johnson giants. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Placed in public settings around the world, they’re so realistic that they unfailingly elicit double-takes and grins.

Johnson arrived in Key West with his wife in the early 1990s. For the past several years, his pieces have been a starring attraction in and around the Key West Museum of Art & History at the Custom House.

His exhibits have included “Beyond the Frame,” three-dimensional life-sized interpretations of 19th-century paintings — constructed so that visitors actually step into the scenes to become (at least temporarily) part of the artwork.

His “Icons” showcase included “Forever Marilyn,” a life-sized three-dimensional take on the famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe, dressed in white, with a flirtatiously blowing skirt. (That piece, by the way, now stands in front of Key West’s beloved Tropic Cinema on Eaton Street.)

Visitors to Johnson's "Behind the Frame" exhibit at the Key West Museum of Art & History could actually step into this lifesize sculpture to become part of the artwork. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Visitors to Johnson's "Beyond the Frame" exhibit at the Key West Museum of Art & History could actually step into this lifesize sculpture to become part of the artwork. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Johnson’s work overflows the Custom House building and spills out onto the grounds. A gigantic pair of his sculptures stands in front of the museum, beckoning people in to discover more. And his multi-figure piece in the garden behind the Custom House literally stops people in their tracks. (It’s inspired by “The Dance” by Henri Matisse — look that up and you’ll see why it’s so startling!)

Not unexpectedly, given its artistic richness, Key West is home to a variety of galleries. Stroll around historic Old Town district and you’ll find galleries offering Haitian primitives, art glass, folk art, original oils and watercolors, bronzes and other sculptures, offbeat “gyotaku” fish prints, and much more.

For an inspiring “big picture” of the arts scene in Key West and the Florida Keys, just click here.

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Dive into Matrimony in the Keys

Julie Botteri | April 2011

The romantic Florida Keys appeal to both landlubber lovers and those who can’t wait to get into the water to explore the undersea environment. The Keys’ clear, warm waters even attract scuba aficionados ready to tie the knot at the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef — often with exotic sea creatures in attendance.

Couples in love can have a dolphin for their "best man" at Islamorada's Theater of the Sea. (Photo courtesy of Theater of the Sea)

Couples in love can have a dolphin for their "best man" at Islamorada's Theater of the Sea. (Photo courtesy of Theater of the Sea)

In fact, in North America’s most popular dive destination, brides and grooms and their attendants can don gowns, tuxedos and scuba tanks to “take the plunge” into matrimonial adventure.

Scores of saltwater ceremonies are performed by Captain Spencer Slate of Atlantis Dive Center, a self-proclaimed “Justice of the Pisces” who has officiated at underwater weddings in the waters off Key Largo for more than 30 years. One of them even landed in the Guinness Book of World Records — and featured 110 divers, all wearing Halloween costumes!

Probably the Upper Keys’ most popular underwater nuptial niche is the nine-foot-high shrine of “Christ of the Abyss.” The 4,000-pound bronze statue stands in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, within the boundaries of Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. (FYI, Pennekamp was the first underwater preserve in the United States and recently celebrated its 50th birthday.)

The compelling statue is one of the most photographed underwater sites in the world. Its timeless features and welcoming arms, seemingly lifted in eternal benediction, make it a perfect place to exchange “I do’s.”

Tuxes, wedding gowns and scuba gear are the proper attire for those diving into matrimony in the Florida Keys.

Tuxes, wedding gowns and discreet scuba gear are the proper attire for those diving into matrimony in the Florida Keys.

At Amy Slate’s Amoray Dive Resort, love is in the name. Yes, the resort’s moniker is a tongue-in-cheek blend of  “amore,” the Italian word for love, and “a moray” eel — one of the dive instructors’ friendly reef pets often seen on dives and during wedding ceremonies. If you’re ready to dive into matrimony, chances are you’ll fall in love with Amoray’s private charters, onboard parties and imaginative approach.

But you don’t have to be UNDER the water to have a unique water-themed wedding in the Upper Keys. At Islamorada’s Theater of the Sea, marine mammal fans can plan a ceremony with dolphins as part of the wedding party! Couples in love can reserve the park for an evening, and Theater of Sea’s trained staff will help choreograph dolphin behavior shows to their choice of wedding music.

For a real cetacean celebration, the bride can even arrive at the ceremony in a floating chariot accompanied by dolphins.

Of course, a unique marine-themed wedding deserves an equally unique honeymoon — and what better place than the world’s only underwater hotel?

Following an underwater wedding, consider honeymooning at the world's only underwater hotel -- located in Key Largo.

Following an underwater wedding, consider honeymooning at the world's only underwater hotel -- located in Key Largo.

Located in Key Largo and called Jules’ Undersea Lodge, the fascinating honeymoon habitat has even been featured on television’s “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Honeymooning dive enthusiasts can spend the night there, with amenities including a gourmet meal prepared by a “mer-chef,” among the marine life of the Keys.

Imagine waking up on the first morning of your married life five fathoms beneath the sea, with vivid-colored tropical fish peering in the wide windows to share your happiness.

Want more info on wedding opportunities — underwater, offbeat or even traditional — in the romantic Florida Keys? Just say “I do” and click here.

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Beware of Strange Bedfellows in Strange Key West Race

Carol Shaughnessy | April 2011

In most places, beds are reserved for sleeping or amorous activities. But not in the Conch Republic — where, on a Saturday afternoon in late April each year, they’re propelled along Key West’s famed Duval Street on wheels in the annual Conch Republic Red Ribbon Bed Race.

Even NBC "Today" weatherman Al Roker (left) and anchor Matt Lauer are fans of the irreverent Conch Republic. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Even NBC "Today" weatherman Al Roker (left) and anchor Matt Lauer are fans of the irreverent Conch Republic. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The wacky charity event is always a highlight of the annual Conch Republic Independence Celebration, created to mark the day the Florida Keys seceded from the United States after a 1982 U.S. Border Patrol blockade of the island chain. (FYI, the motto of the republic, which calls itself the world’s first fifth-world nation, is “We Seceded Where Others Failed.”)

Billed as “the most fun you can have in bed with your clothes on,” the bed race pits multi-person teams against each other as they pilot their beds along Duval (which, by the way, is often called the longest street in the world because it stretches from the Atlantic Ocean at one end to the Gulf of Mexico at the other).

According to bed race rules (yes, there ARE rules), each colorfully decorated bed must be mounted on wheels and either pushed or pulled by costumed team members. At least one team member must ride on the bed.

These strange bedfellows go for speed during a past year's race down Duval Street. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

These strange bedfellows go for speed during a past year's race down Duval Street. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“They’re in for the ride of their lives, because they’re not steering — there are no functional steering devices allowed,” said a Bed Race veteran who insisted on remaining nameless. “This isn’t the type of event where you read the newspaper in bed, that’s for sure.”

Past years’ races have featured a bed decorated like a smoke-blowing dragon, one accompanied by a gaggle of caged drag queens, one whose team members were dressed only in g-strings and chained to the bedposts, and many others that defy description.

The 2011 Bed Race is set to begin at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 30, with a parade of beds followed by the competition itself. If you join the spectators on Duval Street for the freewheeling sporting challenge, prepare to encounter some pretty strange bedfellows (and possibly a few who are three sheets to the wind!).

Supporters of the quirky republic show their conch spirit. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Supporters of the quirky republic show their conch spirit. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

While the bed race is the oldest event on the Conch Republic Independence Celebration’s schedule, it’s not necessarily the most eccentric. The festival runs April 22 through May 1 with highlights including a “drag” race for dressed-up drag queens in staggeringly high heels and the colorful so-called “world’s longest parade.”

There’s also a pirates’ ball and pig roast, a lighthearted sea battle featuring tall ships, a pet stroll for “party animals,” the Conch Crawl showcasing favorite watering holes, a sailing race that recalls the Keys’ historic shipwreck salvage tradition, and a whole lot more.

So don’t pull the covers over your head and hit the alarm clock’s snooze button. Instead, exchange your jammies for traveling garb — and head down to the Conch Republic to be part of its exuberant annual celebration.

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Keys Tarpon Fishing: Going for the Silver … On Your Own

Andy Newman | April 2011

It’s not called the silver king for nothing.

There is simply no other acrobatic fish on the inshore fishing scene more coveted by anglers than the tarpon.

A tarpon seemingly stands on its tail after being hooked in the Florida Keys. (Photo by Pat Ford)

A tarpon seemingly stands on its tail after being hooked in the Florida Keys. (Photo by Pat Ford)

Known for their high-leaping ability, tarpon are powerful and tenacious. It’s sometimes easy to get them to bite a bait, but often they have lockjaw and can frustrate anglers and captains alike.

I had caught and released a number of tarpon, but those achievements always came under the tutelage of a professional Florida Keys fishing guide.

I wanted to do it myself.

So late last Friday afternoon, I armed myself with the necessary fishing gear, including two conventional reels spooled with 25-pound-test line, two new Key Largo graphite rods, 80-pound test leader and a few 7/0 Owner hooks. I purchased a few live crabs and took off from Islamorada with my wife in our 14-foot Panga with a 40hp Yamaha outboard motor.

(It should be noted that I did tap the expertise of several guides at Bud ‘N’ Mary’s Fishing Marina. Hey, local knowledge is always important.)

We motored to a location close to Lignumvitae Key on the bay side of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway in Islamorada. Just as we arrived on location, a huge tarpon, weighing at least 140 pounds, leaped in front of the boat.

“Did you see that, Maria?” I screamed to my wife.

She had missed it, but it was a good omen. We set the anchor and floated our lines back behind the boat, and it didn’t take long to get that first bite.

In April 2008, former President George H. Bush, left, caught and released a 135-pound tarpon while fishing with guide George Wood, right, in Islamorada. )Photo by Andy Mill)

In April 2008, former President George H. Bush, left, caught and released a 135-pound tarpon while fishing with guide George Wood, right, in Islamorada. (Photo by Andy Mill)

First, it was just a slight twitch of the rod tip. Then a more pronounced movement. I looked at it, thinking something wasn’t just right and perhaps some seaweed had entangled in the line. But seconds later, the rod doubled over and the reel began screaming as line stripped from the reel.

This was no seaweed for sure.

I remembered previous instructions and held the rod up and started reeling. You never, ever want to jerk the rod back to try to set the hook in a tarpon. Just keep a bend in the rod and, if the tarpon jumps, simply bow to the fish while it’s in the air to loosen up the pressure.

I tried to hand the rod off to my wife because she had never caught a tarpon before.

“No, you need to catch this fish,” she said.

With Maria driving the boat (it was the first time she had piloted a boat to follow a fish), we took off to get some line back, because the tarpon was headed to the open ocean.

Blog author Andy Newman gets ready to go out tarpon fishing. (Photo by Maria Newman)

Blog author Andy Newman gets ready to go out tarpon fishing. (Photo by Maria Newman)

The fish jumped a half-dozen times, shaking with those big silver scales glistening in the setting sun like hundreds of tiny mirrors. Every time it came out of the water, we reacted with a scream or an “Oh, my God.”

We chased that fish trying to get the leader to the boat because, in order to score an official release, the angler or the captain needs to touch the leader. We came close at least a half-dozen times, but my wife just couldn’t reach out far enough to tap the leader.

The fish took us into shallow water, then into deep water around navigation aids and around stone crab trap buoys. I thought for sure were going to lose it, but about 40 minutes later Maria was able to touch the leader and hold it long enough for me to grab it and break it close to the hook.

We estimated the fish’s weight at about 80 to 100 pounds. It swam away, none the worse for wear (most hooks left in fish eventually corrode away), and we were ecstatic.

Although the sun had set, we figured we should give it one more try. We went back to our location and put out the crabs again. Unbelievably, five minutes later we were on again to another tarpon.

Richard Stanczyk, mentor to Andy and scores of Keys anglers, shows off a nice Spanish mackerel caught on fly off Islamorada. (Photo by Andy Newman)

Richard Stanczyk, mentor to Andy and scores of Keys anglers, shows off a nice Spanish mackerel caught on fly off Islamorada. (Photo by Andy Newman)

This time I insisted that Maria take the rod. This was a different fish and, incredibly, I was able to touch the leader after a 10-minute fight. We had officially released two tarpon for the evening, she got her first and we were elated.

I reported the news the next morning to my professional guiding friends.

“So can I book you for a tarpon trip tonight?” my friend Richard asked with a grin.

I politely declined, laughing at the thought, even though I knew Richard was kidding. After all, I’m an amateur when compared to the pros in the Keys who have years of experience under their belts.

Besides, I would have never been able to have caught those fish without the previous experience of fishing with a pro and without “local knowledge.” Not to mention the fact that, for the past few weeks, the tarpon fishing action in the Keys has been simply phenomenal. The fish are seemingly everywhere around the bridges and channels between the ocean and bay.

It reminded me of the very first tarpon I caught and released back 21 years ago.

I had reported the accomplishment to the late Jim Hardie, the longtime outdoors writer at the “Miami Herald.” In his column a few days later he wrote, “If Andy Newman is catching tarpon, they must be biting like fleas.”

I’m here to tell you that’s exactly the case.

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Adventure and Seafaring Spirit Rule the Keys

Carol Shaughnessy | April 2011

In 1822, when Key West was a brand-new seafaring settlement, the U.S. government sent Commodore David Porter to banish pirates from area waters. With his “anti-piracy squadron” of small schooners and barges, Porter pursued his prey into mangrove coves and inlets, persisting until the pirate rogues were gone.

Porter tried to banish buccaneers like these, but they can still be spotted at the annual Key Largo Pirates Fest. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Porter tried to banish buccaneers like these, but they can still be spotted at the annual Key Largo Pirates Fest. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Yet even Porter couldn’t vanquish the buccaneering spirit of adventure and individuality that characterized the Florida Keys.

Today, that spirit is one of the most intriguing — and enduring — things about the 125-mile-long island chain. You’ll discover the Keys’ renegade seafaring heritage in museums and attractions, shipwreck and treasure tales, dive and snorkel trips, and sailing cruises aboard historic tall ships.

Many early settlers in Key West and Islamorada were wreckers — salvaging goods from ships that sank along the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef, which runs parallel to the Keys.

FYI, despite popular myths, the wreckers weren’t lawless outlaws interested only in lining their own pockets. They actually became an early Coast Guard, often rescuing crews and passengers off sinking ships.

At the Key West Shipwreck Museum, visitors can "meet" wreckers and learn their fascinating stories. (Photo courtesy of Historic Tours of America)

At the Key West Shipwreck Museum, visitors can meet "wreckers" and learn their fascinating stories. (Photo courtesy of Historic Tours of America)

Admittedly, they also earned a tidy profit. In the mid-1800s, the wrecking industry made Key West the wealthiest city per capita in the entire U.S.

Current-day visitors to the Keys can relive that era — by touring a Key West wrecking museum where re-enactors portray the industry’s colorful captains and crew. It’s also possible (and fascinating!) to visit Indian Key Historic State Park in the Upper Keys. The 10-acre island was once a busy port established by renowned wrecker Jacob Housman.

Long before the shipwreck salvors arrived, fleets of Spanish galleons sailed regularly past the Keys carrying goods and treasures from the New World home to Spain. Many ships sank in the area — including 13 from Spain’s 1733 fleet, which went down in the waters from Key Largo to Grassy Key.

The exploits of treasure salvage pioneer Art McKee are showcased at the Florida Keys History of Diving Museum. (Photo courtesy of the Florida Keys History of Diving Museum)

The exploits of treasure salvage pioneer Art McKee are showcased at the Florida Keys History of Diving Museum. (Photo courtesy of the Florida Keys History of Diving Museum)

Today these shipwreck sites (a few in VERY shallow water) represent some of the oldest artificial reefs in North America. Modern seafarers can take dive or snorkel excursions to explore them, and spot their remaining ballast stones and timbers surrounded by protected corals and marine life.

Popular dive sites include the wreck of El Rubi or Capitana, the flagship of the 1733 fleet. In the late 1930s, Art McKee began salvaging the vessel’s remains — recovering cannons, religious medallions, silver pieces of eight, gold doubloons, weapons, navigational instruments, ship’s fittings and so many silver bars that he was nicknamed “Silver Bar McKee.”

You can find out more about his salvage efforts in a remarkable exhibit at the Florida Keys History of Diving Museum, located in Islamorada.

To discover the Keys’ most famous wreck — dubbed “the shipwreck of the century” by the national press — head for the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West. The museum showcases artifacts and treasures from the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, found off Key West in 1985 by shipwreck salvor Mel Fisher after a 16-year search.

Today, Keys seafaring adventurers are still salvaging shipwreck glories -- like this centuries-old gold necklace and medallions found by divers from Mel Fisher's Treasures. (Photo by Sharon Wiley, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Today, Keys adventurers are still salvaging shipwreck glories -- like this centuries-old gold necklace found by divers from Mel Fisher's Treasures. (Photo by Sharon Wiley, Florida Keys News Bureau)

At the museum, you’ll see priceless objects from the Atocha and Santa Margarita, both lost in a 1622 hurricane — including a 77-karat emerald, gold chains, ship’s fittings, navigational instruments, gold and silver coins, and silver bars as big as shoeboxes.

If you want experience the Keys’ seafaring history for yourself, you’ve got two major choices.

First, you can set sail aboard a tall ship or schooner — and maybe even help the crew raise the sails. Many excursion vessels are docked in Key West’s Historic Seaport, once the heart of the island’s salvaging and commercial fishing industries.

Or, if your daydreams focus on the Keys’ piratical past, join brigands and wenches at Key West’s annual Pirates in Paradise Festival or the annual Key Largo Pirates Fest. With activities ranging from “attacking” unsuspecting landlubbers to savoring tankards of grog, they offer a great chance to celebrate the buccaneering spirit that still rules the Keys.

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Key Lime Pie: The Sweeter Side of Keys Cuisine

Christina Baez | March 2011

Just about every city boasts a signature dish — one that local residents love and curious travelers simply HAVE to try. For example, there’s New Orleans’ jambalaya, Chicago’s deep-dish pizza and Philadelphia’s cheese steak sandwich. In the Florida Keys & Key West, that dish is Key lime pie.

What makes a blog author happy in the Florida Keys? In Christina's case, it's a luscious slice ofKey lime pie.

What makes a blog author happy in the Florida Keys? In Christina's case, it's a luscious slice of Key lime pie.

Key lime pie is made from the Key lime, a fruit indigenous to the Keys that’s smaller and rounder than limes typically found in a grocery store. In fact, Key lime pie is the official pie of the entire State of Florida, and millions of slices are savored each year by visitors and locals.

Its exact birthdate and creator are unknown, but the pie was likely created in Key West in the late 19th century — before refrigeration, and before the debut of the Oversea Railway that brought fresh ingredients like milk to the island at high speed.

Recipes for the original Key lime pie don’t require refrigeration OR baking. Instead, the acid in the Key lime juice reacts chemically with the other ingredients (a process called souring) and “cooks” the pie.

The typical ingredients of an authentic Key lime pie are sweetened condensed milk, egg yolks, Key lime juice and a crust generally made from butter and graham crackers. The egg yolks give the pie a yellowish coloring (green pies are absolutely NOT authentic).

Few desserts are more deliciously decadent than frozen chocolate-covered Key lime pie on a stick.

Few desserts are more deliciously decadent than frozen chocolate-covered Key lime pie on a stick.

“I’m always amazed that these simple ingredients can make such a wonderful pie,” said Kermit Carpenter, resident Key lime pie expert and the owner of Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe.

Key lime pie can be enjoyed with many toppings, but a controversy has raged for decades over whether whipped cream or meringue is better. Each has its devoted supporters, and the two factions never seem to tire of quarrelling.

Today, Key lime pie is found in many forms throughout the Keys — dipped in chocolate and frozen on a stick at Kermit’s, deep-fried at Porky’s Bayside Restaurant in Marathon or even mixed with multiple flavors.

The pie also has inspired nontraditional Key lime–flavored items: Key lime jerk seasoning from Peppers of Key West, Key Lime Wing Sauce from Kermit’s, homemade Key lime ice cream at Flamingo Crossing in Key West and the milkshake-like Key lime freeze at Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen in Key Largo.

Key lime pie lovers have battled for decades over whether whipped cream or meringue makes a tastier topping.

Key lime pie lovers have battled for decades over whether whipped cream or meringue makes a tastier topping.

A good Key lime pie should be naturally tart and stiff, standing up well on a plate yet still looking and feeling creamy.

Where’s the best version in the Keys? Take the road less traveled (i.e., Card Sound Road) to Key Largo’s Alabama Jack’s, and you’ll find a Key lime pie so smooth and cool it could be mistaken for ice cream.

Bob’s Bunz in Islamorada is known for enormous cinnamon and sticky buns, but their Key lime pie is a favorite for its tart lime flavor and creamy cheesecake-like consistency.

Marathon’s hidden Key lime treasure can be found at Keys Fisheries, an outdoor counter-service restaurant connected to a world-class fish and seafood exporter. The fish is fresh off the boat and the pie is the perfect blend of sweet and tart deliciousness.

Through reading and ready to click on another website? Then take your Key lime pie to go -- from Keys Fisheries in Marathon.

Through reading and ready to click on another website? Then take your Key lime pie to go -- from Keys Fisheries in Marathon.

Want to savor Key lime pie in tropical luxury? Then head for the Dining Room at Little Palm Island off the Lower Keys. Little Palm’s offering is a decadent cashew-crusted Key lime pie topped with a whipped cream fruit coulis.

Key West features many restaurants and emporiums that claim to serve the best or most authentic Key lime pie. However, meringue lovers’ one-stop shop is the funky Blue Heaven Restaurant in historic Bahama Village. The meringue on Blue Heaven’s pie stands several inches tall — and it’s almost as good to look at as it is to eat.

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Jimmy Buffett — Florida Keys Wedding Singer?????

Carol Shaughnessy | March 2011

Just as Ernest Hemingway developed his “Papa” persona while living in Key West, internationally recognized singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett drew on the influence of his island home to create the “Margaritaville mystique” that has flavored his music for decades.

Who knew Jimmy Buffett sang at weddings? Here, he belts out a song during a close friend's wedding reception in the Lower Keys. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau).

Who knew Jimmy Buffett sang at weddings? Here, he belts out a song during a close friend's wedding reception in the Lower Keys. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

During his Key West years, Jimmy studied the island’s characters, cheerfully loony atmosphere and laid-back lifestyle — and memorialized them in songs such as his anthem, “Margaritaville,” and “A Pirate Looks at Forty.”

His tunes tell the stories of larger-than-life Key Westers like the late “gentleman smuggler” Phil Clark and the late bar owner/mayor Captain Tony Tarracino. Many of his most famous lyrics feature Key West locales like Fausto’s Food Palace (owned by another former Key West mayor, Jimmy Weekley), the Blue Heaven restaurant where free-range chickens entertain diners in the outdoor courtyard, and the legendary Chart Room Bar.

In fact, before he gained lasting fame and pioneered the musical genre now called “tropical rock,” Jimmy occasionally sang and played guitar at the Chart Room — and at Captain Tony’s, and at the late lamented Full Moon Saloon where 1970s Keys outlaws and visiting celebrities shared drinks and stories.

In 1985, Jimmy debuted his first Margaritaville Store in Key West — and what began as a welcoming yet ramshackle enterprise on the waterfront grew into an empire. The original Margaritaville is now located beside his Margaritaville Café on Key West’s historic Duval Street.

jimmy's early albums -- like "White Sport Coat" here -- reflect his passion for his Key West home.

Jimmy's early albums -- like "White Sport Coat" here -- reflect his passion for his Key West home.

Given Jimmy’s strong connection to Key West and the Keys, it’s fitting that — just seven weeks after his newsmaking fall off a stage during a show in Australia — his first post-fall performance was a surprise Keys mini-concert to celebrate the wedding of two good friends.

Jimmy walked barefooted onto a small stage at the private home of local dentist Fred Troxel, who a few hours earlier had exchanged vows with Key Wester Rita Brown (also known as the Keys’ film commissioner).

Delighting the 300 reception guests, he belted out Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” and the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” For his finale, he sang his own “Margaritaville,” changing some of the lyrics to cater to the occasion.

Jimmy told the crowd that it was the first time he’d performed for any group since the fall that put him in the hospital briefly and caused him to cancel a New Zealand performance. However, he showed no ill effects from the five-foot tumble.

Jimmy performs a rollicking set for his Parrot Head fans during one of their annual conventions in Key West. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Jimmy performs a rollicking set for his Parrot Head fans during one of their annual conventions in Key West. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

That’s fabulous news for his millions of “Parrot Head” fans, named for the offbeat headgear they wear at his concerts. Emulating their beloved “pirate laureate,” they regard Key West as their spiritual home port — flocking to visit the Margaritaville Store and Café, and even making pilgrimages to the small unmarked waterfront warehouse that houses Jimmy’s Shrimp Boat Sound recording studio.

Each year, the Parrot Heads hold their annual convention on the island Jimmy described in his early classic, “I Have Found Me a Home.” No doubt many of them, too, feel the Keys magic that caused their hero to write about pedaling his old red bike to “the bars and the beaches of my town” … and inspired his simple but heartfelt line, ‘You can have the rest of everything I own / ’cause I have found me a home.”

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