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Keys Voices Main Archive

‘Big Man’ Clarence Clemons Left Us with a Love for the Keys

admin2 | June 2011

(Editor’s Note: This week’s Keys Voices, honoring the late Clarence Clemons, was written by Larry Kahn, editor of the “Florida Keys Keynoter.”)

"Big Man" Clarence Clemons, shown here onstage in the Florida Keys, was an unparalleled musician who loved the island chain. (Photo courtesy of Redbone Celebrity Tournament Series)

"Big Man" Clarence Clemons, shown here onstage in the Florida Keys, was an unparalleled musician who loved the island chain. (Photo courtesy of Redbone Celebrity Tournament Series)

Saxophone player extraordinaire Clarence Clemons, 69, for nearly 40 years Bruce Springsteen’s No. 2 man in the E Street Band, was well known in the Keys for playing gigs at various bars, sitting in with whatever bands were playing.

They include the Schooner Wharf in Key West; the Brass Monkey Lounge, Castaway, Dockside Lounge and the Hurricane Grille in Marathon; and Woody’s, the Lorelei and Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada.

Clemons, who died June 18, was also a staple fixture at a group of Florida Keys fishing tournaments that raise money for cystic fibrosis treatment and research.

“He always showed up with his sax and played, even though I never was presumptuous that he would play,” said Gary Ellis, founder of the Redbone Celebrity Tournament Series.

Ellis said that even though it wasn’t widely known, Clemons had an affinity for sportfishing.

“He was totally taken by fishing,” Ellis said. “He was all about Keys fishing … for tarpon and bonefish.”

Shown here releasing a catch, Clemons found pure joy in fishing Keys waters.

Shown here releasing a bonefish, Clemons found great enjoyment in fishing Keys waters. (Photo courtesy of Redbone Celebrity Tournament Series)

In the Keys, Clemons’ special place was in Marathon. His Stirrup Key home overlooks Florida Bay.

Clemons’ 2009 autobiography, “Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales,” has a chapter called “Marathon Key.” In it, he writes following back surgery:

Most of my time lately has been spent in Florida healing. It’s a slow process but I’m doing well. I feel strong every day and look forward to dancing across the stage again on the next tour. As I write this, I’m sitting on my porch looking out at the bay toward the horizon where the ocean meets the sky.

The book also has a chapter called “Looking Back from Islamorada.” That recounts his chance meeting with singer Jimmy Buffett, who was signing books at an Islamorada bookstore, likely Hooked on Books.

Clemons went into the bookstore and saw a bunch of Parrot Heads {as Buffett fans are called}.

Clemons jams with the band at a favorite Keys watering hole. (Photo courtesy of Larry Kahn)

Clarence plays the Brass Monkey in Marathon in May 2010 at the Save the Monkey party. (Photo by Ryan McCarthy, "Florida Keys Keynoter")

I walked up to the head of the line and waited for Jimmy to notice me. It’s very hard not to notice me. Especially in a tiny Florida bookstore a few feet off the highway.

“You’ll have to get in line with everybody else, sir,” said Jimmy when he finally looked up.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“I don’t think so either,” said Jimmy, smiling. “Big Man! Look everybody, it’s Clarence Clemons.”

The folks in line smiled. Two big stars for the price of one in a very unlikely setting. Well, one big star and me. They applauded.

(Editor’s Note: Andy Newman contributed to this piece. An earlier version of it appeared in the Wednesday, June 22, edition of the “Florida Keys Keynoter.”)

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The Vanishing Boot: a Wacky Return to Key West

Carol Shaughnessy | June 2011

One of my friends is moving from Marathon to the Lower Keys. Her days are filled with plumbers, pool cleaners, and absent cable installers. Her speech is disjointed; her eyes glitter feverishly.

Is this the face of a boot thief? (Photo by Joanne Denning)

Is this the face of a boot thief? (Photo by Joanne Denning)

I recognize her symptoms from the time, years ago, when I moved home to Key West with my then-boyfriend Gerry after 18 months in Nashville. In fact, I still can’t look at a moving van without twitching uncontrollably.

It all began with Clyde.

Nashville, Sept. 29. We hire a mover despite his peculiar nickname (Clyde the Magic Mover), and he asks how many boxes we have. Gerry and I are not fooled. We have moved before. We do what any other experienced householders would do. We lie.

Nashville, Sept. 30. Clyde the Magic Mover and his partner, Ezell (E´-zell), arrive. Both are in their mid-50s and so strong they have enough energy to joke as they lift our 300-pound couch into their moving van, a vehicle seemingly big enough to hold Sloppy Joe’s Bar.

When all our belongings are safely stowed, we hop in our car and follow the van south.

Exuberant blossoms add a lush beauty to Key West homes ... like our beloved cottage.

Exuberant blossoms add a lush beauty to Key West homes ... like our beloved cottage.

Key West, Oct. 1. Arriving at our new cottage during an island rain shower, we realize our attractive tropical yard is filled with tropical mud. Unfortunately, we must cross it to get the furniture in the back door.

Undaunted, we do what Keys residents have done for generations — we improvise. We lay a large board from the moving van over the mud. Clyde and Ezell speedily unload our household goods and disappear. With their board.

Key West, Oct. 2. While I wander the Historic Seaport, glorying in being back on my island, Gerry stays home to unpack. Unfortunately, another tropical shower turns our backyard into a mud puddle again. Carrying boxes in from the car, he removes his favorite cowboy boots and leaves them outside the back door so he won’t track mud inside.

Shortly afterward, he spots a floppy-eared puppy racing past the kitchen window with something in its mouth. At first he thinks the object is a dirty rag — but then realizes it’s one of his boots! Frantically, he gives chase but can’t catch the culprit.

After returning, I quickly headed down to the Historic Seaport.

After returning, I quickly headed down to the Historic Seaport.

When I get home, Gerry is pacing the kitchen (barefooted) muttering to himself. The remaining boot sits on the counter.

Gerry does not handle this kind of thing well. Indignantly he relates the boot-snatching episode. I collapse into a chair, laughing uncontrollably.

Later, as we dine on Key West pink shrimp at the Hogfish Bar, Gerry says,  “I’ve heard that animals do only what they need for survival. So why did that dog need my boot? He can’t wear it!”

We fantasize briefly about a local dog pack indulging in boot worship on Dog Beach beside Louie’s Backyard. I try to finish eating my shrimp, but can’t stop laughing.

Key West, Oct. 3. Gerry starts the day in his flip-flops. He’s not amused when I hum “These Boots Are Made for Walking.”

The missing boot reappeared behind the Southernmost Point marker, delineating the southernmost spot of land in the continental U.S. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The missing boot reappeared behind the Southernmost Point marker, delineating the southernmost spot of land in the continental U.S. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Outside, savoring Key West’s tangy salt air, I begin chatting with two kids trying to crack a coconut on the sidewalk. Gerry unobtrusively searches the area for a boot.

Finally one of the kids says, “Mister, are you looking for something?”

Gerry relates the whole sorry tale.

The older kid grabs Gerry’s sleeve and urges him down Whitehead Street. There, behind the Southernmost Point monument, the boy indicates a boot. It’s muddy, bedraggled, and appears to have a few bite marks.

Gerry snatches it up with a glad cry.

Key West, Oct. 4. I bike over to Fausto’s Food Palace for groceries. On the way back, I encounter a puppy that looks suspiciously like the boot thief Gerry described. He’s carrying something in his mouth … but nevertheless, he manages to give me a wide canine grin.

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Sally Bauer’s Dream: Diving into Underwater History

Christina Baez | June 2011

In the late 1960s, Sally and Joe Bauer made a road-trip pit stop that changed their lives forever. Driving back from diving in the Florida Keys, they stopped at a store near the Miami airport called Stone Age Antiques.

Sally Bauer stands beside a diving bell after a dive in Norway in 2005. (Photos courtesy of the Florida Keys History of Diving Museum)

Sally Bauer stands beside a diving bell after a dive in Norway in 2005. (Photos courtesy of the Florida Keys History of Diving Museum)

There they found an old diving helmet selling for $500, and bought it because they thought it was attractive. That simple act set them on a path that, years later, led to their founding the Florida Keys History of Diving Museum in Islamorada.

“When we purchased that helmet, we caught the collecting bug,” Sally admitted. “Like any incurable disease, it can’t be treated. You can suppress the strength of it a little bit — in this case by adding to the collection — but you never quite get over it.”

Under the influence of the “disease,” the Bauers eventually assembled the world’s largest collection of diving artifacts, antiques, books and prints related to the history of diving.

Sally wasn’t always interested in the underwater world. She grew up in a rural area near Youngstown, Ohio, and later studied medicine. She first met her husband of 42 years, the late Joe Bauer, when she showed up at his office seeking a summer job while in college.

“I started working for him, and then I worked for and with him all of the rest of his life,” she said. “We did everything together — that was my joy through life and my great tragedy when he died.”

Sally displays a wooden Griswood helmet underwater.

Sally displays a wooden Griswood helmet underwater.

Sally and Joe began diving as a hobby that helped them disconnect from the world and escape the stresses of the medical profession. They kept diving because of their fascination with the marine biology of aquarium fish.

The Bauers took dive trips to the Keys to study the spawning behaviors of fish and bring them back to their Cleveland home for further research. As well as making important scientific discoveries, they also were the first to raise clownfish and peppermint shrimp successfully in captivity.

By the 1980s, their collection of artifacts was so vast that they helped found the Historical Diving Society of the United States and the United Kingdom. Concerned that the collection, and the history it represented, would be scattered and lost after their deaths, they approached the Smithsonian Institute, Disney’s Epcot Center and others — but got little response.

“When we moved to the Keys full-time in 1997, we realized that the Keys are the only place that you can drive and dive on a coral reef,” Sally said. “It just seemed natural that this is where we should have the museum.”

That realization sparked their creation of the world-class Florida Keys History of Diving Museum, located at mile marker 83 — which contains artifacts and other items covering an incredible 4,000 years of diving history.

The museum's highlights include an exhibit of dive helmets from around the world, and one dedicated to Upper Keys treasure hunter Art "Silver Bar" McKee.

The museum's highlights include an exhibit dedicated to Upper Keys treasure hunter Art "Silver Bar" McKee.

Highlights include an exhibit of dive helmets from around the world, and one dedicated to legendary Upper Keys treasure hunter Art “Silver Bar” McKee.

“The museum is not just for divers — it’s for anyone who wants to know more about man’s quest to explore under the sea,” explained Sally, who was inducted into the prestigious Women Divers Hall of Fame in March 2011. “Joe used to say, ‘It’s a little jewel that has not quite been discovered,’ and when people come in they’re astonished.”

Joe Bauer died suddenly in April 2007, but his legacy and knowledge of diving history live on through Sally.

“My challenge for the rest of my life is to put this history down so it’s not lost,” Sally said. “There are many more stories we want to tell about diving history.”

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On ‘Safari’ with Rob O’Neal

Carol Shaughnessy | June 2011

Rob O’Neal wasn’t born with a camera in his hand (at least, his mother is reasonably sure he wasn’t). But somewhere along his journey from childhood to adulthood, from his former homes to Key West, the camera became an extension of Rob’s eyes and heart and brain.

Rob O'Neal's eye for a great photo leads him to shoot images like the "southernmost legs" in front of the Southernmost House in the continental United States. (All photos by Rob O'Neal)

Rob O'Neal's eye for a great photo leads him to shoot images like the "southernmost legs" in front of the Southernmost House in the continental United States. (All photos by Rob O'Neal)

He doesn’t regard that as remarkable; it’s simply the way things are. Just as Dylan and Springsteen translate their experiences into chords and lyrics, Rob translates his into photographs. His “Key West Photo Safari” book, a compilation of those experiences, is a quirkily vivid record of the world he inhabits — and a must-have volume for everybody who loves the island city.

Though Rob has shot thousands of photos of Key West and the Keys, until 1996 he was a land-locked guy who worked in the restaurant business in Dayton, Ohio. But serendipity intervened, and he wound up in Key West with a camera and a simple philosophy.

“The battle cry has always been, if it moves, shoot it,” says Rob, ”and if it doesn’t, shoot it again.”

From a helicopter, Rob captures the action of a world-class sailing regatta held each year in Key West waters.

From a helicopter, Rob captured the action of a world-class sailing regatta held each year in Key West waters.

Since his immersion in the world of Keys photography, Rob has found himself in some pretty unusual situations. For example, flying over Key West Harbor in a helicopter at 100 miles per hour to shoot world championship powerboat races. Diving on the shipwreck site of the fabled “Nuestra Señora de Atocha” Spanish galleon that sank off Key West in 1622. Dodging huge, lavish floats full of semi-naked revelers during the elaborate (and wonderfully bizarre) annual Fantasy Fest Parade.

Rob’s camera has captured some of the wackiest events in the Keys. Like the Minimal Regatta, where rules mandate that “vessels” must be constructed of two sheets of flimsy plywood and a roll of duct tape. The annual Parrot Head gathering of some 3,000 Jimmy Buffett fans, who typically wear eccentric headgear that inspired their name. The late lamented Chickenfest, a celebration of Key West’s free-range fowl that included a “Poultry in Motion” parade.

When former President Bill Clinton strolled down Duval Street past Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, Rob was there with his camera.

When former President Bill Clinton strolled down Duval Street past Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, Rob was there with his camera.

And while some photographers shoot only pretty stuff, or only things they’re assigned and paid to shoot, that’s not the case with Rob O’Neal. For him, chronicling his world on film is as natural — and as necessary — as breathing.

His wonderful “Photo Safari” is a testament to his passion. Not only are the shots intriguing and appealing, but many portray things that only someone with a highly developed “eye” (and an equally well-developed appreciation of the absurd) would recognize and shoot.

For example, there’s a car shaped like a giant red chile pepper rolling down legendary Duval Street. A trio of tiny dogs wearing t-shirts riding in a cushioned bicycle basket. A garbage truck with a supersized pink plush bunny stuck to its grill. A shrimpboat with its outriggers arched like the legs of a giant grasshopper.

And of course Rob’s book showcases the glorious mix of characters that give Key West its character — from drag queen Sushi to weatherbeaten former mayor and saloonkeeper Captain Tony.

So who is Rob O'Neal? Here's a rare portrait of the guy behind the camera.

So who is Rob O'Neal? Here's a rare portrait of the guy behind the camera.

You’ll even find a shot of former president (and repeat Key West visitor) Bill Clinton, dressed in a bright red polo shirt, standing under the sign that marks Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Café.

“Ask any Key Wester and they’ll tell you that the people are what it’s all about,” says Rob, adding that his book includes “entrepreneurs, doctors, musicians, cab drivers, city commissioners, policemen, firefighters, artists, writers, bartenders, and a healthy dose of full-fledged nut cases.”

Get the book, spend some time wandering through its pages, and you might be able to figure out which are which. Or, of course, you might not. But either way (and this is virtually guaranteed), you’ll have a terrific time trying.

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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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