Keys Highlights

Diana Nyad Honored in Key West for Epic Swim

Carol Shaughnessy | August 2014

On Labor Day 2013, Diana Nyad walked weakly but determinedly ashore onto Key West’s Smathers Beach — becoming the first person EVER to swim across the Florida Straits from Cuba to the Florida Keys without a shark cage.

Diana Nyad emerges from the Atlantic Ocean after completing an almost 111-mile swim from Cuba to Key West, becoming the first swimmer to cross the Florida Straits without a shark cage. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Diana Nyad emerges from the Atlantic Ocean after completing an almost 111-mile swim from Cuba to Key West, becoming the first swimmer to cross the Florida Straits without a shark cage. (All photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“Never, ever give up,” said the then-64-year-old Diana, her face swollen and salt-encrusted from the nearly 111-mile swim that she had attempted four times before her Labor Day triumph. “You’re never too old to chase your dreams.”

Diana first attempted the Florida Straits crossing in 1978 when she was 28 years old, swimming with a shark cage. After more than 41 hours of fighting strong currents and huge waves, driven far off course in a physically and mentally debilitating battle, she was lifted into a support boat.

In 2010, after being inspired by her 60th birthday, she tried again. But by the time she had the necessary Cuban government paperwork, her weather window had expired.

In 2011, Diana twice attempted the swim, estimated to take approximately 60 hours, with heartbreaking results both times. She was foiled by shoulder pain and a devastating in-water asthma attack in August 2011, and severe jellyfish stings in September.

During a 2012 attempt, she suffered multiple painful and debilitating stings from box jellyfish despite wearing a protective full-body suit each night.

Diana makes the victory sign after completing  her heroic swim from Cuba to Key West. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Diana makes the victory sign after completing her heroic swim from Cuba to Key West.

At that point, many people said swimming the grueling distance just wasn’t possible — particularly for a woman in her 60s. But that didn’t stop Diana Nyad.

“All my life I believed in dreaming big — I guess it doesn’t satisfy me to have small dreams,” she said with magnificent understatement.

Just before Labor Day 2013, she tried it again. Buoyed by lessons learned during her previous attempts, supported by a team whose dedication was nearly as strong as her own, she began swimming in Havana at 8:59 a.m. Aug. 31.

“I have had this Cuba swim under my skin since I was a child,” Diana admitted. “It’s the Mount Everest of oceans. It’s epic. And so you want to be the first.”

At night in the water, she donned the full-body suit, gloves and a specially crafted silicone face mask to protect her from jellyfish. She was accompanied by kayakers with electronic shark repelling devices.

And finally, after swimming continuously for 52 hours and 54 minutes, fighting bouts of nausea and exhaustion, Diana Nyad made it to the welcoming shore of Key West.

Diana hoists a bronze plaque Sept. 1 at a Key West ceremony commemorating her 2013 Cuba-to-Florida Keys swim. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Diana hoists a bronze plaque at a Key West ceremony commemorating her 2013 Cuba-to-Florida Keys swim. The plaque will be installed at Smathers Beach where she came ashore.

Nearly 2,000 people greeted her with cheers and applause as she reached the beach, hugged her best friend and business partner Bonnie Stoll, and lay down on a stretcher so medics could check her physical condition.

“I wanted this swim, this endeavor, not to just be the athletic record,” she said the next day, her face radiating peace and gratitude. “I wanted it to be a lesson to my life that says, ‘Be fully engaged. Be awake and alert and alive every minute of every waking day’.”

On Labor Day 2014, Diana and her team were back in Key West for the unveiling of a bronze plaque recognizing her achievement. It will be installed by the City of Key West on the promenade wall in front of Smathers Beach, close to the spot where she came ashore.

As well as honoring Diana for her amazing physical feat, the plaque honors the mental strength and perseverance that kept her focused on achieving her goal — and will forever be an example for those seeking to fulfill their dreams.

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Savoring the Southernmost Spas

Carol Shaughnessy | August 2014

Chances are, you need a break. You might be winding up a summer full of too many houseguests and outdoor activities, feeling drained by personal or professional challenges, or simply seeking a rejuvenating breather from real life in the “real world.” But no matter what you need to escape FROM, it makes sense to escape TO the Florida Keys.

Luxury and easygoing informality blend at Sunset Key Guest Cottages, located on a private island just off Key West. (Photo courtesy of Sunset Key Guest Cottages)

Luxury and easygoing informality blend at Sunset Key Guest Cottages, located on a private island just off Key West. (Photo courtesy of Sunset Key Guest Cottages)

That’s because the 125-mile island chain offers a rare blend of luxury and easygoing informality, inducing an air of tranquility and relaxation that’s one of the greatest luxuries of all. On your Keys escape, you might choose to stay in a restored Victorian inn behind a white picket fence, or a rustically elegant bed-and-breakfast surrounded by a nature sanctuary. But for the ultimate getaway, there’s nothing like a waterfront spa resort. Let’s face it: a truly relaxing vacation just doesn’t seem complete without a soothing, sinfully sybaritic spa treatment or two. Luckily, you’ll find spa facilities from Key Largo to Key West — many of them housed in tropically elegant full-service resorts with top-level restaurants and beaches lapped by blue water.

Craving the ultimate luxury escape? Indulge yourself at a full-service spa resort like Cheeca Lodge, shown here. (Photo courtesy of Cheeca Lodge & Spa)

Craving the ultimate luxury escape? Indulge yourself at a full-service spa resort like Cheeca Lodge, shown here. (Photo courtesy of Cheeca Lodge & Spa)

Among them is the Spa at Cheeca Lodge, located at the historic luxury property in Islamorada. Cheeca’s truly amazing spa features a variety of skin care treatments like the luscious Golden Veil facial incorporating passion flower oil (yummy!), massage therapies including the signature Hot Lava Shell offering, a heated lap pool with butler service and private personal fitness sessions. At Hawks Cay Resort, located on a lush 60-acre island just outside Marathon, the pampering possibilities at the 7,000-square-foot Calm Waters Spa include body treatments such as the signature Key Lime Mojito scrub and warm sea stone massage (trust me — it’s guaranteed to make you relax). You’ll also find hydrating facials and salon services, and even a menu of teen services featuring massage, facial and salon treatments.

Elegant pedicures are among the services at Hawks Cay's Calm Waters Spa. (Photo courtesy of Hawks Cay)

Elegant pedicures are among the services at Hawks Cay’s Calm Waters Spa. (Photo courtesy of Hawks Cay)

Off the Lower Keys, Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, a private island offering tropically elegant suites in thatched-roof villas, features the SpaTerre experience. Among the health and beauty treatments are ancient Javanese and Thai rituals, flower-petal bath experiences in a traditional Japanese soaking tub (how could you NOT love that?), facial indulgences and massages including one surrounded by the ocean. (FYI, Little Palm Island is so exotic that movie producers used it as a set for the filming of “PT-109,” portraying Lt. John F. Kennedy’s naval heroics in the South Pacific.) Key West offers a number of spas, both in resorts and independent facilities. Among the absolute standouts is the boutique spa at Sunset Key Guest Cottages, A Westin Resort, located on the 27-acre island of Sunset Key — just across the harbor from Key West’s historic downtown.

At Little Palm Island Resort, guests are pampered in a paradise-like setting. (Photo courtesy of Little Palm Island)

At Little Palm Island Resort, guests are pampered in a paradise-like setting. (Photo courtesy of Little Palm Island)

The spa menu includes traditional and tropical body treatments, facials with hydrating rose products and plant extracts, scrubs and wraps, touch therapy and a blending station where you can create a custom scent for your treatment. And if you’re visiting with that special someone, consider the Sunset Romance package for couples, featuring massages and a champagne dinner in a private beachside cabana. Ready to plan the ultimate indulgent getaway? Then click here for more information on Florida Keys spa and wellness offerings, and prepare to be pampered.

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Rick Worth: Painting the Town

Briana Ciraulo | August 2014

It’s hard to imagine Key West without its colorful art scene — without its larger-than-life outdoor murals, charming local galleries and, most important, quirky artists whose creativity enhances the island every day.

Beloved Key West artist Rick Worth paints everything from outdoor murals to fine-art pieces and "art-o-mobiles."  (Photo by Bryan Buckley, courtesy of Lucky Street Gallery)

Beloved Key West artist Rick Worth paints everything from outdoor murals to fine-art pieces and “art-o-mobiles.” (Photo by Bryan Buckley, courtesy of Lucky Street Gallery)

Rick Worth is one of those artists, enthusiastically sharing his love of art with everyone who crosses his path.

Rick moved to America’s southernmost island in the mid 1980s to fulfill his dream of becoming an artist, but it didn’t happen right away. An incredibly handy man, he took a multitude of “odd jobs” — doing maintenance and landscaping for resorts, working at museums and eventually becoming a vocational trainer with the Monroe Association for ReMARCable Citizens.

Eventually, the Key West Art & Historical Society gave him his first studio and the chance to put his artistic skills to use. And those skills produced some of the most enticing, unique art Key West has ever seen.

It all started with his “art-o-mobiles,” imaginatively painted cars whose designs displayed aspects of their owners’ personalities. Rick has adorned cars with depictions of everything from sharks and toucans to lifelike reefs and elaborate nature scenes.

“Before I knew it I had painted over 100 cars in a few years,” he said. “The cars really helped to change the personality of the town.”

What's Rick Worth's advice for his art students? "Just shut up and paint!" (Photo by Rob O'Neal)

What’s Rick’s advice for his art students? “Just shut up and paint!” (Photo by Rob O’Neal)

In addition to attention-grabbing cars, Rick has made his fair share of floats for Fantasy Fest, Key West’s wildly popular October costuming and masking festival. Today he paints from home and shows his work at the island’s Lucky Street Gallery.

About 15 years ago, he started what he calls his most rewarding experience yet: teaching. Over the years, Rick taught art classes in many churches and galleries all over town. Most recently, he’s been teaching “Painting Boot Camp” at The Studios of Key West, a class open to creative spirits of all ages and all experience levels.

“People always think they can’t do this or that, and you know what I say? Shut up and paint!” he advised with a grin.

As well as teaching, Rick is widely credited with helping expand the Key West art scene. Visitors can see many of his large-scale murals on the exteriors of buildings throughout town.

“I did my best to open up the walls in this town to public art,” he said. “I really try to get businesses to donate their walls, spaces — anything.”

His works include a fascinating rooftop vista outside Key West International Airport and a takeoff on a famous portrait of Washington crossing the Delaware on a building at the corner of Olivia and Simonton streets.

Rick's paintings are upbeat, whimsical representations of Key West's culture, diversity, and even canine companions. (Photo courtesy of Lucky Street Gallery)

Rick’s paintings are upbeat, whimsical representations of Key West’s culture, diversity, and even canine companions. (Photo courtesy of Lucky Street Gallery)

Characteristically, Rick put a “Keys twist” on the classic 1851 painting. Titled “Wilhelmina Crossing the Seven Mile Bridge,” it depicts a “Washington” who looks much like the late Florida Keys Mayor Wilhelmina Harvey navigating past the Middle Keys’ landmark bridge.

Iconic Keys elements in the mural include a rainbow United States flag, a boat featuring a multicultural and multiethnic crew, and even a small white dog that resembles Rick’s late canine companion Kido. Overall, the piece is an upbeat, whimsical representation of the island chain’s culture and diversity.

Rick’s sincere personality and care for Key West’s arts community set him apart from many of his creative contemporaries. Passionate about his work and about sharing his knowledge, he would rather provide the town with art than charge high prices for it — and he’s extremely happy with his location and his life at this point.

“I’m just thankful to still be here and alive,” he said simply. “I don’t want to go anywhere; I’m in helpful and loving hands here. My friends have become my family and with them, you can weather just about anything that comes down the road.”

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New ‘Papa’ Lives by Pizza Philosophy

Carol Shaughnessy | July 2014

There’s a new “Papa” on the scene — and it’s no surprise that he looks a whole lot like Ernest Hemingway.

Wally Collins (front) celebrates after being named the winner of the 2014 "Papa" Hemingway Look-Alike Contest. (Photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Wally Collins (front) celebrates after being named the winner of the 2014 “Papa” Hemingway Look-Alike Contest. (Photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Wally Collins, a 68-year-old white-bearded restaurateur from Phoenix, won the 2014 “Papa” Hemingway Look-Alike Contest on his sixth try — beating even his son Matt Collins, who competed as the young Hemingway.

The contest is a highlight of Key West’s Hemingway Days, which takes place in July each year and celebrates the work and exuberant lifestyle of the legendary writer who spent the 1930s on the island. Each year, it draws about 125 stocky, bearded middle-aged men vying for the title of “Papa.”

They parade across the stage at Sloppy Joe’s Bar, where Ernest enjoyed cocktails with local and literary cohorts, during two preliminary rounds and a hard-fought final battle. They dress in khaki safari garb or wool fishermen’s sweaters, copying the author’s signature look in his later years. Many, like Wally Collins, come back year after year to compete.

“I never imagined that this event would mean this much to me when I first started,” Wally admitted after his victory.

Wally Collins is congratulated just after his victory by past contest winners (from left) Stephen Terry, Greg Fawcett and Charlie Bicht.

Wally Collins is congratulated just after his victory by past contest winners (from left) Stephen Terry and Greg Fawcett.

The 2014 competition was tough, however — especially in the final round. Finalists marched onstage and took turns pleading their case, while crowds of spectators roared applause for their favorites.

One competitor even performed a song parody trying to convince the judges (all of them past contest winners) that he was the best possible choice for “Papa.” Semi-finalists, by the way, included four-time entrant Michael Groover — the husband of celebrity chef Paula Deen.

But when the voting was over, Wally was the clear winner. Afterwards, standing outside Sloppy Joe’s as scores of strangers rushed up to shake his hand, Wally appeared slightly dazed but clearly triumphant. And as it turned out, his resemblance to Hemingway goes far deeper than simple appearance.

He’s tried writing short stories — and twice entered the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition directed by Ernest’s author granddaughter. He once delivered a research paper on the man himself at a Hemingway conference.

“I didn’t have as many wives as he had, and I have a lot more children and grandchildren, but there are a lot of things that he stood for that I really like,” said the new “Papa.”

Wally poses with "Hemingway cats" at the Key West home of the author he resembles.

Wally poses with “Hemingway cats” at the Key West home of the author he resembles.

Wally particularly admires Hemingway’s ideals and spirit.

“Ernest Hemingway was adventurous,” he stated. “And in our family, we have a family motto: Life is a pizza. Order the one with everything on it.”

During his Key West years, Ernest Hemingway wrote classics including “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Death in the Afternoon” and the Key West-based “To Have and Have Not” — his only novel set in the United States. Many experts say his writing style changed the face of American literature.

While doing so, he embraced Key West’s renegade lifestyle. He fished for marlin and other “big game” in the waters surrounding the island, occasionally refereed local boxing matches in the Bahama Village neighborhood, and drew inspiration for his work from the tough Depression-era residents that were his friends.

Hemingway’s legacy of “living large” helped shape the adventurous, offbeat atmosphere that draws visitors — like those who filled Sloppy Joe’s for the 2014 look-alike contest — to Key West today.

In fact, if new “Papa” Wally Collins and the author he resembles could ever sit down to share a pizza, it’s virtually certain that they’d order the one with everything on it.

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Peter Anderson: Driving Force Behind the Conch Republic

Briana Ciraulo | July 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Key West Couple Leads Fight for Marriage Equality

Steve Smith | July 2014

The wheels of change sometimes seem to move slowly, but in the last few months we have seen rapid progress regarding marriage equality. I recently attended a hearing challenging Florida’s amendment defining marriage. A large crowd was present as attorneys for both sides argued their positions and the plaintiffs, Key West residents Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, patiently observed.

Aaron Huntsman (left) and William Lee Jones embrace during a media interview following Judge Garcia's ruling. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Aaron Huntsman (left) and William Lee Jones embrace during a media interview following Judge Garcia’s ruling. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Last week, as I was traveling to San Diego to represent the Florida Keys in that city’s Pride festival, Keys Circuit Judge Luis Garcia issued his ruling. Judge Garcia ruled that Florida’s 2008 ban on same-sex marriage was discriminatory and unconstitutional after Huntsman and Jones, a couple for 11 years, filed their lawsuit protesting it.

“I actually dropped my phone when I got the call,” said Jones during a celebration at Key West’s Aqua nightclub. “I was so excited, so proud and happy, so glad that we made it this far so far.”

“We did this to change the laws for everybody in the state of Florida — not just for us, but for all the people that have been hurting over this undue law that is not right,” said Huntsman. “We thought that just two average guys could be able to maybe make a difference, especially here in Monroe County.”

An immediate appeal of the ruling was issued by Florida’s attorney general. But that didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of those celebrating in Key West, recognized for decades for its openness and accepting gay-friendly attitude.

Aaron Huntsman,  attorneys Bernadette Restivo and Jessica Reilly, and William Lee Jones share a post-ruling smile. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Aaron Huntsman, attorneys Bernadette Restivo and Jessica Reilly, and William Lee Jones share a post-ruling smile. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Judge Garcia, whose ruling applies only to Monroe County, initially said same-sex couples in the Keys could get marriage licenses as early as this week. However, the appeal has delayed their issuance for an undetermined time.

For those of you who are not familiar with our welcoming islands, Key West elected an openly gay mayor in 1983, and many other high-profile elected and appointed civic positions have been and are currently held by gay men and women. The city and surrounding Monroe County (encompassing the entire Keys) adopted the motto One Human Family more than a dozen years ago, proclaiming equality and acceptance for everyone.

Nineteen states and Washington DC now enjoy marriage equality. In an additional 14 states, judges have issued rulings in favor of the freedom to marry, with many of these rulings now stayed as they proceed to appellate courts.

Blogger Steve Smith (left) and Joey Schroeder of the Bourbon St. Complex represented the Keys at San Diego Pride.

Blogger Steve Smith (left) and Joey Schroeder of the Bourbon St. Complex represent the Keys at San Diego Pride.

While the Florida battle continues, spend some time with us starting Aug. 14 when we celebrate Tropical Heat, produced by the Key West Business Guild. Revelers will enjoy pool parties at local guesthouses, late-night parties at our nightclubs, and even Silver Key Lingerie’s underwear auction.

Interested in traveling to the event? Travel values are being offered by Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and the Key West Express high-speed ferry from Fort Myers Beach. Information is available on the Tropical Heat website.

Next on the Keys schedule is Womenfest Key West, kicking off Sept. 4. Headlining the festivities is a concert with Hunter Valentine at the historic San Carlos Institute. Other entertainment highlights include a comedy show with Gloria Bigelow, Julie Goldman, and Sandra Valls. Travel values are available on the Womenfest website.

Look for updates on both marriage equality and upcoming festival fun in future blogs. Meanwhile, I hope to see you in the Keys!

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

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Underwater Music Festival Rocks the Keys Reef

Carol Shaughnessy | July 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carol Shaughnessy | June 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carol Shaughnessy | June 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Keys Top 10 List: Live Like a Local

Julie Botteri | April 2014

There’s a locals’ vibe in the Florida Keys, and travelers who visit want more of the laid-back lifestyle that attracts so many. Why are these islands so enchanting, and what activities do Keys residents appreciate and embrace? Hear it straight from the locals’ mouths.

Stephen's brilliant photo of Key Largo's iconic Christ of the Abyss statue was widely recognized during the recent 50th anniversary celebration of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

Snorkeling Florida Keys waters is a favorite pastime of local residents.  (Photo by Stephen Frink)

“Running the Old Seven Mile Bridge is my favorite thing to do. Mornings I can see spotted eagle rays feeding in the water below, tarpon or an osprey landing at the end of the bridge — I see more life there than anywhere.” Bette Zirkelbach, manager of Marathon’s Turtle Hospital

“Snorkeling will always be my favorite activity because it’s noncompetitive, it’s all about the experience, and it’s a great family activity. If I could have anything I wanted in life — a million dollars or (to) spend another hour with my family — I would spend another hour with my family.” George Shattuck, owner of Sundance Watersports

“I take silly things from my surroundings and turn them into a tune. For inspiration, I like driving over Keys bridges, sitting in a boat in the backcountry or in the mangroves, or sitting in the forest by my house. We all have to do our little part to make this world a better place, and bringing music to children is my little piece.” Dave Feder, professional musician

“The Keys’ warm, flat, shallow waters are ideal for kiteboarding (best wind conditions late October to early June), and standup paddleboarding and wakeboarding flourish during the summer months when flatter waters prevail. The sports we participate in are not only sports, it’s a true passion.” Mike Walsh, Otherside Boardsports co-owner

Mike Walsh, co-founder of Islamorada's popular Otherside Boardsports, paddles out with son Cody hitching a ride.

Mike Walsh, co-founder of Islamorada’s Otherside Boardsports, paddles out with son Cody hitching a ride.

“I tell everyone how the Keys are perfect because you can work and play hard here. The diversity here is great — you can be wild and crazy one night, and the next sit in the backcountry in your kayak enjoying nature.” Diane Schmidt, general manager of Westin Key West Resort & Marina

“I continue to appreciate our tranquil existence on Sugarloaf Key … I live on a wonderful wooded acre with a pool, a pond and a great garden that I get to tend to year-round. I have a great life.” Bill Becker, U.S. 1 Radio news director, Underwater Music Festival founder

“I really like fishing, and came to the Keys for years with my father on trips. [Later] the marine science subject matter at Pigeon Key appealed to me, and who could ever imagine living in the middle of the ocean at a camp? It’s a different way of life on the island; I can’t just zip back to the store for milk or eggs.” Kelly McKinnon, Pigeon Key Foundation executive director

Andrea Paulson's easygoing attitude and love of the Keys' water environment makes her the perfect guide for backcountry kayak trips. (Photos courtesy of Andrea Paulson)

When Andrea Paulson isn’t guiding kayak excursions, she enjoys fishing as do many other Keys locals.

“My first dive was way too much for me — I knew I had to have more of this magical place. I was hooked. When we came here on vacation, my parents had to tie me down to get me back in the car. That was in 1969.” Ken Nedimyer, Coral Restoration Foundation founder, CNN Hero 2012

“I often find myself kayaking, fishing with my husband and entertaining other fishermen’s wives. I love my job, and when I’m not working I’m out exploring new areas by kayak.” Andrea Paulson, Reelax Charters backcountry guide

“Take a sunset cruise — it’ll blow you away. Eat some local seafood. Have a margarita on the beach at sunset, and see the Keys like a local. That’s how you see the real Keys.” Bobby Mongelli, restaurant owner (Hogfish, Geiger Key Smokehouse, Roostica)

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