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Keys Highlights

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

Carol Shaughnessy | June 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Keys 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)


Savoring a Key West Sunset

Carol Shaughnessy | April 2014

A sunburned little girl in a flowered print dress, long hair streaming past her waist, clambered onto a high stool on the pier overlooking Key West Harbor. The sun was hesitating low in the sky, seemingly pondering the wisdom of dropping below the horizon. The little girl settled herself firmly on her stool. Turning her face sunward, she tapped her fingers in time with the music coming from the band on stage.

The Sunset Pier at Ocean Key Resort is a great place to watch the sun go down in Key West. (Photo courtesy of Ocean Key Resort & Marina)

The Sunset Pier at Ocean Key Resort is a great place to watch the sun go down in Key West. (Photo courtesy of Ocean Key Resort & Spa)

That little girl is just one of the hundreds that gather each evening at Ocean Key Resort’s Sunset Pier to sip tall cool drinks, sample fresh seafood, and savor the magic of a Key West sunset. In fact, spending an evening there with a friend reminded me of the reasons I’m in Key West in the first place.

When we arrived, seating ourselves at a wooden table under a bright-colored “sun-brella,” the orb was still well above the horizon. Across the blue-green harbor, Christmas Tree Island lay serene and the lovely retreat on Sunset Key was fully visible.

We were hardly the first to arrive for the nightly show. Chattering groups were gathered at other tables, standing around the bar, and seated on colorful wooden stools drawn up to the dock’s long rail overlooking the water.

As we ordered cocktails, a variety of vessels passed practically near enough to touch — a lazy sailboat, a powerboat on a mission, a couple of unidentified floating objects. Caribbean music and light rock drifted over the water, and the scent of saltwater mingled with the aroma of deep-fried conch fritters and the tang of vacationers’ sunscreen.

Sip a tall cool drink and watch tall ships and excursions vessels sail by as the sun goes down over Key West Harbor.

Sip a tall cool drink and watch tall ships and excursion vessels sail by as the sun goes down over Key West Harbor.

The Sunset Pier is a great place to catch a casual meal as well as a spectacular sunset. Both a grill and a raw bar are onsite, with a variety of mouthwatering choices available including grilled local fish and mahi-mahi sandwiches. The raw bar features oysters on the half shell, sweet peel-and-eat shrimp, citrus-marinated ceviche, stone crab claws in season and other temptations.

A word about the Sunset Pier bar: you can get virtually anything there, ranging from a simple Perrier to beer to exotic libations. Blender offerings are the choice of many sunset spectators, and several concoctions have names that sound deliciously decadent.

As we watched, sipping our cool (though non-exotic) choices, the sun slipped into the water, and novices at this game thought the show was over.

Not so. After the sun’s actual descent, leftover rays painted the sky with traces of peach and robin’s-egg blue. Connoisseurs of the spectacle generally instruct newcomers to wait at least 20 minutes more to see the most brilliant colors appear.

After the sun’s descent, leftover rays paint the sky off the Sunset Pier. (Photo courtesy of Ocean Key Resort & Spa)

After the sun’s descent, leftover rays paint the sky off the Sunset Pier. (Photo courtesy of Ocean Key Resort & Spa)

When the lights lining the pier began to glow, we ordered another round. Some people don’t notice it, but sundown brings a subtle electricity to Key West’s waterfront and downtown districts.

Maybe it’s sparked by the evening temperature shift, or the breeze that drifts across slowly darkening water. I don’t know, but for me the sensation is part of the island’s indefinable magic.

As we finally got up to leave, a lone sailboat drifted by with a green light glowing atop its mast. Most people had already gone, the dark sky retained a hint of burgundy, and a few early stars were out. We walked away from the pier feeling relaxed and content — and grateful to glimpse the ritual of sunset from such a fine vantage point.


Favorite Museums Tell Key West Tales

Carol Shaughnessy | April 2014

Key West’s past unfolds as you visit its museums and historic homes. Some of them explore the island’s seafaring roots, some celebrate famous residents, some offer a glimpse of unique architecture and a bygone way of life — and all are fascinating if you’re truly interested in the intriguing southernmost city.

Today's Key West Lighthouse beckons visitors as it once beckoned mariners. (Photo courtesy of the Florida Keys News Bureau)

Today’s Key West Lighthouse beckons visitors as it once beckoned mariners. (Photo courtesy of the Florida Keys News Bureau)

So on your next Key West getaway, put on your walking shoes and adventure through the five favorites listed here.

Key West Lighthouse Museum, 938 Whitehead St. Since the island’s settlement in the 1820s, residents have been dependent on the sea for their livelihood. Whether wreckers, traders, fishermen, or spongers, they were at the mercy of wind and wave — and the beacon of the Key West Lighthouse led them safely home.

The light itself was completed in the late 1840s and guided mariners for more than 120 years. Today the museum contains collections relating to the history of Florida Keys lighthouses and their hardy keepers. (More than one keeper, incidentally, was female.) Eighty-eight steps lead up to the light’s top, and if you make the climb you’ll discover an unequaled view of the island and surrounding waters.

Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, 907 Whitehead St. Hemingway began his love affair with Key West in 1928. By 1931, he and his then-wife, Pauline, were ensconced in the former Asa Tift home on Whitehead Street. Today the Spanish Colonial mansion is a museum furnished with mementos, and the second-story pool house where Hemingway wrote every morning has an evocative atmosphere all its own.

Ernest Hemingway's former home is now a popular museum whose feline residents have a Hemingway connection. (Photo by Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau)

Ernest Hemingway’s former home is now a popular museum whose feline residents have a Hemingway connection. (Photo by Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau)

Entranced by the island’s rowdy lifestyle and spectacular fishing, Ernest remained in Key West until 1939, and he captured the island’s spirit during the Depression in the brilliant “To Have and Have Not.” The grounds of the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s home are inhabited by cats — some with six toes who are supposedly descended from Hemingway’s feline Snowball.

Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, 200 Greene St. Key West resident Mel Fisher spent 16 years searching for the shipwreck of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a Spanish galleon that sank during a 1622 hurricane. On July 20, 1985, his long search ended. Subsequently, gold and silver coins and bars, religious jewelry, contraband emeralds and more were recovered from the site.

The impressive museum contains treasure and artifacts from the Atocha and her fleet-mate, the Santa Margarita. Among them are a 77-karat emerald glowing with green fire, a solid-gold poison cup once used by Spanish nobles, and historically priceless ship’s fittings and navigational instruments. Artifacts from the English merchant slaver Henrietta Marie, also excavated off Key West, are on display as well.

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)

The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum contains gold bars and chains recovered from the Nuestra Se–nora de Atocha shipwreck. (Photo by Pat Clyne/Mel Fisher Maritime Museum)

The Curry Mansion, 511 Caroline St. With its circular drive, exuberant balconies and veranda, and widow’s walk that offers a sweeping panorama of land and water, the Curry Mansion exemplifies the elegance of yesterday’s Key West.

The rear of the house is part of the 1855 homestead of William Curry, who became Florida’s first millionaire, and its imposing facade was added later by Curry’s son Milton. Today the Curry Mansion remains one of the most spectacular structures on the island, and its collection of antiques transports visitors back in time.

Harry S. Truman Little White House, 111 Front St. In 1946, suffering from a vicious cold, then-president Harry Truman was ordered by his doctor to take a break. He visited Key West and was so impressed by the island’s warmth and friendliness that he returned 10 times — spending 175 days of his presidency in the building that became known around the world as Truman’s Little White House.

During his Key West sojourns, Truman made momentous decisions and conducted important meetings away from the pressures of Washington.

During his Key West sojourns, Truman made momentous decisions and conducted important meetings away from the pressures of Washington.

“The best time I ever had,” said Truman, who continued to visit the island until 1969, “was in Key West while I was president.”

Today, the home he loved is restored to offer a fascinating glimpse of the Truman era. Items of note include a round poker table handmade for the president, his desk, and his treasured piano. Every year Truman’s grandson, author Clifton Truman Daniel, returns to the Little White House for a critically acclaimed symposium exploring aspects of his grandfather’s legacy.

Want to fall in love with Key West like Ernest Hemingway and Harry Truman did? Click here for some real-time glimpses of the enticing island.


Keys’ Lady Angler Crushes World Record for Tarpon on Fly

Julie Botteri | April 2014

For Islamorada resident and passionate fly angler Heidi Nute, fly fishing in her Florida Keys backyard has become a hunt for giant tarpon.

Heidi Nute's passion for fly fishing led her to an astonishing tarpon catch.

Heidi Nute’s passion for fly fishing led her to an astonishing tarpon catch.

On a warmer-than-usual Saturday afternoon this past February, she found one (did she ever!). Heidi landed a massive 152.8-pound fish — the largest tarpon caught by a female angler on a fly rod that has EVER been recorded by the International Game Fish Association (IGFA).

How did the history-making story unfold? Heidi was fishing with her husband, fellow fly angler Paul Nute, and Islamorada’s Captain Tim Mahaffey, in the Everglades near Flamingo. After a slow morning, the trio had hooked six tarpon in the shallows. The last and largest ate Captain Mahaffey’s fly without hesitation.

When Heidi took a turn, “large” suddenly developed a whole new meaning.

She patiently enticed the giant fish to bite her bug and gamely fought to land it while it jumped 16 times in a grueling 65-minute period. When the tarpon was finally out of fight, the captain skillfully gaffed it — using a historically successful folding-barb kill gaff that the late legendary angler Billy Pate used.

The use of the gaff was a rare piece of serendipity — because Billy Pate reportedly boated all his record-setting tarpon and marlin with that very hook.

Since honing her fly-fishing skills, Heidi has taken home multiple trophies from notable Keys tournaments.

Since honing her fly-fishing skills, Heidi has taken home multiple trophies from notable Keys tournaments.

Coincidentally — or maybe not — Heidi and Paul had bid on the item and won it during an auction of Pate memorabilia. Later, Heidi had enlisted the aid of local Captain Randy Towe to sharpen the blade and cover the shaft with an anti-slip wrap.

“It is just great to have that piece of history used to get this fish,” Heidi said after her astonishing catch.

Her pending world record submission must meet certain criteria for the IGFA to verify the record. Steps included testing both the length and breaking strength of her leader, and ensuring the catch was made according to international angling rules laid out by the IGFA.

Although the 12-pound tippet over-tested slightly, Heidi’s entry has already successfully qualified for the women’s 16-pound fly rod record for tarpon — held previously by Diana Rudolph for catching a 135.5-pounder.

Heidi’s submission is now in the IGFA’s record certification process, and her outstanding new record should be finalized within a few weeks.

Based on her accomplishment, you might think Heidi has been a “top gun” fly angler for 20 years or so — but that’s not the case.

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)

In fact, she scored her world-record fish — the fish of a lifetime — just seven years after she graduated from Sandy Moret’s world-renowned fly-fishing school in Islamorada.

Before that, her prior experience only included fishing with her father in the streams of upstate New York’s Catskill Mountains, where she had used light spinning rods for small trout.

Since taking that fateful class, however, Heidi has competed and triumphed in several Keys tournaments. She scored back-to-back victories, alongside Captain Rob Fordyce, in the 2012 and 2013 Ladies Invitational Tarpon Fly tournaments — and took grand champion angler titles at the 2009, 2010 and 2013 Women’s Fall Fly Classic.

“I attribute 100 percent of my success to the caliber of Keys fishing guides and their coaching,” said Heidi, who moved with Paul from Miami to Islamorada full-time in 2011. “Fishing with the very best has done a lot to shorten the learning curve.”

Now that her new world record seems certain, what’s next for this intrepid angler?

According to those in the know, Heidi is in hot pursuit of the 12-pound tippet record.


Life’s a Beach — at Top-Rated Bahia Honda

Carol Shaughnessy | March 2014

Want to chill out on one of America’s best beaches? Then head for the Florida Keys. That might sound a little incongruous, since the island chain is better known for its gorgeous living coral barrier reef — the third largest in the world — than its beaches. But nevertheless, the Keys boast some pretty special beaches.

Beautiful Bahia Honda State Park features one of the top-rated beaches in the entire U.S. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The beach area at beautiful Bahia Honda State Park is rated among the best in the entire U.S. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

And one of them, located at Bahia Honda State Park in the Lower Keys, has just been named among the United States’ top 25 beaches for 2014 by TripAdvisor.

That’s quite impressive, since Trip Advisor is acclaimed as the world’s largest travel website. Bahia Honda’s beach kudo was announced as part of TripAdvisor’s Travelers’ Choice Beaches Award winners — with rankings based on the quality and quantity of TripAdvisor traveler reviews and ratings for beaches over a 12-month period.

Listed at number 17, Bahia Honda’s lovely (and I do mean lovely) expanse of sand is part of a 524-acre state park on Bahia Honda Key between mile markers 36 and 37. That’s just a little bit north of Big Pine Key, and not far from Looe Key Reef, an amazing snorkeling spot and home to the annual Underwater Music Festival.

In the Lower Keys, you can head for a refreshing spot like the inviting beach at Bahia Honda State Park. (Photo by Bob Krist, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Bahia Honda beach invites sunning, swimming and snorkeling in the clear near-shore waters. (Photo by Bob Krist, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Bahia Honda beach features deep near-shore waters for unmatched swimming and snorkeling — and the park is also well known for its camping and picnicking facilities, watersports, nature trails, the Sand and Sea Nature Center, a marina and rental cabins.

By the way, the TripAdvisor honor is far from the first for Bahia Honda’s wonderful beach area. In 1992, it was ranked among America’s top 10 beaches by Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman  (best known as “Dr. Beach”), and since then it’s been named among the country’s top 10 in several travel studies. 

But Bahia Honda also has another enticing attraction to offer. Several times each year, visitors to the park are seemingly transported a century into the past — during historic re-enactments that recall the astonishing creation and heyday of Henry Flagler’s Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad.

Park visitors take a trip through time from 1912, on the Over-Sea Railroad’s inaugural journey — when it made world history by connecting the Keys with each other and the mainland for the first time — through 1938 when the Florida Keys Overseas Highway replaced the track.

The Flagler re-enactment at Bahia Honda State Park recalls a pivotal moment in Keys history. (Photo courtesy of Bahia Honda State Park)

The Flagler re-enactment at Bahia Honda State Park recalls a pivotal moment in Keys history. (Photo courtesy of Bahia Honda State Park)

Construction on the rail line, which was conceived by visionary Standard Oil millionaire Henry Flagler, started in 1905. It was officially called the Florida East Coast Railway’s Key West Extension, but it became known as the Over-Sea Railroad because its track stretched more than 100 miles out into open water.

Its bridges and viaducts connecting the Keys, including a nearly 7-mile-long bridge at Marathon in the Middle Keys, were regarded as an engineering marvel in their time — and in fact, it became widely acclaimed as “the eighth wonder of the world.”

Bahia Honda State Park’s historic re-enactment is presented on a stage decorated like Flagler’s private train car. And it’s supremely fitting that a portion of one of the original railroad bridges, now a scenic walking path, arches against the sky behind the stage.

Characters that appear in the performance include Henry Flagler’s third wife Mary Lily Kenan, literary legend Ernest Hemingway (who lived in Key West throughout the 1930s), Flagler’s brother-in-law Will Kenan and Flagler himself.

This historic Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad bridge arches against the sky at Bahia Honda. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Part of a historic Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad bridge arches against the sky at Bahia Honda. (Photo by Bob Krist, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The re-enactment shows are one of many first-person interpretation programs presented by the park’s rangers — and believe me, the “actors” are excellent in their roles.

Unfortunately, these well-crafted shows don’t take place every month (or oftener!). But even without the shows, visitors to the park certainly won’t lack things to do — including sunning, swimming or snorkeling at one of America’s best beaches.


‘Conch Honker’ Earns Victory and Honors His Dad

Carol Shaughnessy | March 2014

For Michael Cox, it was all about his dad. Nearly 30 years ago Michael’s father, James “Whistle” Cox, took first place in Key West’s annual Conch Shell Blowing Contest — a beloved annual event nicknamed the “Conch Honk.”

Michael Cox blows his late father's conch shell win Key West's Conch Shell Blowing Contest. (All photos by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Michael Cox used his late father’s conch shell to win Key West’s Conch Shell Blowing Contest. (All photos by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

And though Michael lives in Colorado, quite a distance from Key West, he was determined to enter the 2014 contest and follow in his father’s footsteps.

“In 1986 my father was about the same age that I am today, so it was on my bucket list to come to Key West and do my duty and reclaim the family trophy,” Michael said.

On March 1, he did just that — winning the contest while playing the same shell his father had used to win in 1986.

This is not just any run-of-the-mill challenge. Now in its 52nd year, the quirky event draws dozens of contestants each year who are eager to share in a Key West tradition: testing their “pucker power” by trying to make music using the fluted, pink-lined conch shell.

Since the conch shell is not easy to play, some entrants only manage weird splutters or hoots — though some with hardy lungs can produce amazingly long, vigorous blasts.

Three-year-old Frank Umlauf was the youngest entrant in the 2014 contest.

Three-year-old Frank Umlauf was the youngest entrant in the 2014 contest.

Michael, however, refused to settle for a halfhearted attempt. He won the men’s division title by blowing a melodic two-toned blast that lasted about 30 seconds on his father’s shell — followed by part of the 1935 George Gershwin classic “Summertime” on a smaller shell.

“I realized that, to win this competition, I was going to need to learn how to play a song. So I practiced every night in my basement,” said Michael, who admitted that he spent two years preparing for the contest.

His father gave him a trumpet when he was a kid, and he learned how to buzz his lips and play it. Later he learned a technique called “circular breathing” — but despite those skills, Michael believes the shell itself contributed to his success.

“This was my father’s shell, so I knew that was going to give me a leg up,” he explained after his victory. “It’s already won one competition, and now I’m so happy it’s won another.”

Clinton Curry, the contest's 2008 winner, performed the amazing feat of tootling two shells simultaneously.

Clinton Curry won a previous contest by tootling two shells simultaneously.

Conch shell blowing, by the way, has been practiced in the Florida Keys for generations. Early settlers blew blasts to signal that a sinking ship had been spotted offshore, and native-born islanders are commonly called Conchs. The shell of the sturdy sea mollusk is a symbol of the island chain, which is also known as the Conch Republic.

The 2014 Conch Shell Blowing Contest attracted hopeful conch “honkers” ranging from toddlers to people in their late 70s. The youngest was three-year-old Frank Umlauf, whose family was taking a subtropical break from Brooklyn and heard about the competition. Though he had never “honked a conch” before, Frank issued a praiseworthy blast while watched by his proud mom Cindy, dad Taylor and little brother Leo.

A panel of dedicated judges gave each entrant the serious consideration he or she deserved (okay, maybe the consideration wasn’t exactly serious).

The Boca Chica Conchestra amazed spectators with a wacky takeoff on the Village People's "Y.M.C.A."

The Boca Chica Conchestra amazed spectators with a wacky takeoff on the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.”

Contestants were judged on the quality, duration, loudness and novelty of the sounds they made. 

Some sounds were novel indeed, but two intrepid entrants managed to warble recognizable excerpts from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.”

Trust me, that’s tough to play on ANY instrument — let alone a conch shell.

FYI, it’s not just individuals who can enter. Among the highlights of the 2014 contest was a hilarious performance by the Boca Chica Conchestra. Composed of more than two dozen people, the offbeat ensemble presented a wacky conch-shell-and-dance takeoff on the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” — complete with costumes and letter-forming arm gestures.

It was (wait for it!) a total hoot.


David Sloan: Key Lime Pie and the ‘Spirit’ of Success

Briana Ciraulo | February 2014

“I first visited Key West in college, and even though I spent most of the night sobering up in a jail cell, I loved it,” David Sloan quipped.

David Sloan's lighthearted attitude, wit and can-do spirit have made him a popular Key West figure. (All photos by Rob O'Neal)

David Sloan’s lighthearted attitude, wit and can-do approach have made him a popular Key West figure. (All photos by Rob O’Neal)

That may or may not be strictly true — but it IS true that, during that first fateful visit, he never imagined that a few years later he would start businesses, write and publish books, and make record-breaking Key lime pies on the very same island.

After studying hospitality at Florida International University, David worked in just about all areas of the hotel industry before switching to Premier Cruise Lines.  

His lighthearted, can-do manner helped him earn significant success — but the corporate world just didn’t feel like a good fit. It wasn’t until he took a ghost tour in Scotland, however, that all the pieces fell into place and David found his path.

“I took the tour and was fascinated by it,” he reported. “I got back to the U.S., quit my job and moved to Key West.”

After a few months, endless nights of research and some help from historian Tom Hambright of the Key West Public Library, David unveiled Ghost Tours of Key West — one of the first tours of its kind in the United States. He also released his first book, “Ghosts of Key West.”

The "spirited" David Sloan guides nightly interactive ghost-hunting tours in Key West's spookiest sites.

The “spirited” David Sloan guides nightly interactive ghost-hunting tours in Key West’s spookiest sites.

Almost immediately the ghost tour and supernatural culture became all the rage, gaining massive popularity with visitors and locals alike.

There’s a lot more to David, though, than an interest the supernatural. He mixes his lively personality and wit with his love for Key West in Phantom Press, a publishing company he co-founded with his friend Christopher Schultz.

The team has released 10 quirky hits including the collaborative “Quit Your Job and Move to Key West” and a volume David penned and dubbed “The Key West Bucket List.”

Their most recent offering is David’s “Key Lime Pie Cookbook,” featuring recipes for 20 crusts, 20 fillings, 20 sauces and 20 toppings — which he swears can be mixed and matched to create more than 150,000 varieties of Key lime pie.

David’s connection with Key lime pie, the Florida Keys’ signature dessert, didn’t end with the cookbook. When he stumbled upon reports of a Key Lime Festival that took place in Key Largo in the 1950s, he was intrigued.

David Sloan and his team (which didn't include the bird!) constructed a world-record-breaking Key lime pie in Key West July 4.

David and his feathered cohort check out a Key lime creation.

“I just thought to myself, Key limes are such an important part of our culture, wouldn’t it be great to bring it back?” he said.

With characteristic enthusiasm, he and fellow creative spirit Marky Pierson staged the reborn Key Lime Festival in Key West in July 2013. Events included a “Miss Key Lime” pageant, a Key lime pie-eating competition and the creation of what just might be the world’s largest Key lime pie.

To make the record-breaking confection, which measured over eight feet in diameter (yes, really!), David teamed up with Marky, chef Paul Menta and the Key West Key Lime Pie Co.’s Jim Brush. Prepared July 4 in a specially-made pan that was about the size of a pickup truck, the gargantuan pie was documented for submission to the Guinness Book of World Records.

With the second annual Key Lime Festival scheduled for summer 2014, David Sloan shows no signs of slowing down. 

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 savor their triumph.

In fact, he recently unveiled his new take on ghost tours. Designed as an interactive experience, “Sloan’s Ghost Hunt” gives participants the chance to use state-of-the-art devices to detect the supernatural at various haunted stops around Key West’s Old Town.

“Haunted stories start to lose a lot over the years and become more legends,” he explained. “I want to go back to the roots.”

More than ghosts and Key limes, David Sloan attributes his success to his love for Key West and the never-ending support of the close-knit island community.

“I love Key West because it has that small-town feel with big city benefits,” he said. “This community rallies around you and helps you to succeed, and that’s why I’m here today — there really is no place in the United States like it.”


Gizmo and Kristi Go Home

Carol Shaughnessy | February 2014

Gizmo and Kristi have splashed back into their ocean home. The loggerhead sea turtle couple — Gizmo is male and Kristi is female — swam together on Valentine’s Day into the waters off Islamorada.

Marine life artist Wyland (left), Richie Moretti of the Turtle Hospital (right) and Save-A-Turtle's Harry Appel (second from right) begin to release Kristi (left) and Gizmo on Valentine's Day. (All photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Officials from Marathon’s acclaimed Turtle Hospital, where Gizmo and Kristi were treated after being rescued in Florida Keys waters, released the flippered couple behind Marker 88 Restaurant.

“I think love is in the air … I feel it,” said Bette Zirkelbach, the Turtle Hospital’s manager, just before the two two turtles swam out of their tubs into Florida Bay.

Their release came after significant treatment for both Gizmo and Kristi. Gizmo, a sub-adult loggerhead, was found floating near Conch Key last October, suffering from emaciation and a head wound. After X-rays taken at the Turtle Hospital revealed that he had an intestinal impaction, he was treated with antibiotics, lactulose, vitamins, honey wound care, and a diet of squid and fish.

Kristi, an adult loggerhead, was rescued near Tavernier Creek where she was found entangled in a trap line. As well as getting physical therapy on her back flipper, she was treated with antibiotics and vitamins, and fed squid and fish.

As important as Gizmo and Kristi’s recovery and freedom, however, is the occasion their release marked: the launch of a cooperative awareness-raising and fundraising venture between the Florida Keys’ nonprofit volunteer organization Save-A-Turtle and the environmentally focused Wyland Foundation.

Kristi splashes into the water off Islamorada, with Gizmo close behind. Their release marked the start of a partnership to benefit sea turtles around the U.S. and beyond.

That partnership spells good news not just for Gizmo and Kristi, but for sea turtles throughout the Keys and America’s coastal waters.

Save-A-Turtle’s president Harry Appel was on hand for the release of Gizmo and Kristi. So was internationally acclaimed marine life artist Wyland, who uses his art to encourage preservation and protection of marine creatures and the world’s oceans and waterways. His 20-year-old Wyland Foundation furthers that mission.

“It’s not only about the art,” Wyland explained. “It’s about the conservation and the message. If we can get people involved through art, then we can inspire them to be curious, maybe learn more and maybe get behind supporting a group like Save-A-Turtle.”

And well they should. Founded in 1985, the all-volunteer Save-A-Turtle is dedicated to the preservation and protection of rare and endangered marine turtles — and to the enhancement of their habitats in the Keys. Its volunteers patrol turtle nesting habitats, protect nests when needed, and provide guidance on issues that affect sea turtles and their habitats.

“We are their voice,” said Harry Appel of the turtles. “We need to speak up for their rights.”

Wyland (left) and Save-A-Turtle's Harry Appel show off the artwork Wyland created for Save-A-Turtle.

As part of the two organizations’ collaboration, Wyland created an appealing brush-art portrait of a sea turtle to be featured on Save-A-Turtle merchandise that will be sold to raise money for the effort. Most of the attendees at the Valentine’s Day turtle release (except, of course, Gizmo and Kristi) were wearing T-shirts bearing the image.

Several hundred people watched Gizmo and Kristi swim away on Valentine’s Day — and some even shouted “heartfelt” messages to the turtle couple. But probably the happiest person on the beach was Harry Appel.

“It’s through organizations like the Wyland Foundation, Save-A-Turtle and the Turtle Hospital that endangered and threatened sea turtles are given a voice that they otherwise simply do not have,” Harry said.

If you’re interested in supporting their efforts and helping give sea turtles a voice, click here.


Key West and Cuba Share Pioneering Art Exchange

Carol Shaughnessy | February 2014

Art lovers who venture to the southernmost tip of the Florida Keys, the eclectic and beautifully eccentric outpost of Key West, will find a full calendar of art festivals and shows — including the first Cuban-American art exchange in more than 50 years.

The Key West Art Center, shown in this vivid painting, presents the Old Island Days Art Festival each year. (Photo courtesy of the Key West Art Center)

For example, there’s the nationally renowned Old Island Days Art Festival, set for Feb. 22-23 and held annually on Key West’s Whitehead Street. Now in its 49th year (amazingly!), the enticing art show features watercolors and oils, sculpture, graphics, collage, photography, jewelry, wearable art and more created by approximately 100 fine artists from around the United States and Canada.

It’s presented by the Key West Art Center, and you’ll find fabulous pieces displayed against a backdrop of century-old architecture and towering shade trees in the heart of the island’s historic district.

The most unusual upcoming creative celebration, however, is the groundbreaking Feb. 20-22 Cuban-American art exchange. During that time, art lovers in Key West can view as many as 120 unique pieces by nine Cuban artists and one Cuban-American, all with international followings.

Mario Sanchez' "Lucky Fish Rhumba" showcases the cultural harmony that has enriched Key West for more than a century. (Image courtesy of Gallery on Greene)

Key West is the perfect place for the event, since it lies closer to Cuba than to mainland Florida — and the two islands have shared a cultural heritage since the 1830s, when Cuban cigar-makers first fled 90 miles across the Florida Straits to the island city.

The exchange actually began Jan. 17, when an exhibition of 30 intaglio prints by the late Key West folk artist Mario Sanchez was unveiled at Cuba’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana.

Mario, a second-generation American of Cuban descent, created vibrant and often subtly funny painted bas-relief carvings that chronicled Key West life in the early 1900s. And equally important, they portrayed the racial, religious and gender harmony that existed in those days — as it does today — making the island a warm and welcoming place to live. 

Events begin at The Studios of Key West with appearances by artists including Manuel Mendive, painter of this intriguing image. (Photo courtesy of Gallery on Greene)

“This pioneering cultural exchange, titled ‘One Race, The Human Race,’ features the most famous cutting-edge artists in Cuba today,” said Nance Frank, a Sanchez expert and director of Key West’s Gallery on Greene who spearheaded the exchange.

Events begin with a 6-9 p.m. unveiling Thursday, Feb. 20, at The Studios of Key West. There you’ll meet artists include world-renowned sculptor and painter Manuel Mendive, staging a performance art piece featuring body-painted dancers; respected painter, illustrator and sculptor Roberto Fabelo; Sandra Ramos, whose artistry explores the harsh realities of Cuban life; and Rocio Garcia, a cartoon-inspired master whose pieces tell vivid stories.

Friday’s events include a 5-7 p.m. debut at the Gato Building, a former cigar factory at 1100 Simonton St. that now houses the Florida Keys Council of the Arts. Starring there are Ruben Alpizar, whose paintings and sculptures include diverse historic figures, and painter/sculptor Reynerio Tamayo, known for a series on the beloved sport of baseball.

The artistic team called the Merger is known for satirical sculptures like "Cuban Knife." (Photo courtesy of Gallery on Greene)

The evening’s 6-8 p.m. focus is on the Merger, three sculptors of large-scale satirical works, showcasing pop art–inspired creations at the 907 Whitehead St. home where Ernest Hemingway lived for much of the 1930s. The site is particularly fitting, because the legendary author had close ties to Cuba as well as Key West.

Saturday’s initial spotlight is on internationally acclaimed Cuban-American artist Xavier Cortada, appearing 5-7 p.m. at the Oldest House Museum, 322 Duval St. This master has developed collaborative art projects in countries around the globe, and even created installations at the north and south poles. 

The cultural celebration concludes Saturday with the 6-8 p.m. debut of a massive sculpture by Sandra Ramos at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, 200 Greene St.

The breathtaking piece is titled “The Bridge,” and it represents the Florida Straits crossing from Cuba to Key West. The sculpture is large enough for people to walk across, and no doubt many will — in a symbolic reconnecting of the two islands and their cultures.