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Keys Environment

Spearing a New Dive Activity

Julie Botteri | September 2013

Even after 20-plus years diving, I enjoy applying new skills underwater. They include helping marine life as well as giving back to the environment — two activities I hope every diver aspires to.

Blog author Julie Botteri (second from right) shows off her team's captured lionfish with teammates (from left) John Mirabella, Chase Grimes and Rachel Bowman.

This summer, I took pole spear in hand for my first foray into the no-season, no-size-limit activity of capturing Indo-Pacific lionfish that are invading Atlantic waters. With a team of cohorts, I joined the Sanctuary Friends Foundation of the Florida Keys’ annual weekend lionfish tournament.

When my teammates (Marathon spearos John Mirabella, Chase Grimes and Rachel Bowman) and I scouted “hot spots,” we discovered blankets of the red and white feathery fish, billowing their lovely pectoral fins as they covered small wrecks at 140-foot depths — seemingly their most coveted hiding places.

For two days, we also poked under ledges and rock outcroppings at shallower reefs. I’m happy to say that we contributed 131 fish to the tournament’s overall tally of 163 — including the smallest fish, which measured three centimeters. But that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the populations flooding Atlantic waters.

Why is an Indo-Pacific fish here? It’s believed that the popular aquarium fish was first released in Florida (Atlantic) waters during the 1980s. Now, lionfish prey voraciously on invertebrates and juvenile fish such as grunts and hamlets — normal food resources for domestic species like grouper and snapper. In fact the largest fish caught during our tournament, a 17-incher, had two baby snapper in its gut.

Each lionfish captured, like the one displayed here by Rachel, removes pressure from native fish and the Keys' marine environment.

These toothy coral reef fish, part of the scorpion fish family, have no natural reef predators except spearfishing humans. That’s why, when I landed my first shot, I was truly elated. I high-fived my partner Rachel as we both blew “Woo-hoo!” into our regulators.

Lightweight, economical and surprisingly easy to use, the average pole spear ranges from four to 12 feet in length. Since I’m a newbie spearo, most of the fish I was hunting were less than five pounds — so I opted for a five-foot, lighter and faster pole spear fitted with a sharp three-pronged (or “paralyzer”) tip. 

The highly recognizable lionfish (pesky predators also known as dragonfish, firefish or turkeyfish) almost dare you to shoot them.

Even so, it’s a daunting task for humans to outsmart them and break their quick reproductive cycle. It’s crazy how fast they repopulate — it only takes a couple of fertile females laying tens of thousands of eggs at one time; fertilized within 12 hours, the eggs hatch in three days. Three days later, the newborns are already hunting.

Divers can help eradicate invasive lionfish during a derby scheduled Sept. 14 in Key Largo waters.

Capturing lionfish is a way for divers who enjoy the Florida Keys’ coral reefs to help protect them, as well as a hands-on way to help eradicate the species — or at least whittle down the populations.

Learn how to kill, clean and fillet the spiny fish Saturday, Sept. 14, in a lionfish derby sponsored by REEF, an organization dedicated to coral reef preservation, in Key Largo at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. More than $3,500 in prize money will be awarded to divers who bring in the most, largest and smallest lionfish. Check out the details here.

After lionfish are dead, you can still get stuck pretty painfully if you come in contact with the tip of the venomous spines, located along the pectoral, anal and dorsal fins — so it’s best to wear puncture-resistant gloves at all times when handling the fish.

Spines are removed before cooking, and the meat has no poison. Delicious and delicate, the light white meat tastes similar to snapper, grouper and hogfish (one of my all-time favorite Keys fish to eat).

Local’s tip: At John Mirabella’s Castaway Restaurant, lionfish is a regular menu item. Ask for it “wrecker” style, in a yummy sauce of capers, garlic, butter and diced tomato.


It’s Viva Las Vegas for Keys Sea Turtle

Andy Newman | July 2013

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas — and so will a 320-pound green sea turtle, until recently living in “rehab” in the Florida Keys, who was transported to the glitzy Nevada gaming mecca via FedEx.

OD enjoys a snack in the Turtle Hospital's "transition pool" before beginning his long journey. (All photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

That may sound surprising, since the millions who flock to “Sin City” each year don’t usually include sea turtles. And on top of that, they don’t usually travel by FedEx.

The tale behind the trip is as unusual as the means of transportation for the turtle — who was found in 2008 in Key Largo waters, floating and clearly in trouble, by the Ocean Diver dive charterboat. Rescued by the crew and named OD after the boat, he was quickly transported to the KeysTurtle Hospital for care.

Located in Marathon, the unique hospital has been treating and rehabilitating sick and injured turtles for some 25 years. And OD was no exception.

While examining and testing the new “patient,” the facility’s vet discovered he had a collapsed lung, likely caused by an infection. It couldn’t be repaired — a serious problem, since it caused the hapless turtle to float on his side, unable to submerge and swim level.

The Turtle Hospital team gives OD a final exam in preparation for his Las Vegas adventure.

To compensate, the Turtle Hospital team came up with an ingenious plan: they used marine epoxy to fasten weights to OD’s shell so he could submerge and swim like other sea turtles.

Unfortunately, that didn’t completely solve the problem. Every 12 to 18 months, because of the growth of his shell, the weights shed off him and need to be reattached — which means he can never be released back into the ocean.

For almost five years, OD was cared for in the Turtle Hospital’s 100,000-gallon tidal rehabilitation pool. But he couldn’t stay there forever. Earlier this year, hospital staff began the search for a new home for the turtle.

“We wanted to give OD a permanent home that offered a larger habitat with diverse marine life,” explained Bette Zirkelbach, the hospital’s manager.

The Turtle Hospital's Richie Moretti (left) and Bette Zirkelbach check on OD in his comfy traveling crate before all three of them board the FedEx plane.

That’s exactly what was offered by officials at the Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas. And what an amazing habitat it is — a 1.3-million-gallon exhibition saltwater aquarium that’s 22 feet deep and designed like an active reef, with areas for its inhabitants to swim, rest and surface.

To prepare OD for his 2,400-mile journey from the Keys to Las Vegas, the Turtle Hospital team examined him to make sure he was healthy, and even scrubbed his shell.

In Marathon, they carefully placed him into the hospital’s “turtle ambulance” and drove him up to Fort Lauderdale. There he was carried aboard the FedEx plane that would fly him to Las Vegas.

Throughout his travels, he was watched over by Turtle Hospital manager Bette and founder Richie Moretti — who, like OD, were transported free by FedEx.

OD is now one of Las Vegas' newest residents -- and he's one lucky turtle!

Upon arrival, OD was quickly moved into the Shark Reef Aquarium’s “guest quarters,” a quarantine area where he will stay for about six weeks before being transferred to his “forever home.” According to Bette, he seemed healthy and comfortable in his new surroundings.

By early fall, visitors to the aquarium should be able to spot OD in the main exhibition tank — which has viewing windows and a walkthrough acrylic tunnel — as he swims and interacts with other marine animals, including fellow sea turtles.

He may not be a gambler, but the plucky (and lucky!) OD is clearly one of the biggest winners in Vegas.


The Keys Can’t-Miss List

Carol Shaughnessy | June 2013

Let’s imagine you’ve got only two or three days to explore the entire Florida Keys (which would clearly be a planning mistake, since the island chain’s five diverse regions should be explored at a leisurely pace).

Drive the unique Florida Keys Overseas Highway and stop at "Can't Miss" spots along the way. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

But in today’s crazy-busy world, some people can only escape their “real world” responsibilities for a few short days.

If that’s your situation, “The Keys Can’t-Miss List” here will help you maximize enjoyment in minimal time.

Where to start? On the northernmost island of Key Largo, renowned for diving, snorkeling and backcountry touring.

From there, follow the Florida Keys Overseas Highway all the way to Key West, driving at an easy pace and stopping along the way.

Can’t Miss #1: Take a snorkeling or scuba excursion, and see stunning coral formations and brilliant tropical fish, in Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park America’s first underwater preserve and predecessor to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Can’t Miss #2: Head for Islamorada, renowned as the Sportfishing Capital of the World. Join one of Islamorada’s charter captains or guides for world-class fishing in offshore, reef or shallow backcountry waters. The Keys lay claim to more saltwater world fishing records than any other angling destination on the planet.

A Turtle Hospital staffer examines a loggerhead turtle "patient." (Photo courtesy of The Turtle Hospital)

Can’t Miss #3: After catching your fish (maybe yellowtail snapper, tuna or dolphin fish, also called mahi-mahi), turn it into a meal. Bring it to one of the Keys restaurants that “cook the catch.” There’s nothing like savoring a perfectly prepared and seasoned fish, and knowing you reeled it in.

Can’t Miss #4: Meandering through Marathon, meet rescued sea turtles at the world’s only licensed veterinary hospital specializing in sea turtles (yes, really!). A dedicated team at The Turtle Hospital rescues, rehabilitates, and nurtures sick and injured turtles — and whenever possible, releases them back into the ocean realm. Don’t miss taking a guided behind-the-scenes tour of this one-of-a-kind facility.

Can’t Miss #5: Now drive down the Overseas Highway to Big Pine Key where, if you’re lucky, you can spot (and photograph) a real-life “Bambi.” Tiny, shy Key deer are an endangered species that live only in the Lower Keys. They’re about the size of large dogs and can be found grazing around Big Pine — especially in the early morning hours and at dusk. Spotting them isn’t always easy, but it’s a real treat when you do.

Take a leisurely bike ride to view exuberant blossoms and historic Key West homes.

Can’t Miss #6: Once you reach Key West, you can do anything from taking an art stroll to visiting a Hemingway hangout. But one of the very best activities is wonderfully simple: rent a bicycle and pedal around historic Old Town past colorful Victorian homes, white picket fences and luxuriant foliage. Biking down the narrow lanes, you can smell exotic flowers and peek into hidden gardens, marvel at architectural beauty and exchange smiles with people you pass.   

As you’ll discover on your Florida Keys journey, the islands boast a lively seafaring history, flourishing creative community, balmy subtropical climate, and natural wonders that include continental America’s only living coral barrier reef.

But the Keys’ most important asset is intangible: a laidback vibe that seems worlds away from everyday cares. Soak up that vibe whether you have two days or two weeks to spend in the magical island chain — and you’ll find yourself refreshed, renewed, and ready for more.


Discover Florida Keys History at One-of-a-Kind Sites

admin2 | May 2013

The Florida Keys & Key West are internationally renowned as a laidback subtropical getaway, yet they’re also rich in fascinating history. Since 2013 marks the 500th anniversary of Juan Ponce de Leon setting foot on Florida’s east coast, it’s a perfect time to discover them.

Journey into history down one of the old roads on Indian Key. (Photo courtesy of Florida State Parks)

Of course, you can explore elements of the Keys’ natural and cultural history at attractions and sites throughout the islands — but a trio of intriguing highlights is chronicled here.


Located less than a mile from Lower Matecumbe Key, Indian Key is just 11 acres in size. But it was the site of one of the Keys’ most dramatic (and chilling) incidents.

In the early 19th century, the tiny island boasted a thriving shipwreck salvage (also called wrecking) community. It had the largest population between St. Augustine and Key West — and in 1836, it was declared the first county seat of Dade County (FYI, the Keys now lie in Monroe County and Dade County’s focal point is Miami).

Just four years later, in 1840 during what was called the Second Seminole War, an Indian Key wrecking captain named Jacob Housman offered to remove the Seminoles from the area.

That proved to be a fatal mistake. A group of them paddled to the island, where they killed settlers and set structures ablaze in a horrific inferno. 

The Museum of Natural History at Crane Point spotlights the remarkable early history of the Florida Keys. (Photo courtesy of Crane Point)

Indian Key never regained its population or its prominence. In 1971 it was purchased by the Florida Park Service, and the following year became a National Historic Site.

Today Indian Key Historic State Park, located offshore at mile marker 78.5, is accessible only by boat. Rent a boat or kayak from Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada, and spend a few hours at the park swimming, sunning, and hiking the acres where the thriving community once stood.


The 63.5-acre Crane Point is one of the Keys’ most sensitive environmental and archaeological sites — and fortunately, it has been preserved by the Florida Keys Land and Sea Trust as a nature sanctuary and education center.

A one-of-a-kind living record of Keys history, the property at MM 50.5 in Marathon contains evidence of prehistoric Indian artifacts. It was once the site of a Bahamian village, and artifacts dating from the 19th century have been found there as well.

The flora and fauna of the Keys form the basis of many Crane Point exhibits. (Photo courtesy of Crane Point)

But that’s only the beginning. Crane Point is home to a wide range of tropical vegetation, including 10 endangered plant and animal species. It also features the Museum of Natural History, the Marathon Wild Bird Center and the historic Adderley House.

Visiting the fascinating place, you’ll discover more than 10 major exhibits covering the geography, plant and animal life of the Keys — and the 5,000-year history of man’s habitation in the area. 


Though it’s more than 150 miles from Miami, Key West lies just 90 miles from Cuba — and the island city’s culture reflects that geographic closeness. In fact, an important Cuban heritage center can be found at 516 Duval St. in the heart of Key West’s historic district.

The San Carlos Institute was established in 1871 to preserve Cuban culture and promote the freedom of Cuba, which at the time was ruled by Spain. In 1892, famed Cuban revolutionary leader José Martí launched his drive for Cuba’s independence in a pivotal speech from the balcony of the San Carlos.

The majestic San Carlos is a leading Cuban heritage site. (Photo courtesy of the San Carlos Institute)

Marti loved the San Carlos so much that he called it “La Casa Cuba.” The landmark institute now serves as a museum, library, art gallery, theater and school (and hosts many of Key West’s leading special events each year).

Its museum exhibits focus on Cuba’s history and the history of the Cuban-American community in Florida — including an inspiring collection of photographs and documents relating to José Martí. 

Want to know more about Florida Keys history and unique sites to visit? Click here to begin your exploration.


Rick Hederstrom Tells the ‘Plant’ Truth

Julie Botteri | May 2013

Career paths are rarely preordained. Instead, they might develop around hobbies, interests and learned skills until an opportunity appears that’s a perfect fit. That’s what happened for Rick Hederstrom.

Rick Hederstrom has found a fulfilling career as the ethnobotanist at Key Largo's beautiful Kona Kai Resort, Gallery and Botanic Gardens. (Photos courtesy of Rick Hederstrom)

Rick started out as a young golf-pro-hopeful and detoured into drafting car designs.

But his life changed completely when he came across the owners of Key Largo’s Kona Kai Resort, Gallery and Botanic Gardens — and he became their first-ever resident ethnobotanist.

Rick had actually gotten his degree in ethnobotany, the study of the relationships that exist between plants and people, at prestigious Connecticut College. Through what he called divine intervention, he received enough financial grants to fully cover the staggering $43,000 yearly tuition.

Grounded in a strong Catholic faith and kinship with the outdoors and nature, Rick is fascinated with the healing qualities of plants. That led him to pursue ethnobotany, figuring it had more long-term career potential than practicing on golf greens or drawing concept cars indoors at a drafting table.

“I was initially most interested in plants’ usefulness as medicine and perhaps playing a role in developing new treatments and cures from plants,” he said.

During garden tours, Rick explains the origins and uses for many tropical plants -- including the unusual pitcher plant that's considered a carnivore.

When the chance came to study abroad in his junior year, he wound up in the Peruvian Andes and rainforest for three months — immersed in fieldwork with the people of Cuzco and the outlying lowlands, learning how they used plants in everyday life.

“For [Peruvians], the use of plants is a very serious ritual experience and forms the basis of their world view,” Rick explained. “Ayahuasca, a mixture of certain plants, is intensely spiritual, hallucinogenic and is conducive to a positive healing or state of peace.” 

The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai strive to blend enrichment, enlightenment, education and enjoyment. Today, as the facility’s associate director, Rick offers insights to visitors into the crucial roles plants play in our survival.

Guests touring the gardens learn that each living, breathing organism has a name, a story to tell and a complexity and beauty beyond being just a lovely green object. They also can sample delicious fruits he selects from the tropical fruit garden.

“Coconut water from the coconut palms’ fruit provides a valuable source of fresh water, and can substitute as intravenous fluid for hydration,” Rick said, “because it is sterile and has the right balance of minerals and electrolytes.”

Rick skilfully mixes electronic music when he indulges his "hidden passion" for deejaying.

As well as sharing his knowledge, his job includes inventorying the gardens’ plant collections, photographing and noting their condition as well as their flowering and fruiting, and choosing new plants to be added to the collections as planning continues for the facility’s future. He also pens a blog titled “The Diary of the Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai.”

Rick spends much of his free time at home in spiritual or religious reading, prayer and meditation, or attending Mass and participating in activities at the Upper Keys’ San Pedro Catholic Church.

On another note, he admits to a whimsical desire to deejay in the Keys, mixing a variety of electronic music. But for now, he’s satisfied with motorcycle rides, exercising and spending time around the water.

“I feel great when I am outdoors, in communion with nature — God’s manifestation in its purest form,” he said.


Nathan Jr. Takes Flight (More or Less)

Carol Shaughnessy | April 2013

Some days, it’s just not worth leaving the nest. At least, that’s probably what one young osprey thought recently. Instead of gliding smoothly from his home base atop an old cistern behind Key West’s Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, and winging his way gracefully around the Old Town neighborhood, the hapless fledgling found himself crashing embarrassingly into the grill of a car.

So far, Nathan Jr. seems to prefer sedentary pursuits rather than flying. (All photos by Rob O'Neal)

Luckily, one of the island’s talented street artists spotted the stunned osprey, helped extricate him and called the savvy folks at the Key West Wildlife Center. The director of animal care there examined the bird and determined that he was unharmed by his crash landing. Nevertheless, he spent a few days at the center salving his wounded dignity and (probably more important) receiving nourishing meals of fish and a dose of vitamins.

Come to find out, the young osprey had been under observation for a good while by the staff of the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum (FYI, a must-see one-of-a-kind facility full of early shipwreck artifacts and treasures).

“For the past few months, we have been admiring an unusual treasure of the sea,” recounted the museum’s education coordinator Shannon Burgess. “At the very top of the cistern behind our building, a large jumble of twigs has housed a pair of osprey chicks and their hardworking parents.”

Nathan poses for the paparazzi before attempting his first post-crash flight.

For reasons perhaps best left unexplored, staffers named the chicks Nathan Jr. and Edwina. It was Nathan Jr., practicing his flying skills, who had the unfortunate collision with the car. Shannon, who has a degree in biology as well as expertise in education, figures he was probably either diving for food or learning to navigate in the wind when his mishap occurred.

Unlike some spots, Key West is a place where the fate of one awkward bird matters to a surprisingly large number of people. So when representatives of the Key West Wildlife Center came to the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum to return Nathan Jr. to the wild — choosing to release him from the building’s top-floor balcony close to his nest — most of the staff and a photographer from the local newspaper were on hand to watch.

However, as Shannon Burgess related, Nathan Jr. didn’t seem too keen on the whole process. Despite his sister Edwina issuing cries of encouragement and one of his parents bringing a bribe of food, he hesitated uncertainly.

With a slightly panicked look in his eyes, Nathan finally prepares to take off.

The museum’s executive director, Melissa Kendrick, said he looked like a reluctant celebrity about to attempt a high dive on the new reality show “Splash.”

Finally, Nathan Jr. made his move.

“He stumbled off the top-floor balcony, hurtled towards the ground and then lifted off to a nearby roof,” reported Shannon. “He looked fine; we looked traumatized.”

Of course, since this took place in Key West (where things often unfold a little differently than they do in less fortunate spots), the story wasn’t over when Nathan rejoined his feathered family. In fact, it’s not over yet. Nathan and Edwina, Shannon advised, are likely to be spotted “bumbling around Old Town,” sticking pretty close to the ground until they master the intimidating art of flying.

Nathan Jr.'s osprey parents located their nest atop a cistern behind the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum.

If you happen to see them, feel free to watch their practice sessions (and don’t worry if they seem a bit wobbly).

But please don’t get too close or try to feed them, because the winged “kids” must learn to survive on their own.

Sincere thanks go to Melissa Kendrick for bringing this avian adventure to our attention, and to Shannon Burgess for chronicling it. Nathan Jr. and Edwina, may you have many years of safe flights around Key West!


Andrea Paulson: Exploring the Unspoiled Lower Keys

Christina Baez | March 2013

More than 13 years ago, Captain Andrea Paulson began exploring the Lower Keys backcountry as a weekend alternative to Key West shopping for herself and other fishermen’s wives.

Andrea Paulson's easygoing attitude and love of the Keys' ocean realm make her the perfect guide for backcountry kayak trips. (Photos courtesy of Andrea Paulson)

She discovered she loved the experience so much that it seemed only natural for her to share it with others — which led to a career and a richly rewarding life.

Today, Andrea entertains hundreds of Florida Keys visitors annually with her Reelax Charters Lower Keys backcountry kayak excursions.

A 20-year Keys resident and lifetime outdoor enthusiast, Andrea named her business Reelax Charters for her nickname “Ree” and the relaxing experience participants enjoy.

Originally from Rochester, N.Y., she grew up boating and canoeing on Lake Ontario. A true water lover, she even worked as a lifeguard on the beach.

Andrea met her husband, Bobby Paulson, while visiting a friend who owned the house he was renting.

“I came down and was expecting to meet some old salty captain,” she recalled. “We met and that was it; it was kind of love at first sight.”

Adventures in the Keys' shallows and uncharted islets await Reelax Charters' guests.

After a long-distance romance that often involved commutes back and forth from Palm Beach, she moved to the Keys permanently in 1993.

While her husband is out guiding flats-fishing trips, Andrea guides her clients on a journey by motorboat seven to nine miles off the Lower Keys. There they begin their kayak adventure in a realm of crystal clear waters, remote islands, pristine beaches, shallow flats, mangroves and more.

While exploring, kayakers enjoy an “off-the-beaten paddle experience,” discovering islands and areas unreachable by kayak alone. They might spot native Keys wildlife like great white herons, ibis, starfish, stingrays, colorful tropical fish, sea turtles and even a dolphin or two.

Offered daily by appointment from Sugarloaf Marina on Sugarloaf Key, Reelax Charters’ fully customized kayak excursions are an escape in time. Participants begin at their leisure — and Andrea doesn’t watch the clock while guests are having fun. Most tours last four to five hours and accommodate up to six people.

A few couples, clearly romanced by the natural beauty of the Florida Keys, have even gotten engaged or tied the knot on one of Andrea’s private kayak excursions.

Bobby, Andrea and puppy Clark share a moment of "reelaxation" on the water.

Families too find themselves captivated by Reelax Charters’ adventures, and the captain keeps books and literature on hand for kids to use in identifying Keys wildlife.

“I love my job, and when I’m not working I’m out exploring new areas by kayak,” Andrea admitted. “The best part (of my job) is ending the day with a hug from a customer because we’ve had so much fun together it’s almost like we’ve become best friends.”

During her free time, Andrea often finds herself kayaking, fishing with her husband and entertaining other fishermen’s wives. She also enjoys “downtime” with her husband and their yellow Labrador puppy, Clark.

Like a true Paulson, Clark loves the water. In fact, most likely he’ll be spotted exploring the Lower Keys backcountry by kayak sometime soon!


Kelly Grinter: Wild Birds’ Best Friend

Julie Botteri | January 2013

Originally, she was more interested in working with porcupines and skunks than birds. Yet Kelly Grinter has spent 18 years at the helm of the Marathon Wild Bird Center — and now she’s one of the Florida Keys’ best-known wildlife rehabilitators.

Kelly Grinter is renowned for her passion for helping the Keys' avian residents and visitors.

Kelly came to the Keys in 1995 to intern at the Wild Bird Center in Tavernier, in part to escape a cold Massachusetts January and an unsatisfying career in graphic design.

A friend of hers was an ornithologist — and that friend’s passion and knowledge about birds convinced her to relocate and learn.

“I discovered that birds were light for flight and had high metabolisms, and thought, ‘Okay, they’re interesting,’” she said.

In addition, she was intrigued by the Florida Keys’ location within a migratory flyway, where 10,000 or more birds pass the same travel paths each year. Winged travelers ranging from small songbirds or warblers to birds as big as bald eagles — white ibis, brown pelicans, red-shouldered hawks, ospreys, double-crested cormorants, raptors and peregrine falcons — take a migratory break in the fall before they head farther south to Cuba.

Within a year, Kelly was offered the top spot at the Marathon Wild Bird Center at the Museums of Crane Point, tucked inside a 64-acre hardwood hammock at mile marker 50 on Florida Bay.

The center’s mission is to rescue, rehabilitate and release injured birds. Each year, it treats 500 or more migratory and native birds.

The Marathon Wild Bird Center rescues and rehabilitates wild birds in need and releases recovered "patients" back into the wild.

“The coolest thing about coming to the Marathon Wild Bird Center,” Kelly said, “is you get to see these birds up close and personal.”

People might glimpse a red-tailed hawk, pelican or osprey in flight or in their nests, but sightings in the wild rarely offer the chance for a close-up examination of the bird.

“Here, visitors can see their plumage, interact with them and discover they each have their own personality,” Kelly advised. “Families learn together.”

During the past 18 years, she has performed thousands of avian rescues. Few, however, were as harrowing as helping a young female pelican that had swiped and swallowed the 8-inch filet knife a fisherman was using to cut mackerel at his cleaning table.

Kelly was afraid she would lose precious time transporting the bird to the center’s hospital to anesthetize it and surgically remove the knife. So she attempted to extract it right then.

Each year, the Marathon center provides help and a safe haven for around 500 native and wild birds.

“The blade was pointing straight up, so I figured all I had to do was pull it up and out,” she recalled. “After a few unsuccessful attempts at grabbing the slimy blade, I put on latex gloves and on the count of one-two-three, up and out came the knife, without a drop of blood.”

The crowd gathered around erupted in cheers.

“I told the pelican not to do that again and released her back into the water,” Kelly quipped.

At 42, she remains enthusiastic and committed to her chosen path. In 2006, she was named a finalist for the Animal Planet network’s Hero of the Year award.

She’s fueled by life-affirming events such as the birth of baby cormorants at the center and the release of the young birds into the wild. Her toddler son, Noah, accompanied her on the release so he could watch and learn.

“I love what I do, caring for these innocent creatures. Honestly I can’t see myself doing anything else or living anywhere else,” Kelly said. “I want to help others learn how to care for birds, and I want my son to be an advocate for the birds of the Keys.”


Do Fish Say Cheese? Keys’ Underwater World Inspires Photography and Art

Carol Shaughnessy | January 2013

The Florida Keys’ underwater world, featuring the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef, draws divers and snorkelers from literally around the globe to explore its wonders.

Photographer Don Kincaid documented much of the search for the shipwreck of the 1622 Spanish galleon Atocha off Key West.

That world also inspires Keys-based artists and photographers passionate about documenting, memorializing and capturing it in their work.

For example, there’s longtime Key West resident Don Kincaid, who calls himself a “treasure diving photographer.” What that intriguing title actually means is that he played a vital role in the discovery of the shipwrecked Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha off Key West.

As a kid, Don snorkeled the waters around the island and became fascinated with ocean life and historic shipwrecks. He turned that fascination into a career when he met Mel Fisher — the eccentric visionary who spent 16 years seeking the Atocha’s treasures and artifacts — and began photographing the quest.

Key Largo-based Stephen Frink turned his passion for the undersea realm into international success. Today he’s one of the world’s most published underwater photographers.

Stephen Frink's work includes this iconic underwater photo of Key Largo's bronze Christ of the Abyss sculpture. (Photo by Stephen Frink)

He’s also a savvy photojournalist whose accomplishments include spending 17 years with Skin Diver magazine and nine years with Scuba Diving magazine — plus authoring a coffee-table book titled “Wonders of the Reef.”

Stephen is a strong supporter of the Keys’ long history of marine conservation. Viewing images of the underwater world, he believes, can inspire people to work for reef protection.

That belief is shared by marine life artist Wyland, who lives in the Upper Keys. Wyland is best known for the gigantic marine life murals he’s created around the world to promote ocean conservation.

It’s almost impossible for Florida Keys visitors to miss his 7,500-square-foot panorama of the Keys’ living coral reef that adorns all four sides of a Key Largo building — or his large-scale reef life murals in Marathon and Key West’s Historic Seaport.

In fact, his Keys murals are seen by millions of people, showing them the beauty of the area’s underwater world and encouraging them to value and protect it.

Kim and Ian Workman, shown several years ago, help install their “Back Country” gyotaku creation in Key West's airport terminal.

Lower Keys artist Kim Workman relies on the area’s underwater creatures for more than inspiration — they’re the actual medium for her art! A master of the traditional Oriental art form of gyotaku or fish rubbing, she has spent years memorializing local finned and gilled denizens.

Typically, the gyotaku process begins with placing the fish on a wooden bench and painting it with black sumi ink. White rice paper is then pressed over the fish and gently rubbed — and when the paper is lifted, an exact black ink positive image is revealed.

Kim makes her fish art “pop” by adding vibrant watercolors. Key West travelers can see her most dramatic piece, a large-scale gyotaku collage created a few years back with her late husband Ian, hanging in the island’s airport terminal.

A lovely mermaid "plays" one of August Powers' "fishy" sculpted instruments. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Like Kim, Lower Keys artist August Powers recreates the Keys’ ocean inhabitants. His creations are offbeat yet brilliantly crafted sculptures that blend their characteristics (believe it or not!) with elements of musical instruments.

The result is collection of whimsical hybrids — the “manta-lin,” “sax-eel-phone,” “clambourine,” “trombonefish” and many more. August’s “fishy” instruments can be spotted on the ocean floor each year, displayed by costumed participants in the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival.

Want to find out more about Keys artists and their work? Just click here for the full picture.



So You Think You’ve Seen the Keys? Think Again!

Carol Shaughnessy | December 2012

There’s more to the Florida Keys than meets the eye, yet some people visit once and think they’ve seen it all. Well, they’re wrong! With so many hidden gems and colorful locales, even frequent visitors can enjoy new experiences each time they return to the island chain.

Welcome to Alabama Jack's, the laid-back heart of Card Sound, where you'll find wonderful conch fritters and Key lime pie. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

For example, if you choose the road less traveled (in this case, Card Sound Road, an alternative to the roadway known as the 18-Mile Stretch), you’ll cruise past Alabama Jack’s, Card Sound’s only restaurant and a popular local watering hole. This offbeat establishment offers some of the best conch fritters in the Keys — and a Key lime pie that I guarantee is beyond wonderful.

Continue along Card Sound Road and then connect with U.S. Highway 1 to meander onward. Once in Key Largo, if you’re interested in art and nature, definitely don’t miss Kona Kai Resort, Gallery & Botanic Gardens. This unique boutique property includes not only a beautiful inn, but also one of the most sophisticated art galleries in South Florida, featuring world-renowned artists.

That’s not the property’s only attraction — Kona Kai Resort is surrounded by a lush botanic garden that captivates the senses and immerses you in a tropical paradise. The garden is staffed by an ethnobotanist and tours are offered regularly.

With its fine art gallery and lush botanic garden, Kona Kai Resort is one of the Keys' most appealing hidden gems. (Photo courtesy of Kona Kai Resort)

Moving on to Islamorada, if you arrive on the third Thursday of the month, you can enjoy the Morada Way Arts & Cultural District’s Third Thursday art walk — featuring national and Keys-based artists and galleries along picturesque Morada Way. And whether it’s Thursday or not, you’ll discover a rich blend of artistry, fine crafts and great food.

Heading down the highway, look for the larger-than-life dolphin statue at Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key. It’s more than just a pleasing sight — one of the first “Flippers” of television fame is buried beneath it. Tour the acclaimed nonprofit marine mammal research and education facility to meet the dolphins currently living there.

Not far away is Marathon’s Turtle Hospital, the world’s first state-licensed veterinary hospital for sea turtles. Chances are you’ll spot one of the facility’s specially designed “turtle ambulances” parked out front, and tours are offered daily so you can learn about the hospital and its “patients.”

Strike Zone passengers travel on a comfortable catamaran during their island excursion and picnic. (Photo courtesy of Strike Zone Charters)

In the Lower Keys at the 524-acre Bahia Honda State Park, a portion of the Old Bahia Honda Bridge provides a dramatic reminder of the historic Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad. Stroll along the old bridge, which arches between sea and sky, for a panoramic view of the park and surrounding blue water.

And while you’re in the Lower Keys, dive into the oceanic environment on an island-hopping excursion aboard Strike Zone Charters’ glass-bottom catamaran, departing from Big Pine Key. The tour includes snorkeling, light-tackle fishing, bird watching, occasional dolphin spotting and a private island beachfront fish cookout (trust me — it’s delicious).

Think you won’t find any hidden gems in Key West? Just head for the ruins of the historic, never-used Civil War–era fort called West Martello Tower to encounter one of the most overlooked (and most tranquil) hideaways in the entire Keys island chain.

Discover the Key West Garden Club's tranquil oceanfront oasis at historic West Martello. (Photo courtesy of the Key West Garden Club)

There, set against the wide sweep of the Atlantic Ocean at Atlantic Boulevard and White Street, stands a beautiful garden featuring indigenous plants, rare palm trees and breathtaking vistas. It’s home to the Key West Garden Club, where lush foliage blooms against the weathered brick fort — with wonders including a huge tree grown over a narrow tunnel-like archway you can walk through.

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, the spots listed here are just a few of the treasures to be found in the Florida Keys. From secluded natural areas to little-known historic sites to environmental attractions, you can make new discoveries every time you visit. So why not start planning an exploration today?