Keys Environment

Flamingos ‘Migrate’ South to Key West’s Butterfly Conservatory

Carol Shaughnessy | October 2013

When Sam Trophia was nine years old, he observed a caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a Monarch butterfly. By age 15, he was studying and raising Monarchs — and not long afterward, he helped gather groundbreaking data on Monarch migration.

Sam Trophia's lifelong fascination with butterflies inspires him to create stellar butterfly artwork.

These efforts sparked Sam’s enduring fascination with the fragile creatures sometimes called “flowers of the sky” — a fascination that inspired his satisfying career as an artist.

Ten years ago, in 2003, Sam and his business and life partner George Fernandez debuted a wonderland that shares the world of butterflies with the public: the 13,000-square- foot Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory at 1316 Duval St.

Centered around a 5,000-square-foot glass-domed butterfly habitat, the conservatory is one of three major butterfly facilities in Florida and just 23 in the entire United States. It houses several hundred butterflies from 50 to 60 species, plus a lively population of tiny birds, in a breathtaking tropical garden that calls to mind a perfect, unspoiled rainforest.

When you enter the conservatory, you’ll first explore educational displays that offer insights into aspects of the butterfly’s life — identification and country of origin, anatomy and physiology, and the awe-inspiring annual migration of the Monarchs.

The magnificent Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory houses hundreds of living butterflies and scores of tiny birds in a lush rainforest-like setting.

But you’ll really feel the magic when you step into the butterfly habitat itself. There you can stroll among hundreds of delicate winged creatures, ranging from the glittering Blue Morpho to the vivid Emerald Swallowtail, as they soar and dip and dance between more than 3,500 tropical plants and trees.

It’s easy to lose track of time when you’re following their mesmerizing flight — and if you’re lucky, one of the colorful “flowers” might flutter to rest briefly on your arm or shoulder.

But that’s not all. In one corner of the habitat, you can watch butterflies actually being born — getting a rare glimpse of the hatching process through the wide windows of the “miracle of metamorphosis” observatory.

Actually, the “hatching” of the center was as intricate and wonderful as that of a butterfly. Sam and George spent five years planning it, took research trips to 13 butterfly facilities throughout the world, and invested more than $5 million into making it as perfect as possible. 

Two beautiful pink flamingos are the conservatory's newest residents -- and visitors can enter a contest to choose their names! (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Recently, some other unique creatures joined the butterflies in the world-class habitat: two pink flamingos.

A male and a female, the lovely pale-pink birds were bred in Toronto. Coincidentally, since the species is often associated with love and romance, the prized wading birds were born on Valentine’s Day 2012.

They “migrated” to Key West after their breeder worked closely with Sam and George to ensure that the flamingos would acclimate to their new home.

And acclimate they did. Visitors to the conservatory can watch them in their private pond as they “dance” — gently moving their feet to stir up food in the water — and enjoy their days in the rainforest-like habitat far from Canada’s much chillier climate.

The only thing these lucky birds don’t have is names. In fact, a public contest to name the two flamingos launched Oct. 12. Name “ballots” can be submitted either in person at the conservatory or on its Facebook page, and the winning names will be announced at the end of November 2013.

Occasionally a butterfly will land briefly on the shoulder, arm or even head of a lucky conservatory visitor. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

As well as flamingos and butterflies, the conservatory also houses a stunning collection of Sam Trophia’s butterfly artwork. He has spent more than 25 years preserving the beauty of the fragile creatures he loves in original artwork.

Whether you’re interested in viewing that extraordinary art, learning about and walking among butterflies or naming the flamingos, put the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory on the must-see list for your next trip to Key West.

For more details about this rare and fascinating place, click here or visit the Facebook page. You’ll be SO glad you did!

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Carving Pumpkins and Restoring Coral

Julie Botteri | October 2013

Granted, the Florida Keys are surrounded by water — the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The island chain parallels the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef, an undisputed national treasure. In fact, underwater enthusiasts come from around the world to explore the Keys’ beautiful coral reef ecosystem and its resident sea life and unique corals.

Something's fishy about this jack-o'-lantern -- it's being carved underwater! (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Equally unique, however, is the array of underwater events that take place beneath the waves.

For example, like other Halloween fans, divers celebrate the holiday by carving pumpkins — but they do it underwater!

The 2013 Underwater Pumpkin Carving Contest is set for Saturday, Oct. 19. Armed only with their creativity and dive knives, pumpkin carvers will descend 30 feet beneath the surface in the waters off Key Largo to craft their jolly jack-o’-lanterns. In addition to “making a splash,” they compete for prizes.

As the divers pare away at frightening facial features, quick-swimming reef fish are likely to dart in for a close look at the knife-wielding action. They might even nibble on stray pieces of the natural fleshy gourds.

Past pumpkin entries have featured everything from traditional triangle eyes and toothless grins to shark-mouthed sneers. One crafty past competitor even created an orange-skinned octopus. The contest is presented by Amy Slate’s Amoray Dive Resort, and prizes — including a dive trip for two — await the top three pumpkin sculptors.

Pumpkin carvers aren’t the only unusual characters known to immerse themselves in Key Largo waters. In fact, some lucky divers might even catch a glimpse of a sub-sea Santa Claus in December, before he embarks on his round-the-world sleigh ride.

Santa listens to an undersea denizen's Christmas list in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The jolly red-garbed guy appears pretty much every year before Christmas, seeming perfectly at home in the underwater environment — bushy white beard and all. Wearing scuba tanks and a dive mask, Santa glides over shipwrecks and reefs, offering holiday wishes to fishes as part of a fundraiser for a local children’s charity.

And let’s not forget Easter, when a long-eared diving bunny hides brightly colored eggs for eager egg-lovers to find.

The annual Underwater Easter Egg Hunt takes place in Key Largo each year shortly before the holiday. Egg-seeking divers submerge to search for sunken hard-boiled treasure (real eggs decorated with non-toxic colorings, to prevent any negative ecological impact) on one of the Keys’ pristine shallow reefs.

One series of underwater events in Key Largo, however, is essential instead of eccentric — because ordinary divers can participate as “citizen scientists” in an initiative that just might hold the answer to worldwide reef preservation.

Ken Nedimyer, president of the Coral Restoration Foundation, displays juvenile coral cuttings in the organization's coral nursery. (Photo by Kevin Gaines, Coral Restoration Foundation)

Key Largo’s Coral Restoration Foundation, dedicated to creating offshore nurseries and restoration programs for threatened coral species, is hosting four coral restoration workshops in 2014 for divers passionate about the underwater environment.

Amy Slate’s Amoray Dive Resort is offering specially priced stay-and-dive packages for the coral restoration programs: Thursday through Sunday, May 15-18, June 12-15, Sept. 11-14 and Oct. 9-12.

Participants go on Friday and Saturday afternoon two-tank working dives to the CRF’s coral nursery to clean and prepare corals for planting, and an orientation dive at one of the restoration sites. Diver-participants also meet for morning lectures and informational seminars.

Workshop space is limited, so interested underwater aficionados are encouraged to register early. For pricing and reservations, call Amoray Dive Resort at 800-426-6729 … and for more information about the amazing work of the nonprofit CRF, click here.

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Loren Rea: ‘Hooked’ on the Keys

Briana Ciraulo | October 2013

She’s a seasoned graphic designer and website programmer, the director of two fishing tournaments and a proud mother and wife. So it’s no surprise that Sugarloaf Key resident Loren Rea has made a name for herself over the last 17 years in the Florida Keys.

Skilled angler and mom Loren Rea has passed on her passion for fishing to her 5-year-old son.

Originally from a small town outside Stanford, Conn., Loren spent her days fishing off the beach in Greenwich — until, that is, her friends recommended that she visit the Keys.

Quickly “hooked” on the laid-back island chain, from then on Loren took long weekends away from work to visit and fish at the Lower Keys’ Bahia Honda State Park.

“I would always call my boss and tell him I was staying here another day,” she confessed.

In 1996 Loren moved to the Keys, with only her pet Doberman as a companion, and got a job designing ads for the local daily newspaper. In 1998, she transferred to the paper’s Internet affiliate and began building web pages.

Around 2005, Loren started scorekeeping for the Del Brown Permit Tournament, a popular fly- and flats-fishing challenge. The contest honors the late angling legend Del Brown, widely considered to be the most successful permit fly-rodder in history.

A few years later, she became the event’s director.

“We were cleaning up after a tournament, and the co-founder just asked me if I wanted to take her position,” Loren said. “I thought about it for a little while, but then I gladly accepted.”

In the last few years, she’s made major changes to the tournament — including decreasing entry fees to make it more appealing to anglers. In recent years the tournament has donated to the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, a nonprofit devoted to the conservation of saltwater flats species.

Loren, shown here releasing a permit, is the only woman to fish the renowned March Merkin Permit Tournament.

As well as a skilled tournament director, Loren is a passionate — and talented — angler in her own right. In fact, she’s the only woman to fish Key West’s prestigious March Merkin Permit Tournament.

“I knew they weren’t easy to catch, but I definitely knew I had the skills to do it,” Loren said of the notably elusive permit.

She certainly does. In her first year of fishing the March Merkin, she caught a 20-pound permit and earned the respect of the 25 male participants.

Fittingly, Loren shares her love of fishing with the love of her life: her husband Captain Justin Rea. Justin is the founder of tarponfishingkeywest.com, a fly-fishing business that provides guided shallow water flats fishing tours.

“I always fish with my husband,” Loren confided. “He’s great because he’s very passionate about it.”

Loren and Justin have a 5-year-old son who’s already a fishing fanatic.

“He’s been fishing and swimming since he was one-and-a-half years old,” Loren marveled. “He’ll just sit at Bahia Honda on the shore with his little net and catch fish all day.”

In 2011, Loren and Justin founded the Cuda Bowl, a barracuda-fishing tournament that takes place just before Super Bowl Sunday each year. These days the event is growing steadily, attracting ever more participants and sponsorships.

Loren and Justin founded a popular Keys tournament called the Cuda Bowl, and the family fishes together during time off.

So what does the Rea family do during their down time? Fish, of course. Loren and Justin have traveled to angling destinations including Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Their travels even led to their very own fishing show. In 2012, “Getting Guided” focused on prime destinations for saltwater and freshwater fishing adventures from the Rocky Mountains to the Caribbean.

Loren and Justin hope to expand to new businesses in the near future.

“I really want to write a book,” Loren revealed, “a mixture of fishing stories, fishing advice and food recipes.”

Whether it’s writing, designing a website or catching her next permit in Lower Keys waters, one thing is clear: Loren Rea will find the perfect “angle” to succeed.

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Why One Keys Visit Just Isn’t Enough

Carol Shaughnessy | September 2013

Let’s face it: a single visit to the Florida Keys isn’t enough. Even if you explore just one of the Keys’ five unique districts, chances are awfully good that you’ll realize your vacation is too short.

With joys from tranquil sunrises to perfectly-cooked seafood, the Florida Keys merit FAR more than a single visit. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The best solution, then, is a return trip. From secluded natural areas to little-known historic sites to environmental attractions, you can make new discoveries every time you visit the enticing island chain.

For example, did you know Key Largo contains a mecca for chocolate lovers? If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you MUST stop at Key Largo Chocolates, the Florida Keys’ only chocolatier, located at mile marker (MM) 100.5 bayside. Self-described as a “grandma and grandpa operation,” Key Largo Chocolates infuses local flavors into handmade chocolate treats — like Key lime white chocolate truffles and quirky “chocodiles” shaped like tiny crocs. 

Just down the Overseas Highway in Islamorada, pull off the road and go wading in the shallows at a lovely little oceanside beach at mile marker 73. It bears the charming name of Anne’s Beach in recognition of the late Upper Keys environmentalist Anne Eaton. Attractions include great views, picnic tables and scenic walkways — and the shallow water typically means no breaking waves.

What could be sweeter than a white chocolate crocodile from Key Largo Chocolates? (Photo courtesy of Key Largo Chocolates)

Travel a bit farther and you’ll find yourself at Long Key State Park, located on the Atlantic Ocean at MM 67.5. The Spanish named this island “Cayo Vivora” or Rattlesnake Key (really!), because it’s shaped like a snake with its jaws open.

In the early 20th century, Long Key was home to a fishing resort frequented by legendary western writer and passionate angler Zane Grey. Today, you can explore the island by paddling through its connected lagoons or hiking two land-based trails. Check out the Golden Orb Trail, meandering through five natural communities to an observation tower that offers a panoramic view of the island. 

Head down the highway through Marathon and, shortly before the Seven Mile Bridge begins, make a sharp right onto Gulfview Avenue. Perched on the waterfront at the end of the short street is one of the best casual seafood restaurants in the Keys: Keys Fisheries.

A Key deer doe, part of a now thriving Lower Keys herd, licks her chops after grazing on a plant. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Try the fresh stone crab claws, peel-and-eat Key West shrimp, savory conch chowder or indescribably amazing Lobster Reuben. You can’t go wrong at this funky spot that’s a favorite of savvy locals. 

If you’ve ever visited Big Pine & the Lower Keys, you probably looked for the tiny, shy Key deer that are protected in the area.

These skittish creatures are most likely to be roaming around at dawn or dusk, and it’s a real treat to spot one. Make a stop at the National Key Deer Refuge Visitor Center in the Big Pine Key Plaza, located off the Overseas Highway at MM 30 bayside, and learn about the unique deer and their recovery from extinction — a true environmental success story. 

Unexpected discoveries await in Key West, too. Among them is the historic, never-used Civil War–era fort called West Martello Tower, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at White Street.

Beautiful plants and trees are set against weathered brick at West Martello. (Photo by Lynne Bentley- Kemp; courtesy of the Key West Garden Club)

It’s now headquarters for the Key West Garden Club, where beautiful indigenous plants and rare palm trees bloom against the weathered brick fort — with wonders including a huge tree grown over a narrow tunnel-like archway you can actually walk through. 

And if you enjoy prowling around unusual shops, Key West offers one of the best: an honest-to-goodness “curiosity shop” called 90 Miles to Cuba.

You’ll find everything from local art to nautical antiques, vintage jewelry and Hardy Boys books. It’s located at 616 Greene St. and its hours are as eccentric as the emporium itself; just keep checking back till the weathered wooden door is open. 

As you’ve probably figured out by now, these are only a handful of the out-of-the-way spots worth exploring in the Florida Keys. So start planning your next trip to the colorful island chain … and compile your own list of hidden gems.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Andy Newman | 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.

INDIAN KEY

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.

CRANE POINT

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. 

SAN CARLOS INSTITUTE

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.

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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.

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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!

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