Marine Creatures Rule the Day in the Middle Keys

By Karen Rubin

We leave Key West, that island city at the southernmost point of the United States, and our trail north through the Florida Keys that follows the passions and pursuits seems to have a common theme: the water.

Dare you: hold a tiny fish in your hand and wait for a tarpon to leap out to snatch it, as you snap a photo while hanging over the dock. This is the popular attraction at Robbie's Marina (photo by Karen Rubin).

The Keys, after all, are a series of islands, connected in recent times first by Flagler’s railroad (destroyed in the 1930s by hurricane), and then by a series of bridges and roads.

Key West, the island city at the southernmost tip (closer to Cuba than to Miami), turns out to be a commercial and cultural hub compared to the other communities, which, it seems, are more dominated by nature, tied to the sea.

So our journey brings us to kayak amid sharks, turtles and barracudas at No Name Key, to the sea turtle hospital, dolphin research center, wild bird sanctuary, in the Middle Keys, the relatively new International Diving Museum, the tarpon leaping out of the water to grab a meal from our hands in Islamorada, a fishing resort-camp, and finally, to the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the nation’s first underwater preserve, in the Upper Keys – all of these the product of people who followed their passion.

No Name Key, in the Lower Keys backcountry, is just past and over the bridge from Big Pine Key, the name evoking the image of people who just wanted to get away.

It is, in fact, pristine, and it is where we meet up with Bill Keogh, who came here as a college student doing environmental research and never left, finding different ways to fulfill his passion for the outdoors and photography and share it with others. He established Big Pine Kayak Adventure, offering people like us a chance to explore the “back country” by kayak (you can even arrange a kayak wedding and do the photos!).

The shallow backwater region of flats and mangrove islands is not easily accessible to boat traffic, so is largely untraveled, unspoiled, and teeming with fascinating plant and animal life, that you can so clearly. Here the environment ranges from mangrove communities to turtle grass flats (unique to the shallow-water backcountry) to sponge flats. You may well spot roseate spoonbills, osprey, great white herons and occasionally a bald eagle.

I’ve always loved mangrove islands – their roots act as a nursery for many species including young grouper, lobster and barracuda.

Out in the Lower Keys backcountry, it’s not uncommon to spot a pod of dolphins feeding in water seemingly much too shallow for them. We paddle along the edges of the uninhabited mangroves, where you are almost sure to see blacktip, lemon, nurse or bonnethead sharks. They often cruise in inches of water looking for easy meals. Sure enough, a shark (small), dashes under my kayak. Bird life is also plentiful: egrets, herons, kingfishers and white-crowned pigeons are typical. Had we been so inclined, Bill would have arranged for us to go fishing, as well (Big Pine Kayak Adventure, 305-872-9860).

The pool and lush grounds at Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

After our excursion, we go for lunch at the wonderfully named No Name Pub – a local hideaway that looks like something that Hemingway would have created. A tradition begun long, long ago has resulted in the full expanse of the ceiling and every spot of wall covered with dollar bills, signed by happy patrons (No Name Pub, MM 30, Big Pine Key, 305-872-9115).

Big Pine Key is also home to the National Key Deer Refuge, a large expanse of mostly undeveloped pine lands where the diminutive Key Deer live (MM 30.5, Big Pine Key, 305-872-2239,www.fws.gov/nationalkeydeer). Sure enough, we spot our first one right beside the road as we come in, and then again, when we leave the No Name Pub.

Back on the road, moving up into what is known as the Middle Keys, we go over the famous Seven Mile Bridge, entering Marathon. The bridge gives exquisite views, and certainly is an engineering feat, among the longest bridges ever built. You can also see what remains of an earlier bridge, known as the Knights Key-Pigeon Key-Moser Channel-Pacet Channel Bridge, constructed from 1909-1912 under the direction of Henry Flagler as part of the Florida East Coast Railway’s Key West Extension, that was badly damaged by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, and today is mainly used for fishing piers, cycling, sunset viewing). A museum on Pigeon Key contains artifacts from the Florida Keys railroad era.

The Turtle Hospital

Less than 20 miles further up the highway, at Mile Marker 48.5 on the bayside (that’s how they give addresses in the Keys), in Marathon, we come to the Turtle Hospital. The seemingly plain and simple structure (it was built in the 1940s as a motel) belies its role as a fairly unique research rehabilitation facility, apparently the only one of its kind in the U.S.

Honestly, aside from “Crush” in Disney’s “Finding Nemo”, it is hard to imagine anyone feeling so passionate about sea turtles that they would devote years to creating such a place. Turtles seem so much like, well, something from the Jurassic Age, and are hardly cuddly.

And yet (go figure), it is clear that the people who support the turtle Hospital and who work here are driven by passion.

The Turtle Hospital reflects the passion of its founder, Richie Moretti, who came to Marathon in the early 1980s after retiring from running a VW autobody shop. He bought a fishing boat and a small motel, The Hidden Harbor Motel, dating from the 1940s, which had a saltwater pool. Moretti turned the pool into a home for marine pets – starting with a tarpon, then snooks, Goliath grouper, sawfish, lobsters and eels. Soon, local school groups were coming to visit his thriving aquarium and get a chance to hold a conch or starfish. But when he wanted to put a turtle in the pool, he lobbied the state to become an educational program, and was denied because there was no turtle rehabilitator in the Florida Keys. So he recruited a veterinarian and the idea for the Turtle Hospital was hatched.

Today the Turtle Hospital in Marathon (they claim) is the only state-certified facility of its kind in the world – it even has a turtle ambulance for patient transport. Moretti and his staff treat injured sea turtles and, when possible, return them to the wild. If release isn’t feasible, the creatures become permanent residents.

Watching the sunset (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Educational tours of the facility are offered daily to introduce visitors to the resident sea turtles and to the hospital’s curative programs for loggerhead, green, hawksbill and, the very rare, Kemp’s ridley turtles.

We get to go into the operating room and even there is no turtle under the knife, learning how these operations are done, is fascinating. Finally, we visit the area where Moretti turned the pool into a home for sea turtles, as well as the tanks holding the turtles still recovering from their injuries or illness.

Our guide, Shane, answers our many questions – such as how turtles, who go to sea soon after they hatch, somehow know which beach to return to (and they know this because they have attached locators on them), and says there is possibly some internal compass. Also, answering the mystery of their “lost year” at sea, he tells us they go to One of the common surgeries performed here is to remove a tumor, caused by the fibropapilloma virus – that grows over its eyes, so the turtle can’t get food or fight.

“Half of the greens have it and we don’t know how it spreads, except by algae.” One of the hospital’s missions is research and the Hospital and the University of Florida have been doing cooperative research into the causes of fibropapilloma, and how it is spread. This is currently the only known disease affecting wild animals on a global basis. The virus has been successfully transmitted (proving that it is infectious).

He tells us how they anesthetize the turtle for surgery, putting it to sleep. A turtle can hold its breath for five hours, and the surgery can take 30-60 minutes, so they “wake” it by flipping its front flippers really fast for three minutes, tricking the sea turtle into thinking that it is rising to the surface so it will take a breath.

The hospital does about 50 a year (usually on Thursdays), and visitors can watch.

We learn about the variety of turtle ailments treated here, including flipper amputations caused by fishing line and trap rope entanglements, shell damage caused by boat collisions, and intestinal impactions caused by ingestion of foreign materials such as plastic bags, balloons, and fishing line and/or hooks. A common theme emerges – most of the injuries are caused by human activity.

In fact, when we visit, a sea turtle has arrived that has been the victim of a malicious machete attack – the perpetrator was sentenced to one year in prison and $75,000 fine.

Shane shows the operating room at The Turtle Hospital, a unique facility (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

To show the level of devotion, Shane points to the physical therapy of a turtle with lock jaw, which involved prying open its jaw 20 times a day for three to six months.

During our visit, Shane shares some really fascinating facts – for example, that sea turtles lay about 100-150 eggs at a time (about once every two or three years), then the mother waddles back into the water. The eggs hatch and all at once, the surviving hatchlings make their way to the water (going as a group insures that more will survive, but that is probably the most dangerous gauntlet they will ever walk).

Also, the Leatherback eats only jellyfish; swims to 4000 feet blow the surface, and because has cartilage instead of a shell, a cold-water adaptation that also helps it survive the change in pressure.

The Turtle Hospital has successfully treated and released over 750 Sea Turtles since its founding in 1986. The turtles are released in a variety of ways and at different locations depending on species. Greens are taken either to Pigeon Key via ambulance or they are taken to a spot 20 miles north of Marathon in the Florida Bay. Loggerheads are usually released at Pigeon Key or launched off a boat into the gulf or ocean. Kemp’s Ridleys are taken 70 miles west of Key West out to the coral reefs of the Dry Tortugas.

About 70 percent of the turtles that are treated here are released – they stay an average of three months, but the stay can range from weeks to years). A release is a big cause for celebration, like a baby naming. Recently, the Turtle Hospital issued this announcement: “Join us Thursday morning to send Heidi home!! Heidi is a large Loggerhead sea turtle who was admitted to the Turtle Hospital in February severely underweight and suffering from an intestinal impaction. After a few months of laxatives, antibiotics and a lot of food, Heidi is ready to go home! You are welcome to join us to send her off at Anne’s Beach in Islamorada!.. Look for the Turtle Hospital ambulance!”

(Even if you can’t get to The Turtle Hospital, the website makes you feel you are a part of the mission.)

The Turtle Hospital (Hidden Harbor Marine Environmental Project, Inc.) was opened in 1986 with four main goals: to rehab injured sea turtles and return them to the wild, to educate the public through outreach programs to local schools, to conduct and assist with research which aids the sea turtles (in conjunction with state universities), and to work toward environmental legislation which makes the beaches and water safe and clean for sea turtles.

The view from the Islamorada Fish Company restaurant (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

The Turtle Hospital offers 90-minute Guided Educational Experiences to public daily 7 days a week (305-743-2552, www.turtlehospital.org, for information and reservations).

In a very close proximity to The Turtle Hospital, there is also the phenomenal Dolphin Research Center, which provides many opportunities for close-up encounters with dolphins in an environment that is dedicated to research of dolphins’ cognitive abilities and social interactions (Dolphin Research Center, MM 58.9, Grassy Key, 305-289-0002,http://www.dolphins.org).

About 10 miles away is the Museums & Nature Center of Crane Point Hammock, a 64-acre nature/cultural center where you can explore nature trails and the historic Adderley House as well as visit a marvelous Natural History museum, do star gazing, take a moonlight kayak trip.

Walking along its trails, you feel small compared to the lush foliage. You come upon important natural and cultural features, literally discovering them. You come to realize that this is one of the most important archeological sites in all the Keys. It also contains the last virgin palm hammock in the United States.

Crane Point, Museum, Nature Center, & Historic House, Mile Marker 50.5, Bayside. 5550 Overseas Hwy. Marathon, Florida (305) 743.9100 (open daily; $7.50/A, $6/seniors, $4/students, under 6 free; allocate 2-4 hours), 305-743-9100, www.cranepoint.net.

Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort

We don’t have to travel far to our next hotel: the aptly named Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort is just next door to the Turtle Hospital, which provides an enchanting base – in fact, we really don’t want to leave.

Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort is a private, beachfront enclave comprising 87 two- and three-bedroom private homes nestled on 12 lushly landscaped acres in the heart of Marathon, in the mid-Keys. It offers 1,100 feet of private shoreline with 2.5 acres of white sandy beach. Tranquility Bay boasts the award-winning Butterfly Caf�, the resort’s fine dining restaurant. Other amenities include 2,800 square-feet of flexible event/meeting space, a lagoon swimming pool with beach-style entry and a private adults-only pool, a guest services/reception center, state-of-the-art fitness facility, Putting Green by Nicklaus Design, private spa services and The Salty Dog tiki beach bar.

Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort and the Parrot Key Beach House Resort in Key West, were both built by Pritam Singh, a legendary New England builder specializing in historic preservation, fine architectural detail and quality resorts. And it shows.

A lightening bolt briefly lights up a portion of the night sky across the Gulf of Mexico, a dramatic scene from a cozy perch on the sand beach at Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort also features these magnificent cottage-style townhomes, completely furnished even down to the gourmet kitchen, two-plus baths, expansive porches overlooking the water, flat screen TVs, handmade furniture, lush grounds, magnificent pool, and a 2.5-acre sand beach, plus a lagoon. That night, it is the place to sit in the dark, watching lightening make bursts of white in the pitch-black, on the flat water of the Gulf of Mexico.

This is really a spectacular place – very luxurious yet homey – and you really don’t want to leave. The newest amenity is custom private spa services enjoyed your own Beach House. It is ideal for families, providing the luxury of a villa with room to spread out, and romantic and elegant enough for a romantic retreat (Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort, 305-289-0888 or 866-MID-KEYS, www.tranquilitybay.com,).

(A third Singh resort in the Keys, Coral Lagoon Marina Resort, is an exclusive, waterfront resort in Marathon on nearly six acres of lushly landscaped property, offering 25 richly decorated, yet casually themed, classic Key West conch-style cottages asnd marina homes. The website was offering summer specials at just $189/night, 866-MID KEYS,www.singhresorts.com.)

Dinner is at a wonderfully fun Keys Fisheries, a casual fish place right on the water, the kind where you step up to the window, order from the fresh catch of the day, then take your plastic “silverware” and plates to a picnic table, where we see one of the most spectacular sunsets, even for the Keys, where spectacular sunsets are routine, and enjoy the fresh catch of the day (Keys Fisheries, 3390 Gulfview Ave. Marathon, FL 33050, MM 49, Bayside, 305-743-6727).

We pull ourselves away the next morning, to continue on our journey, stopping for breakfast a charming local eatery, Leigh Ann’s Coffee House (also a wine bar), where we enjoy a luscious Italian Frittata (a two-egg omelette, prepared in a ceramic Ramekian without any oil or butter, and homemade habanero (chili) jam, prepared with mango and habanero (not hot, very tasty, with a kick at the end). This is such a hip, sophisticated place, it even has Wi-Fi. (MM 51).

Sport-Fishing Capital of the World

When we head out, toward Islamorada, we find ourselves in the capital of fish country. Fish seems an obsession here.

Probably the most unusual – and surprising – way to appreciate the grandeur of fish is at Robbie’s, an iconic destination for fishermen.

On PJ, a 32 year-old starlet macaw, is the resident mathematician at Theater of the Sea, who can add, subject and count to 20, pulling on the bell to sound his answer (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

It seems everywhere I go in Florida, I see photos of proud fishermen with their massive tarpon – these iridescent blue-green fish, 60 to 150 pounds, with wide mouths – I even saw a photo of Mrs. Thomas Edison with her catch – and often these are the fish proudly mounted over mantels. They are truly an impressive sport fish.

Imagine my surprise, then, when you get a bucket of small fish, take one in your fingers, and hang yourself over the side of the dock, staring into a swirl of these massive creatures, circulating in a frenzied mob below you, until one springs out of the water and grabs that small fish from your fingers, for the instant, practically eyeball to eyeball. With practice, you manage not to be so frightened as to drop it into the mouth before the tarpon actually takes it from your fingers, and if you are like me, trying to snap the photo with the other hand, it is even more of a feat. But I got the shot. The most thrilling experience with a fish you can have that does not involve a pole and seasickness! This has become such an attraction, people come from all over the world. You pay $1 to see the live tarpon, and $2.79 for the tarpon food (Mile Marker 77.5 (bayside), 77522 Overseas Hwy Islamorada.

The Florida Keys is a fishermen’s paradise and the epicenter seems to be here in Islamorada, which is known as the Sport-Fishing Capital of the World.

Florida Bay, edged by the “inner” curve of the Keys and the Florida mainland, is referred to by locals as the backcountry. It is home to five of the most sought-after game fish in angling circles: bonefish (the largest bonefish in the world, 8 to 14 pounds, are caught near Islamorada), tarpon, permit, redfish (red drum) and snook.

(A saltwater fishing license is required to fish in the Keys. These can be purchased at many bait and tackle shops, on-line at www.floridaconservation.org, or by calling 888-FISH-FLORIDA (888-347-4356). Visitors must also abide by Florida state fishing regulations, which define bag limits and closed seasons. Current regulations can be found at most bait and tackle shops or on-line at www.marinefisheries.org/regulation.htm).

Here in Islamorada, you will also find the Bass Pro Shop (fishing’s answer to Ron & Jon’s Surf Shop) – complete with a full-wall aquarium, and a full-size replica of Hemingway’s fishing boat, the Pilar, which was used in the Bogart/Bacall movie, “Key Largo” (you can walk inside and see photos of Hemingway).

Behind the store, on the Bay, the most perfect dining experience to compliment your fishing expedition, the Islamorada Fish Company. You sit outside, under a tiki-style grass roof; there is even entertainment here Fridays 5-10, and Saturday and Sundays (Mile marker 81.5 bayside, 305-664-9271).

See artisans at work at the Rain Barrel Village (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

(And for dinner, the restaurants with the most sensational dining and spectacular settings are the casual and whimsical Morada Bay Beach Caf�, with seating on the beach, and its sister property, the more sophisticated, Pierre’s, Mile Marker 81.6, bayside, Overseas Highway, Islamorada, 305-664-0604).

I get a new appreciation for fishing when we go to dinner at Lazy Days, a lovely, casual restaurant with a gorgeous view from the back-terrace dining area, where we watch the colors change as the sun goes down and the stars come out.

Lazy Days will cook your own fresh-caught fish ($13.95), but for the most delectable treat, you must try the Hog Snapper Islamorada ($27.95). I have to confess I am not a huge devotee of fish, but this was unbelievably savory, and apparently, the fish is native to the Keys so this is practically the only place to get it. Lazy Days prepares this oddly named fish, a white, flaky texture, encrusted with Italian bread crumbs, saut�ed, topped with shrimp, scallops, mushrooms, shallots, fresh herbs, and served in a sauce of melted butter, wine and lemon. When it is on the menu, definitely order it.

Everything was delectable: the banana bread (scumptuous), black bean soup with beef, vegetable and a dot of sour cream (very tasty), crabcake. Try the Key Lime Cooler, prepared with Absolut citron, lime juice and ice cream! Incredibly moderately priced, the entr�eis served with soup, salad and a side.

Passion for marine life is a staple of the Florida Keys, and here in Islamorada, this is exemplified at Theater of the Sea, the second-oldest marine attraction in the world (after Marineworld, in St. Augustine, and one of the oldest attractions in Florida). It was founded in 1946 by Philip McKenney, as a place where marine animals who were injured could be rehabilitated, and if they could not be returned to the wild, would have a protected home.

All the animals in the park have been saved from some calamity; they are brought here to live out their life. Their stories are central to the message about the consequences of human development and the importance of individual responsibility; we all need to become better citizens of the planet.

You learn their stories of the animals – Quasimoto, the sea turtle; Princess the alligator; Indiana Jones the Iguana – on a guided walk through the park to the various exhibits and aquariums, created to mimic natural habitat as much as possible, all kept as pure as possible with 12 million gallons of fresh ocean water flushing through each day.

Adding to the currency supply: The No Name Pub's walls and ceiling is crammed with bills (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

The centerpiece of the visit is three different live animal shows – dolphin, sea lion, and parrot. They are designed to encourage audience participation, and integrating conservation issues, natural history, anatomy, and husbandry into an entertaining and educational format.

The highlight is the dolphin show, held in Dolphin Stadium, with a pirate ship motif. The show stars a few of the eight resident dolphins all rescued or born here, demonstrates the intellectual and physical abilities of these marine mammals with a message that encourages conservation and protection. It is fast-paced, thrilling and exceptionally entertaining for any age.

One of the most surprising and fun shows, though, is the Parrot Show. The incredible feats demonstrate the amazing cognitive abilities of these stunning birds – PJ, a 32 year-old starlet macaw, is the resident mathematician who can add, subject and count to 20 (the counting isn’t what is amazing, it is seeing the Parrot do addition, such as three plus 10 to get 13, and subtraction).

You can also take advantage of opportunities to interact with dolphins, sea lions and rays. There is also a very pleasant pontoon “cruise.”

The lush tropical gardens and flowing water offers an Eden-like atmosphere. It is all very relaxing (not the frenetic pace of rushing around some of the larger theme parks, especially since everything is relatively close by and just about whenever you arrive, there is some show going on). You need about 2 1/2 hours to see all the shows, but you can easily and enjoyably wile away the better part of a day here – with the shows, the guided tour, “bottomless” boat ride, and an extremely pleasant sand beach and lagoon, where you can sunbathe or swim with the fishes and rays. For refreshment, Nicky’s Grill cooks selections to order.

Theater of the Sea is open 365 days of the year; the ticket counter opens at 9:30 a.m. It is located at Mile Marker 84.5 in Islamorada, $25.95/ages 11 and up; $18.95 for 3-10; 305-664-2431,www.theaterofthesea.com.

Nearby is the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center where birds who have been injured are rescued and healed. Come for the 3:30 p.m. daily feeding of pelicans at the beach. ((no admission charge, they just ask for a donation; 93600 Overseas Hwy. Mm 93.6 bayside Tavernier, 305-852-4486).

Also take some time to visit The Rain Barrel Village, an artisan’s village, with every manner of art work and handicrafts of amazing diversity and quality (MM 86.5, 86700 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada, FL 33036, 305-852-3084).

To help you plan your visit, contact the Florida Keys & Key West Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 1147, Key West FL 33041, 800-FLA-KEYS (800-275-5397), www.fla-keys.com.

See also:
Exploring the Undersea World in the Upper Keys
Key West: Shipwrecks, Pirates & Sovereign State of Mind
Key West Attractions Are Full of Surprises

Friday, 3 July, 2009

© 2009 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at www.travelwritersmagazine.com and at www.familytravelnetwork.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.


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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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