One of the great pleasures of visiting the Florida Keys is getting out on the water, a luminous assemblage of blues that practically demands to be enjoyed. The manifold possibilities include snorkeling, scuba diving, sailing, kayaking, sunset cruises…. It’s even possible to charter little octagonal Tiki boats, which are essentially just floating bars. They look quite fun, if barely seaworthy.
During our recent trip to the Keys, I booked three excursions for us, in order to take full advantage of the beautiful environment. Each was quite different from the other, but I recommend all of them.
While staying in Islamorada, we splurged on a private three-hour KeyZ charter that included snorkeling. We met our captain, Kelly, at Robbie’s Marina on Lower Matecumbe Key. She helmed a very comfortable motorboat with ample seating — it could have easily held 10 passengers — and had a cooler filled with bottled water (guests should bring their own towels and snacks). We motored past Lignumvitae Key, a state park that boast’s the Keys’ highest point, 19 feet above sea level. As we hadn’t brought our climbing gear, we continued on to Shell Key, an uninhabited bird sanctuary surrounded by impenetrable mangrove. As we quietly skirted the island, we spotted magnificent frigate birds, double-crested cormorants, osprey, egrets (both great and snowy) and great white herons, in addition to common brown pelicans.
Since a strong wind made it difficult to snorkel out on a reef, we ended up trying some mangrove snorkeling, a first for me. The root cage encircling Shell Island serves as a nursery for fish that move out to the reef when they’re larger. To see them, I swam slowly, so as not to kick up sediment and cloud the shallow water, and got right up to the mangrove roots. I reached down and stuck a finger in the sand to hold myself in position. After a few moments, curious little fish emerged to have a look at me, darting back into the safety of the roots if I moved too quickly.
Later, Kelly passed a small net over a patch of turtle grass, capturing two tiny pygmy seahorses. She placed the wonderful little creatures in a clear plastic bag filled with water, so that we could observe them more closely before releasing them back into the grass.
Chartering a boat is expensive, but the quality of the experience is commensurate with the price. We had a splendid time with the knowledgeable and personable Kelly, and I wouldn’t hesitate to book another three-hour tour with KeyZ.
We arranged for a four-hour snorkeling excursion with the Isla Bella Beach Resort’s dive shop, Dive Isla Bella, which offers twice-daily trips open to nonguests. About 25 of us set sail on Miss Jackie, a 46-foot Newton boat that gave each party enough room to spread out. Unfortunately, the vessel was designed with scuba divers in mind, which meant that the metal benches that provided seating were backed by halved aluminum cylinders, perfect for holding air tanks but uncomfortable for a spine.
That drawback aside, we had great fun on the trip, not least due to the enthusiasm of the guides. We stopped first at Sombrero Reef, punctuated with a metal lighthouse resembling a radio tower. After the divers disembarked, we jumped overboard and began exploring, spotting an array of colorful fish ranging from wrasse to barracuda. Much of the reef was perhaps 20 feet down. Closer to the coral, I observed striking angelfish and parrotfish.
After about 30 minutes, a number of other boats of snorkelers and divers had arrived at the popular reef. We weighed anchor and motored to nearby Delta Shoals, a series of parallel coral ridges that is also the site of the “Ivory Wreck,” a mid-19th-century sunken vessel thought to have been a slave ship. When it was discovered, divers found elephant tusks and shackles among the wreckage. Little remains to be seen of it nowadays, but a small memorial stone on the sea floor marks the site.
Snorkeling along other sections of the reef, I encountered curious yellowtail snappers, skittish sergeant majors and a couple of surprisingly large puffers. At one point, I passed through a subtly luminescent cloud of (stingless) comb jellies. And I fortunately avoided a small bright-blue Portuguese man o’ war.
Considering the rather large size of the group, the excursion went very smoothly, and I would happily hop on board the Miss Jackie again. I was not alone in that sentiment; one man we met was on his third excursion with Dive Isla Bella that week! As with the KeyZ Charter, bring your own towels and snacks.
There is no need for towels or snack packs aboard the Argo Navis, a cushy catamaran based in Key West. Although legally allowed to sail with up to 91 people, the Sunset Cruise ship currently limits its passenger load to 30, and on our two-hour cruise, only about 15 others joined us. As we walked past wharves packed with people waiting to board other vessels, we breathed a sigh of relief that we had paid a bit more for the space afforded by the Argo Navis. The fee also paid for a larger than usual selection of wines — we had about a dozen from which to choose — as well as a number of tasty canapés.
After we motored out of the marina, the crew (with the assistance of some willing passengers) hoisted the sails. In order to maintain as much social distancing as possible, the crew brought food and drink to us, rather than having passengers congregating at a bar or buffet. I started with a flute of Marqués de Riscal Cava — sparkling wine always looks so lovely in the setting sun — followed by half glasses of a rich white Côtes du Rhône, the hearty “Mountain Cuvée” red blend by Gundlach Bundschu and a darkly fruity Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon. These were accompanied by a variety of skewers — the Caprese was my favorite — as well as other little bites, such as mini-baguette slices topped with brie and fig jam.
As the sun sank with its usual subtropical splendor, the group became more convivial (the constant breeze made conversation seem safe enough). On our left was a friendly man from Cleveland, accustomed to sailing his own boat on Lake Erie. The charming couple on our right — an air-traffic controller and a nurse — had left Pensacola at 9 p.m. the evening before and driven 832 miles straight through the night to Key West, arriving at noon. I asked what possessed them to make such an insane road trip. They shrugged and replied, “We really needed a vacation.” We had a toast to that.