The Florida Keys – Truly a magical place

It is 77 degrees here in the Florida Keys right now, and I’m wearing a sweater and jeans.  I think this means I’ve acclimatized!  It’s a summer-weight sweater, and I’m wearing flip flops, but still…. 

There is something about spending more than a week or two in one location.  You start to feel at home.  Locals start to recognize you and acknowledge you as more than just another tourist, you start to know service staff at the places you frequent, and you begin to recognize the telltale signs of those who have newly arrived or are just passing through.  (Here that’s a sunburn and new sandals.)

I have 8 days left in the Florida Keys and I can’t quite imagine being back at home.  Not that I’m trying too hard!  I always try to live in the moment, and I’m doing that now more than ever!

The Keys are really pretty magical.  It’s not for everyone – there’s very little pretense, not much opportunity for heels and lipstick, and it’s hard to find a restaurant open past 10pm.  But you do get the smell of the ocean no matter where you are, sand in your toes even when you’re out for a fancy dinner, flowers in bloom everywhere and wildlife that most people only every see in books, aquariums and zoos. 

It’s a place that celebrates each sunset, and greets each sunrise with a smile.  Where the sound of seagulls is welcome and the noise of rustling palm trees can hamper a conversation.  Where a sign that says “Watch for falling coconuts” isn’t a joke and the phrase “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere” can be used at 10am without raising eyebrows. 

I want to tell the world to come visit the Florida Keys, but then again, maybe I’ll keep this place to myself…  I’m off to hide the sunscreen and take down the welcome sign.  Perhaps you’d like Orlando.  I hear you can have breakfast with a princess at Disney….

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Woman vs Shark! Guess who won?

I was just baiting my hook when I heard the other line start to zing…. I called to my dad and he yelled to untie the rod from the bridge railing and set the hook.  The moment I picked up the rod I knew this was no little grunt or undersized snapper on the line!  I was pretty sure it wasn’t one of the tarpons that were lazily swimming back and forth beneath us either as it wasn’t heading out to the open water and it wasn’t jumping crazily, just steadily applying pressure and swimming in a more circular pattern. 

This was the second time I’d had something of any real strength on the line, and I was desperately hoping that this time I would keep it on the line.  Following my dad’s coaching, and the experience of fishing almost daily for the last 2 weeks, I pulled back on the rod and reeled in as I dipped it back towards the fish, then pulled back slowly again, reeling in a bit more of the line as I dropped the tip down again.  It’s like a little dance that you do with the rod and you need to find a good rhythm so you don’t apply too much pressure and find yourself with a broken line swinging in the breeze.  But at the same time, you want to make that fish fight for freedom so that it tires faster than you do!

Once I found a good anchor for the butt of the rod (thankful for the skirt I wear when I fish!), and got comfortable with the balance, I brought the fish close enough for us to see just what it was I had on the line.  A beautiful 5′ nurse shark!  My arms were already feeling the strain, but there was a lot more work to do!

By this time my dad had pulled out the camera, which I’d thankfully left turned on as it’s been a bit temperamental.

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Now I had to ‘walk’ it down the bridge so we could get closer to the water to A: take a good photo! and B: cut the line as close to the shark as possible so it could go on to live a happy sea life!

As long as I kept the pressure up, my shark followed me as I moved along the bridge.  Every now and then it would realize that it wasn’t leading the way and I’d hear the line go out a bit more, so I’d have to stop and do the dance again to reel it in closer, otherwise it could easily get hung up on the concrete pilings of the bridge, the line would snap and my adventure would be over!  My dad was coaching me the whole way with cries of “Keep your rod up!” “Keep moving!” “Watch the line!” and I followed his instructions as much as possible, but the moments where I seemed to be ignoring him, it was more a matter of extreme fatigue as I was hauling in 120-140 pounds!  (It looks smaller in the photos than it did in person! Honest!!)

I eventually made it down to the end of the bridge and my dad grabbed the back of my belt as we inched down the narrow ledge to get closer to sea level.  I’m sure we made quite a picture!  Once at the bottom I worked hard to keep the shark close so we could get some nice shots, and my dad kept saying “I don’t know if the camera is working!”  At that point I was so exhausted I didn’t really care and was happy with the knowledge that I’d battled a big fish and won!  Not a memory that will fade anytime soon!!

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Specs: Slack tide on 3 mile bridge, about MM 65 in the Florida Keys.  Caught with 3/0 hook on 40lb test line with wire leader.  Bait was a fish head from one of our catches on our reef fishing trip on Saturday! 

*Edit* – Upon further research, it was actually a 6/0 hook for those that are keeping score!

With luck, perseverance and good coaching, anything is possible!!!  What a day!!! 🙂

Spiders and Birds and Death Marches, Oh My!

I simply cannot get over the beauty and abundance of natural wonder here in the Florida Keys.  On my little Tiki Island where I spend much of my ‘down time’, I am getting to know the resident pelicans, and today they introduced me to their friend the heron!

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I feel like it’s a gift everytime I get to be this close to these incredible creatures.  I don’t suspect that it will, but I hope this sense of wonder doesn’t fade. 

We also spent some time in Long Key State Park today.  Unfortunately it was incredibly hot and there was very little breeze, so by about the half-way point in our nature walk, we felt more like we were on a death march!  Coolest sighting was a Golden Orb Spider, and further research tells me that the zigzag pattern in her web is called ‘stabilimenta’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stabilimenta .

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The trail through the park is beautiful, but I definitely recommend bringing lots of water because even though it’s only one mile long, it can really deplete your resources on hot day!

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And then I ended my day with a glorious sunset…..

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Death march aside, it was another spectacular day in the Keys! 

 

Wildlife sightings in the Florida Keys!

What a day for wildlife sighting in the Keys today!  We drove from Long Key to Key West for the day with a stop at Big Pine Key along the way.  For all the years we’ve been visiting this paradise, we’ve managed to miss out on seeing 2 things – Key Deer & Manatee.  Today we crossed one of these off the list, hopefully we’ll get the other one in the days to come!

Key Deer – they are an endangered species that live in one isolated area of the Florida Keys – about 25 islands in total where they can be found, 2 of which are easily accessible by regular folk like us driving in our little car!  After doing some reading, I discovered that they are actually a subspecies of the Virginia White-tailed Deer – the same ones that we enjoyed the company of while traversing the Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park!  Amazing coincidence and yet another reminder of just how small this planet is!

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While on Big Pine Key, we stopped at a little spot called the Blue Hole.  It’s an old quarry that was flooded by a hurricane and is fed by saltwater that seeps through the limestone.  Here we spotted a Red Belly Turtle, a non-native fish related to the Piranha that it is believed was deposited here by someone who was emptying out their aquarium, a Pumpkinseed fish and the coolest – a couple of Alligators!

 

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And then on to Key West where we spotted the following: Parrotfish, a baby Barracuda, tons of Tarpon, a Nurse Shark, Needlefish, a school of Mullet that swam in a perfect circle, and this elusive creature:

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All in all, a truly amazing day in the beautiful and incredibly special Florida Keys!

Take some time to stop and look around at the nature and beauty where you live and in the places that you visit.  It reminds me to be more conscious of my impact on my environment and of how precious our natural resources are.  This is a special planet that we share with some special creatures!