Floating Amid Stars: Snorkeling the Florida Keys


Birdwatching is a globally popular hobby and continues to grow. I’m a huge fan of birds and enjoy watching them, but I love to fishwatch even more. Somehow, that hobby has never taken hold like birdwatching. I don’t get it. I mean, you have to stand there on a ground like a lump watching the aerial dynamics with birds. With fish you can actually join in and swim among them. When was the last time you got to fly with a flock of starlings or glide with an eagle?


I love the Florida Keys because they meet so many travel wants and needs. My greatest want, the one that I daydream about and that pushes me to return repeatedly, is the water. More specifically, the fish and other wildlife that inhabit the waters off the Florida Keys. I don’t visit captive animal attractions – I prefer to watch animals in their natural environments.


At some point, I lucked into snorkel gear (mask, fins, snorkel) at a yard sale and later upgraded to a better snorkel with a valve. The fins are small enough that I can pack them in my carry-on luggage. Over the years, my kit has expanded to rubber-soled water shoes, a point-and-shoot underwater camera, DIY defogger spray, and many ziplock bags. If you are going to snorkel more than a handful of times it is worth having your own equipment and it also means you can check out offshore spots spontaneously. Some of the best spots I’ve found have been just offshore and do not require a boat ride. While boat rides are part of the fun, they add up if you are traveling on a budget. Snorkeling is one of those things that can be as cheap or as expensive as you want to make it.


I like to go to the Keys in summer because it is off-season, the crowds are smaller, and unless there are storms afoot the winds tend to be calmer, which means the waves are smaller and the water is clearer. I learned the hard way that going in the winter can make for terrible snorkeling.


I feel I should note that I am a snorkeler, not a diver. My ears let me freedive about 8-10 feet and that is it. Diving is also expensive and there are restrictions about diving and flying within 24 hours. I’m quite happy bobbing along the surface, suspended between worlds.


These are spots I checked out in July. I also read Snorkeling the Florida Keys by Brad Bertelli before we left and found it very helpful.


Cheeca Rocks

We took the 3:00 p.m. Happy Cat Snorkel Boat out from Robbie’s in Islamorada the day we arrived. The boat took us a few miles offshore to Cheeca Rocks. It was hot and the water was very clear. We saw several sea turtles and huge schools of small silverfish. Unfortunately, this charter attracted the kind of people I want to smack the shit out of. I watched a young woman “petting” the coral. You don’t “pet” coral. When she bobbed up for air I yelled at her to stop and she claimed she didn’t know any better. EVERY SINGLE snorkel charter I have ever gone on tells you this will kill the coral. Look, don’t touch. Then someone else with extra-long dive fins started treading water near the coral heads. They did decades’ worth of damage in seconds. I get that you have fancy-ass dive gear and are proud of it, but you don’t need long fins in calm, shallow waters.


Indian Key State Park

The next day we went back to Robbie’s and rented kayaks to go out to Indian Key. We were given a tour of the island by Historic Upper Keys Walking Tours, run by the aforementioned Brad Bertelli (that will be a post of its own shortly). Afterward, we entered the water on the northeast side of the island. The waters around the island are very shallow and we saw conch, starfish, baby sharks, parrotfish, and watched nesting ospreys from the water. It was a nice little spot.


Fort Zachary Taylor State Park

Fort Zachary Taylor is one of my all-time favorite snorkel spots. There are rock formations just off the beach and while the action is often there, I’ve seen a school of cuttlefish in the shallows. It was crowded the afternoon we went and the winds and tide had the water rather turbid. Overall, it was lackluster this trip. You can snorkel the same place 10 times and never experience the same conditions.


Key West Marine Park

Another offshore snorkel spot in Key West is the Key West Marine Park, located on the east side of the island. The pilings and debris make for great fishwatching, as they are ideal for juvenile fish and invertebrates, but the morning we went the tide was moving and the winds had kicked up. The water was so turbid that it was almost disorienting. I will definitely go back next time and hopefully the conditions will be better.


Sand Key

We sailed with Captain Dennis on his boat Breezin out to Sand Key. Again, there was some wind up, so we moored on the rubble side of the key. Snorkeling can be very different depending on where you moor and the wind/water conditions, even within 100 yards. In this case, we were in an area that would be easier to swim in, but the rubble zone belied the health of the reef on the opposite side. The water was bath temperature. I watched and listened as a school of parrotfish munched loudly.



Dry Tortugas National Park

By far, the best snorkeling this trip was out at Fort Jefferson. It is in my top five snorkeling spots, period. Fort Jefferson has been on our list for years, but the tickets aren’t cheap. This was finally the year. Located about 70 miles west of Key West, the Dry Tortugas are in the middle of nowhere, but the fort is rich in history. There are two decaying docks, which offer ideal food and shelter for the tropical fish that surround the island. You can put your head down and watch 10-15 species of fish swirling below and then look up to see nesting brown noddies at the tops of the dock pilings. The clarity of the water was amazing and it was a pleasant swim around the exterior of the fort. The height of day was blistering, but the ferry we took out to the island put out a delicious spread and made sure everyone had enough water.



Turtles, rays, and larger fish are great, but I am just as happy seeing common nursery fish and invertebrates. If you are willing to take your time and look into crevices and among the sea grasses you’ll be rewarded. I still haven’t seen an octopus in the wild, but I’ll keep trying until I do. Swimming with huge schools of small silverfish is like floating amid the stars.

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Breezin Charters

13669847_10157106853055702_1711600339449912319_nShortly after clearing Key West Harbor, bound for the reef at Sand Key Lighthouse some six or seven miles offshore, came that most cherished moment when, with sails full and neatly trimmed, you kill the diesel grumbling beneath your feet and, like 300 generations of your forebears, give yourself over to the power of the wind.


Unlike today’s hard-chine powerboats, the sailboat’s traditionally curved hull rides the waves like a duck, and one momentarily reverts to that evolutionary stage when mankind pursued its own ends by harnessing the forces of nature rather than trying to dominate them.

13754342_10157106852945702_8921155845293474025_nOf course, modern sailboats offer amenities your ancestors never could have foreseen – global positioning systems (GPS), refrigeration, roller furling, autopilot, self-tailing winches, and satellite radio, to name a few – but the tried-and-true fundamentals of sailing remain the same. And sea-legged visitors to Key West can enjoy the best of both worlds aboard Breezin, a 42-foot Catalina sloop that offers full- (seven hours) and half-day (four hours) charters on the balmy surrounding waters.


But what really sets Breezin apart from the competition is her skipper, Dennis Krinitt. We first met “Captain Dees” about a decade ago, when he worked for a nearby sailing charter company. While that all-day snorkel excursion was everything we’d hoped for, it was the smart, good-natured, soft-spoken Krinitt – whose conversation shifted from jazz standards to Tom Robbins to basic seamanship as naturally as the changing tide – that really shone. And despite his credentialed profession, the native Californian may well be the most productive-yet-chill human being I’ve ever met: calm, collected, unflappable.


So impressed were we by Captain Dees that we went out with him again before that trip was up. And thereafter, on each return to Key West, we made a point of booking only those trips he was scheduled to helm, including one sunset cruise on which Captain Dees – also a licensed notary – officiated our renewed wedding vows.


Eventually, Captain Dees landed Breezin a slip in the Key West Bight Marina, at the foot of William Street, where he now offers sailing charters, lessons, sunset cruises, and more. (And those modern amenities also include the ability to book your reservation online.) On your way there, stop by the nearby Cuban Coffee Queen for a café con leche and pan cubano, or anything from their extensive menu. But get there early, as the line quickly builds – and you don’t want to miss the boat!

Breezin Charters

Historic Seaport Walk

Key West Bight Marina, Slip E-7

201 William Street

Key West, FL 33040

P: (305) 797-1561


Cuban Coffee Queen

284 Margaret Street

Key West, FL 33040

P: (305) 292-4747

Downtown Location

5 Key Lime Square

Key West, FL 33040

P: (305) 294-7787

Like Ramen Left Out in the Rain


I volunteered to help organize a conference for work. An unexpected perk was that I needed to go to Tampa/St. Petersburg, FL to conduct site visits at three hotels and one museum. One of the hotels comped a night’s stay. I realized that Garnet was old enough to entertain himself while I worked and invited him to join me for a bit of adventure.

We had completed all four visits and intended to spend the evening swimming at the hotel pool. A thunderstorm disrupted our plans. We were up in the room watching the sky flash in the distance. Garnet was rather agitated because he wanted to buy a perfect birthday present for a friend. It was almost 8pm. I thought about how I felt at that age and asked if he wanted to go shopping. He nodded.

So off we went into the rainy, tropical night. We were in St. Petersburg, on Central Ave. waiting to turn right on 3rd Street. The light had changed, but there were pedestrians crossing the street. Behind me, a black Saturn Vue XR saw the light change, but missed me stopping for the pedestrians and slammed into the back of me when it skidded in the rain. I completed the turn and pulled over in front of a row of bars and restaurants. Seconds later a distraught young blond woman appeared beside my door, the rain and tears streaking her mascara. Garnet was upset by the noise and my sudden seriousness, but I assured him we were okay.

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed an indigent man trying to make the chaos we created work for him. He was taking a grocery bag and hitting passing cars with it, then pretending the car had run over his foot. No one was stopping. I calmly told the crying girl to go back to her car. It was her first accident too.

I called Budget, who took the report and told me that in the state of Florida cops often don’t come out for minor accidents. There was a rap on my window. It was a bouncer from one of the nearby bars. He said that the indigent man was claiming that the woman who hit me had run him over. I got out in the rain and followed him over to the sidewalk where the man was in his death throes. I laughed. He was overacting his part something fierce. Pedestrians were stepping over him.

The bouncer said they had to call the cops and that we should wait. The bouncer said that the guy was a known local drunk and that the cops weren’t going to take his word over ours. So back to the car I went, glad that the hedge blocked Garnet’s view of the scene.  It was then I realized the indigent man had been hitting the passing cars with a bag of ramen. The bag was now run over in the crosswalk, noodles crushed, scattered, and rehydrating in the rain.

I didn’t want to leave the girl to face the cops on her own, but they still hadn’t arrived after 15-20 minutes. I saw something going on in the rearview mirror and assumed another bouncer was confronting the guy, who had made a miraculous recovery. The first bouncer reappeared at my window and told me another bum had arrived on scene, saw the guy playing dead and called him a scumbag. They got into a scuffle and went off into the night. He suggested we leave, quickly, and if the cops ever came they would handle it.

Later, I would realize that I had gotten my learner’s permit in Florida and almost 30 years later was in my first real accident in the same state. You can say what you want about Florida, but the state has the best writers. I mean, where else can you have your first car accident resolved by a bum fight?





I learned to love to travel as a child. So did Patrick. When Garnet came along we hoped he would also love to travel. We took our first real trip together when he was 11-months-old. We dressed him in a bear costume, hoping that if he cried on the flight people would at least be ameliorated by the overwhelming cute of a small bear-like child. He barely cried and it soon became evident that he was one of us.

Each year, we took trips that were more demanding – longer plane rides, more hours in the car, longer hikes, different locales, weirder motels, less sleep, more snack-based meals. He adapted to everything and we enjoyed sharing new places with him. There were always limitations imposed by traveling with a child, but that was okay. One of the main reasons to travel is fresh perspective and by taking him we had that two-fold.

A work trip presented itself recently that was a bit different than most. I needed to conduct site visits at three hotels and one museum. One of the hotels comped a night’s stay and I had frequent flyer points to cover a plane ticket. I invited Garnet to join me. I explained I had to work all-day Friday, but that we’d be free to adventure all-day Saturday. I knew he’d get bored waiting, so I asked him to help me. I gave him my old camera to use and asked him to take photos of the places we were visiting.

I’ll admit it, I was just hoping to keep him occupied while we spent the day conducting tours. That isn’t what happened. He asked helpful questions and his use of the camera was natural and innate.

Something about the camera shifted the dynamic. I could see what he saw. Further to that, he was sitting in the passenger seat beside me for the first time on a trip. He took photos of clouds, signs, and the dashboard. I saw what was interesting to him. He was curious about how the camera worked and I started to teach him about light, shutter speed, composition, and perspective. We were less parent and child and more like traveling companions. It was wonderful.

When we got home we worked together to pick his best photos. I showed him about cropping, adding contrast, and general editing. He showed me which photos were his favorites and why. He teaches me more than I could ever hope to teach him. These are some of his photos from the trip…

Fort De Soto State Park
Great Egret
Flag in the breeze
Passenger seat perspective
Passenger seat perspective II
On the road
Plans for the day
Having coffee
Dali Museum
Dali Museum, self-portrait
Dali Museum
Descending the stairs at the Dali Museum
Still Life at the Hilton
Hotel site visit
Hotel site visit
Where the day took us
Roadside attraction under construction

801 Cabaret

It is theater.

It is edgy.

It is familiar.

It is feminine.

It is masculine.

It challenges.

It is scripted.

It is improv.

It is truth.

It is lies.

It is pop.

It is punk.

It is psychology.

It is inclusive.

It is exclusive.

It is a craft.

It is art.

It is drag.

Boa and Marilyn

The 801 Cabaret is one of our musts when we’re in Key West. Highly recommended.

If you want more portraits go here. This is just a sampling.

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

Alligator, La Chua Trail

Florida’s state parks are often hidden gems. Such is the case with Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. We were planning a trip some years ago when I saw a swath of green on the map. I had never heard of Paynes Prairie, but it seemed worth a stop. We visited in January of that year and I was delighted to find a savanna filled with migratory birds, alligators, and bountiful wildlife. It was like a tiny, hidden Everglades. The park is 21,000 acres with various habitats, from swamps to forests.

Golden orb weaver (aka banana spider)

In April of this year, I went to Gainesville for work. Once the meeting was over, I asked the person I had the meeting with if she wanted to go for a hike. We took our work hats off, put our friend hats on, and headed over to the park.

Mud turtle

She drove us to Bolen Bluff, a trail in Paynes Prairie, just off 441, about 25 minutes south of Gainesville. We found a wee turtle and golden orb weaver within minutes. We also spotted a northern parula. The forest gave way to prairie. Ahead of us was a family of bison.

Wild bison

People expect exotic wild animals in Florida, like cobras and Mickey Rourke, not bison. They were once native to Florida and were reintroduced to the park in the 1970s as part of the park’s goal of preserving the land as a living museum. The population reached 70 in 2011, but unfortunately, they deemed this excessive and began culling instead of sterilizing or maintaining. There is now a small group of 8-10 bison.

Wild horses
Fisheye view from the top of the observation tower

I had to drive to Jacksonville the next day, but I got up early and hiked two additional trails on my own. I first stopped at the visitor center and went to the top of the observation tower. From there I spotted a few wild horses and unspoiled wilderness across the prairie basin.


Thistle and insects, La Chua Trail
Kite being attacked by a smaller bird
Great blue heron

Then I drove to the La Chua trail. To reach the trailhead you need to go through suburban Gainesville. It isn’t the easiest spot to find and the park provides written directions. The parking lot leads to old barns and out onto a trail that runs out to the Alachua Sink, draining into the prairie. The waterline and waterways are teeming with wildlife, especially birds and reptiles. There are kites, blackbirds, primordial-looking dragonflies, alligators, turtles, herons, egrets and more sliding and flying in and out of the reeds. Unlike in winter, the alligators are active in the spring, often walking across and blocking the trail. Even at 10am on a weekday, there were birders and hikers out. A word of caution, if you don’t recognize animals for what they are and show some common sense, I don’t recommend visiting. There’s no Plexiglas between you and the rightful, rather large, inhabitants of the savanna.

Coolest grackle ever

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

Hours: 8:00 a.m. until sunset, daily

This map provides an overview of the area.


Main Entrance Admission
$6.00 per vehicle, limit 2-8 people per vehicle
$4.00 Single Occupant Vehicle
$2.00 Pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers, passengers in vehicle with holder of Annual Individual Entrance Pass

LaChua Trail Admission
$4.00 per vehicle

Bolen Bluff Admission
$2.00 per vehicle, limit 8 people

UF Bat houses

Also worth checking out in the area:

University of Florida Bat Houses

The University of Florida is home to the world’s largest occupied bat houses. At dusk each night thousands of bats fill the sky.

North side of Museum Road between Village Drive and Radio Road across from Lake Alice.


Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park

This is basically a huge sinkhole accessed via stairs.

9:00 am – 5:00 pm Wed-Sun, closed Mon-Tues

4732 Millhopper Road

Gainesville, FL 32653

(352) 955-2008

P.S. – Chopstix on Rt 441 has a decent vegetarian selection.


Culture, Nature, and the Strange