I’m not going to lie. The only reason Jaws Beach made our short list of places to visit on the trip is due to its place in pop culture infamy. The beach was used as the setting for Mike and Carla Brody’s home and the dock for his sailboat in Jaws: The Revenge. The movie is bad, yet fun to watch in that growling-shark, drunk-Michael Caine, exploding-shark kinda way. Michael Caine once said of the film, “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific!” We’ve gone on quests to see dumber places, so off we went.
We drove out along the coast road toward the western end of New Providence Island. Traffic thins out considerably on that end of the island. Jaws Beach is a bit of a cove, tucked inside Clifton Bay, just north of Clifton Heritage Park. The first time we went was at the height of the day with temps well over 90F. We pulled into an empty parking lot and followed a trail back to the beach. Along the way we saw a snake, blue-tailed lizards, butterflies, and a small pond that would likely attract nesting and migratory birds other times of the year. We got down to the beach and were shocked by how beautiful it was. It was stunning. A postcard come to life. And almost entirely empty.
The water was completely calm and looked rather shallow. There is a broken dock, which to a snorkeler is mighty appealing. Garnet jumped into the water fully clothed and just sat there. We vowed to return the next day, our initial mockery replaced by awe at the beauty of the place. We also realized there was an access road and we could park under trees mere feet from the beach.
We went back the next day, and twice more after that. We learned it is a locals’ beach, drawing few tourists. The busiest day there we saw maybe 30 people, other times we had the beach almost to ourselves. It was a small, quiet place. We noticed pizzas being delivered. I watched as a girl swam, holding her pizza aloft out of the water, surfacing to take a bite. She’s my new hero.
The first time we snorkeled, we all spotted batfish, which were so amazing that they deserve their own post. Under the docks were thousands of small silverfish, as well as schools of snappers, young reef fish, and even stingrays. The water was so warm, clear, and still that it was some of the best snorkeling I’ve ever experienced. I could easily dive down and watch fairy basslets protecting their homes, pink-tipped anemones swaying in the current, and watch young squirrelfish peering at me suspiciously. What started as a joke is now one of my favorite beaches in the world.
Patrick leaves lodging up to me. I’ve got a decent track record for finding interesting places to stay – everything from friends of friends to boats to a hostel devoted to Gram Parsons. My criteria are this: I like to stay local (no chains if I can help it), I need coffee in the morning, so a kitchenette or at least coffee maker, and location. Once I get there, copious hot water, a view, the proprietors, and the ability to open the windows or a door pretty much seal the deal. (I hate hermetically sealed rooms.) The Orange Hill Beach Inn offered all of that and a wild octopus.
When we started to plan the trip, I looked at airfares (frequent flier points largely cover those), car rental (ouch), and hotels with kitchenettes. Most places were outside of our price range, but one caught my eye: Orange Hill Beach Inn. The website touted a pool, an honor bar, and there were cottages across the road from the ocean. I called and spoke to someone there about rates and availability. I also checked Trip Advisor and Google reviews. The positive reviews mentioned the beach, staff, and rooms, and the negative reviews served to reinforce our decision to book. The negative reviews mentioned bugs, stray hairs, cats, and, in my opinion, unrealistic expectations. In other words, it sounded perfect for us and like the negative reviews would deter entitled assholes.
One of my great joys in life is watching Patrick’s reaction once we reach our destination. We walked in the front door and he said, “How do you find these places?!” The room was octagonal, with French doors leading to a small balcony overlooking the ocean across the street. The kitchenette was perfect for our needs and we cooked most of our meals at the room. The water pressure and temperature were damned near perfect. It was a relief to have only a few TV channels, and the wifi was stronger than expected.
We opened and closed the balcony doors with the rhythm of the day. In the morning, it was nice to have them open and listen to the bird song. Mid-day, when the sun was blazing and we needed a break, the AC came on. In the evening, after mosquito hour passed, we opened them again and could hear insects and frogs signing. Tree frogs, anoles, a young green heron, and cicadas surrounded us, as did smooth-billed anis. I noticed ants outside, but few inside; once I spotted the house geckos I knew why. I also spotted a brown racer on the property. If you are a traveler afraid of the natural world these things might freak you out. I have no doubt that the hotels on Paradise Island go through copious amounts of bug spray and noxious cleaning agents. However, I would point out that chemical pesticides are far more dangerous than wee lizards and a few bugs. I was on a tropical island; I expected (hoped) native wildlife to be part of the experience.
We largely kept to ourselves the first few days, keen to adventure around the island. Our next-to-last night, we ventured over to the pool, where a family from Texas, a family from the UK, and two of the hotel staff were engaged in a trivia game. Before we knew what happened, we too were shouting out answers. “Are You Being Served?” is always a good answer.
The next night, our last night, was Patrick’s birthday. We had planned to head back to the pool, but it was a stormy afternoon and we ended up hanging out with one of the hotel employees, Dave, as well as the owner’s son (who is Garnet’s age), and another kid who was visiting him. We enjoyed Watling’s rum while they built a water balloon cannon out of PVC pipe and a bicycle pump.
At some point, Dave asked if I had seen the octopus yet. My response was almost cartoonish. Seeing an octopus in the wild has been a perpetual goal for well over a decade.
Dave directed me to the third rock from the left, just offshore in front of the hotel. Look for the large red sea urchin, and then look up to spot the octopus’s hole. He also said to look for crab detritus, that they are messy housekeepers. While these directions seemed vague and distinctly Bahamian, by that point in our trip, I knew exactly where he meant. We had spent hours swimming and snorkeling across the street at Orange Hill Beach. I remembered seeing the small patch reef area of three rocks.
Orange Hill Beach was even better than the pictures on the hotel website. The sunsets were lovely and most of the time the beach was empty. It also offered decent beachcombing. The water was warm and the visibility was great. Most of what I saw snorkeling were young fish, starfish, lobsters, corals, and sea urchins. I could see a reef line farther out from shore, but I didn’t want to risk being so far out and getting run over by a jet ski.
On our final morning, we walked over and I went straight for the three rocks. I was so hoping that I would finally get to see an octopus in the wild, but also realistic enough to know that I had been looking for one for well over a decade. I found the third rock. I found the sea urchin. And then I found the octopus. I was so excited I started making honking noises with my snorkel. I spent about 15-20 minutes circling the octopus rock. He watched me and I watched him. I could see why I didn’t notice him before. He camouflaged himself perfectly and added some rocks near his entrance that looked just like him. I was giddy.
I would have given Orange Hill Beach Inn a five-star rating based on my own quirky criteria, but with the octopus factored in, they now rank in my top 10 of lodgings.
With the prospect of a three- to four-hour drive from Fort Lauderdale to Key West, flying directly to the southernmost point in the US offers a convenient, if costly, option for those travelers on tight schedules. But the balmy, flat, and winding 110 miles of the Overseas Highway that run from the Florida mainland to the bottom of US-1 will yield wild and weird corners for those able (or willing) to take the time.
From the geological wonders of Devil’s Milhopper to the picturesque sands of Bahia Honda, Florida has a varied and truly amazing state park system. One of its most distinctive parks is also one all too easily overlooked on a drive through the Keys. Located a half-mile, ocean-side, off Islamorada lies the lush but unassuming Indian Key Historic State Park. Accessible only by boat, the uninhabited 11-acre island was, two centuries ago, the original county seat for Dade County.
But that simple historical fact doesn’t begin to belie the tranquil key’s colorful and, at times, lurid history. From here, Jacob Housman built a formidable “wrecking” business in the early 19th century, salvaging valuable cargoes from ships that met their ends on the treacherous reefs in the surrounding waters. In 1838, the Philadelphia botanist Dr. Henry Perrine moved to the island, bringing with him a host of non-indigenous flora, including agave (used in the manufacturing of sisal), tamarind, and large yucca plants. By the close of that decade, the island boasted a population of about 60, and even a nationally advertised resort hotel. Later, Henry Flagler would use the key as a base for dredging operations during the construction of his Overseas Railroad.
But Indian Key’s golden heyday drew its last breaths in the wee hours of August 7, 1840, when an invasion force of more than 130 Spanish-speaking Seminoles descended upon the island from nearby Lower Matecumbe Key. Twelve hours later, six people were dead (including Perrine) and much of the looted settlement laid in smoldering ruins. The United States Navy subsequently used Indian Key as a base of operations for the Second Seminole War, but the island’s halcyon days as a thriving, self-sustaining commercial center were effectively done.
Back in Islamorada, at the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center, where Bertelli also serves as the Curator/Historian, a fine scale model of Housman-era Indian Key provides additional perspective.
It is worth noting that there are no restroom facilities, nor fresh water, nor trash cans on Indian Key. But there is some decent snorkeling off its craggy northeastern shore. So any which way, plan accordingly.
Way down at the mouth of Tampa Bay sits Fort De Soto Park. Within that park is access to Egmont Key, a state park. Fort De Soto is a large county park offering beaches, camping, a dog beach, a historic fort, trails, and multiples of habitats for Florida’s flora and fauna. It has been named a #1 beach by places that rank such things. It is also a nesting spot for many kinds of turtles and birds. I’ve now visited twice, once in winter and once in summer, and it is a truly lovely spot. The entrance fee is nominal.
At the Fort De Soto Bay Pier you’ll find a concession stand, bathrooms with showers, a postcard-worthy beach, and the ferry to Egmont Key. Only accessible by boat, Egmont Key is a wildlife refuge and bird sanctuary. The lighthouse there has stood since 1858 and Fort Dade was founded on the island in 1923. Now mostly ruins, the island is cordoned off for nesting birds and sea turtles, but there are swimming beaches and trails. I visited Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas two weeks prior and Egmont Key reminded me of Fort Jefferson, but the trip cost about 90% less and the ferry ride over to the Egmont Key took 20-30 minutes instead of 2 1/2 hours.
After the excitement of the car accident the night before, Garnet and I were looking forward to a peaceful day of swimming and adventuring. We took the first ferry over and while onboard, he met Jackson, a boy his age who was visiting with his grandparents. We exited the ferry and within three about minutes we excitedly found a gopher tortoise near the lighthouse. There is a large population of the tortoises on the island.
The ruins of the old gun batteries were fun to explore. We walked out to the beach on the west side of the island. The water was ideal and boaters had anchored near shore. With the boys safely splashing around, I went exploring and blundered into a nesting area for skimmers. The birds told me I was intruding even before I spotted the signs. The chicks were running around being absurdly adorable.
The ferry offers an optional snorkel tour and Garnet, Jackson, and I went off to do that for a bit. They took us to an area of sea grasses, but the water was a bit murky in the shallows. It was fun watching the boys claiming to see fish and rays that weren’t really there. Once you are on the island, you are free to stay and take whichever afternoon ferry works for you and the boats sell snacks and water. Pay heed to the warnings about dehydration, especially in summer.
Overall, Egmont Key and Fort De Soto Park are well worth exploring. Having been twice, I feel like I have another 5-6 visits ahead of me to get a true feel for the place and intend to return.
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.
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.
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.
Shortly 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.
Of 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!
The official motto of the United States Coast Guard is “Semper Paratus,” or “Always Ready.” But, since the heyday of the United States Life-Saving Service (which merged with the Revenue Cutter Service in 1915 to form our modern USCG), at least, another phrase has adorned the flipside of that figurative coin: “The rules say you have to go out, but they do not say you have to come back.”
On February 18, 1952, four young men with those words in mind set out from the Chatham (Massachusetts) Lifeboat Station in a 36-foot self-righting, self-bailing wooden motor lifeboat – clinically named CG36500 – into a hellish nor’easter, and the annals of lifesaving lore. In what has since been considered the greatest small-boat rescue in USCG history, Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernie Webber and his crew of three – Andrew Fitzgerald, Richard Livesey, and Ervin Maske – battled at-times hurricane-force winds and frigid, 60-foot seas to rescue the crew of the S.S. Pendleton, a 500-foot World War II-era tanker which had broken in half several miles offshore.
En route, the CG36500’s engine briefly quit, and the angry seas smashed the boat’s windshield and tore away her compass. Yet, somehow, Webber and his crew successfully reached the stern of the mortally wounded Pendleton, and despite the odds, successfully rescued 32 of the ship’s crew in a boat designed to hold a maximum of 12 (including its own crew).
Not surprisingly, this seemingly impossible feat became the stuff of Coast Guard legend, yet Webber, Fitzgerald, Livesey, and Maske did not consider themselves “heroes”, per se; rather, they regarded their actions simply as a fulfillment of duty. By the late 1960s, the old 36-footers, including CG36500, had been decommissioned, and the slick, new 44-foot motor lifeboat became the Coast Guard’s standby.
The CG36500 languished in dry-dock, neglected, for more than a decade, until a collective of intrepid locals, recognizing her historical value, set about painstakingly restoring her. Today, the fully restored and operational CG36500 is maintained under the auspices of the Orleans Historical Society and Museum, which features an impressive exhibit on the famed rescue in its nearby museum. As the son of a career Coast Guardsman, having the opportunity to visit the boat was a borderline spiritual experience. The 2016 movie The Finest Hours – based on Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman’s 2009 book of the same name – faithfully recreates the Pendleton rescue. While the film was not a commercial success, in this era of hyperbolic action movies that inexorably seek inspiration through the spilling of blood, it is good to see the four lifesavers from Chatham Station – and, by proxy, all who have come before or since – finally get their due.