Tag Archives: snorkeling

Floating Amid Stars: Snorkeling the Florida Keys

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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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A Unicorn of a Work Trip

We interrupt our Ireland trip for a quick jaunt to the Caribbean.

Sunrise, Montego Bay
Sunrise, Montego Bay

As we’ve mentioned before, we both travel for work. In fact, a work trip was the impetus for starting this blog. Often times we’re in detail-less conference halls in face-less cities and we make the best of the time by exploring early in the morning and the few hours after we arrive and before we leave. Only once in my career have I been presented with a work trip that elicited the response, “Are you serious?” That was this trip.

Room with a View
Room with a View

And so it was that WPT (thanks to frequent flyer miles) and I found ourselves at an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica. I was initially dubious, but I looked at the costs and compared them to the same meeting, held in San Antonio, the previous year. The all-inclusive rates and direct airfare were actually cheaper than going to Texas. Huh.

The beach was literally a 90 second walk from the room.
The beach was literally a 90-second walk from the room.
Swim up bar and the horizon pool.
Swim up bar and the horizon pool.

We stayed in Montego Bay, at Iberostar’s Rose Hall Suites, and had a room (with a small porch) that overlooked the pools on the first floor. The ocean was literally right outside our door and I went to every single work obligation with wet hair. In fact, we had a 30 minute break after lunch one day and I managed to go from business suit to swimsuit and back again in that time.

I showed up to meetings with mask marks on my face. Repeatedly.
I showed up to meetings with mask marks on my face. Repeatedly.

We usually prefer travel that is under our control and allows us to see the real place and people and not what the tourism board (if there is one) promotes. We relinquished the reins this time and just let the resort do what it does best – take care of its guests and present an appealing artifice.

That's my boss waving at me in the lazy river. Thanks for letting me go to Jamaica, boss!
That’s my boss waving at me in the lazy river. Thanks for letting me go to Jamaica, boss!
Lazy river. An excellent choice after coffee with coffee liqueur.
Lazy river. An excellent choice after coffee with coffee liqueur.

The buffet restaurant catered to vegetarians fairly well and was accommodating when they heard I was vegan. I pretty much lived on potatoes, plantains, and rice for the days we were there. At night and in the rain the local frogs sang, which delighted me. Also, there’s a lot to be said for someone showing up at your door at 9pm and offering you chocolate before bed.

Captain Tandy
Captain Tandy (that’s the resort behind him)
Sunrise. Sunrise. Sunrise.
Sunrise. Sunrise. Sunrise.

From what I could see, many people come to these resorts to bring home third degree burns and drink the bottom-shelf liquor. To each their own. We learned early on to ask for the top shelf and it would be served in a brimming glass. I highly suggest the coffee with the coffee liqueur. It is especially delicious when sipped during a meeting. Working!

Mobile souvenir shops,  one of the early morning denizens
Mobile souvenir shops, one of the early morning denizens
Ghost crab, another early morning denizen
Wee ghost crab, another early morning denizen

I was surprised by how few people came out to the beach for sunrise. That’s the best part of the day! Plus, by getting up early I was able to get in almost an hour of snorkeling each morning (we brought our own fins and masks). Once I was done with work we took out a small catamaran and then went out on a snorkel charter to the deeper reef. The small artificial reefs in front of the hotel weren’t bad, but the deeper reef had older, bigger corals and older fish. It was the first time we’ve ever had an actual guide snorkeling and free diving with the tour group. I absolutely loved being in the water there and will do a separate post with underwater photos.

WPT being beamed up to his home planet
WPT being beamed up to his home planet
Snorkel guide
Snorkel charter guide

Our final morning we got up early for sunrise and then swam the small artificial reefs looking for the young eagle ray WPT had seen the day before (he was able to swim and sail while I was in meetings, the lucky bastard). After patrolling the three small artificial reefs and swimming with many schools of juvenile fish I feared I wouldn’t get to see the ray. I saw a large stingray and was prepared to be content with that. Then the young eagle ray appeared and swept by us with a grace that is unmatched by any other animal. Those are the travel moments I live for.

Young eagle ray
Young eagle ray
Sunrise again, because waking up never gets old!
Sunrise again, because waking up never gets old!

All-inclusive resorts dissuade you from thinking about much other than where you want to swim and what you want to drink. You find yourself playing water volleyball with your boss or having shirtless conversations with colleagues (him, not me) and that is perfectly normal. And then it is time to return home. We walked into the Montego Bay airport and it was like the interest for not feeling stressed for three days quadrupled. Lines everywhere. Chaos. Sunburned, confused, drunk, and hungover people as far as the eye could see. Confusion in at least four languages. Eventually we checked our bags and entertained ourselves by watching people walk through the doors and seeing expressions we wore not long before playing across their faces. I thought perhaps it was just a new experience for me, but a colleague traveling on the same flight said that he had traveled the globe and had never seen a line like this. We made it through security and to our gate in time and if anything the experience was more amusing than frustrating. Jamaica032015-1588 I have no idea what Jamaica is really like, other than the ocean, but the ocean is what will draw me there again.