Travel the Florida Keys from top (Key Largo) to bottom (Key
West) along a 108-mile stretch of U.S. 1, or overseas Highway, whose 43 bridges connect the islands to the mainland.
Travel the Florida Keys from top (Key Largo) to bottom (Key West) along a 108-mile stretch of U.S. 1, or overseas Highway, whose 43 bridges connect the islands to the mainland.
Andy Newman/TDC
Correction to This Article
A Jan. 15 Travel article on the Florida Keys incorrectly referred to the teeth of the tarpon as sharp and sharklike. The fish has tiny, densely packed teeth on the top jaw and a bony plate on the bottom.

All Keyed Up

Tursi and Molly take a dive at the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key, near Marathon in the Florida Keys.
Tursi and Molly take a dive at the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key, near Marathon in the Florida Keys. (Dolphin Research Center)

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By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 15, 2006

I wrestle the big bull shark until my muscles are quivering with exhaustion. Just when I think I can't fight it another second, the line goes slack and I reel it to the side of the 16-foot boat.

Bull sharks, the meanest of a mean breed, are the most likely culprits in shark attacks against humans. Mine is 125 to 150 pounds, with such an ugly mug that I feel no guilt about luring it. I risk my fingers to cut it loose.

It would be hard not to catch fish in these teeming waters off the coast of Islamorada, the Florida Key known as the game-fishing capital of the world, a watery paradise where the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay converge.

Plus I had a secret weapon, my own personal replica of Santiago in Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea": Capt. Richard Stanczyk of Bud N' Mary's Sportfishing Marina, a guy who reads the water like words on a printed page and says things like "See those currents?" or "See those brown ripples?" I, seeing nothing but the clear, baby-blue water of Florida Bay, cast my line where I am told.

Fishing is just one of many alluring outdoor adventures in the Keys, a collection of 823 islands -- 30 inhabited-- that stretch 108 miles along U.S. 1 from Key Largo near the tip of the Florida mainland south to Key West. The majority of the area's 3.9 million annual visitors skip right over the other 822 islands and head straight to Key West. Granted, that's where the party is.

But I, on this four-day driving trip, found myself so in love with the Keys on the first 79-mile stretch, from Key Largo to Big Pine Key, that I never even made it to the primary tourist destination.

On Lower Matecumbe Key, I was waylaid by hundreds of giant, prehistoric-seeming tarpon that hang around the docks of Robbie's Marina, hoping for handouts from tourists.

On Grassy Key, at the nonprofit Dolphin Research Center, I spent more time than anticipated visiting Flipper's daughter and two of his grandsons, and even swam with some of the former movie star's more distant relatives.

On Little Crawl Key, I got caught in an almost spiritual experience as I joined the volunteers at the annual raptor count in the 1,000-acre Curry Hammock State Park. The volunteers let me use their binoculars as they tallied sightings of bald eagles, osprey, falcons, hawks and kestrels that soared through skies of puffy white and blue.

On Key Largo, I had the honor of meeting Laura Quinn, a 77-year-old woman who shortly after retirement sold everything she owned to buy five acres of marshy land as a refuge for injured birds. There, in a tipsy house with a hospital on the ground floor, she lives alongside a huge collection of owls with broken wings, pelicans with cataracts and ibises with broken legs.

On Marathon Key, I got to feed Bubblebutt and Rebel, two of more than 800 sea turtles treated at the Turtle Hospital since Richie Moretti arrived here intending to retire. Instead, he ended up operating a 1950s-style motel to raise money to turn a topless bar called Fanny's into a high-tech MASH unit for the injured and sick turtles of the world.

On Little Torch Key, at Parmer's Resort, I got to know Amber, one of a couple of dozen exotic birds that the hotel owner has rescued over the years. Amber, a pink, orange and white cockatoo, quietly puts her head to the side of her cage begging to be stroked, unless you have the audacity to pay the slightest bit of attention to the other birds. Then she'll jump around and scream, "Amber's the pretty bird! Amber's the pretty bird!"


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company


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