I’m back from my magical vacation in paradise (aka the surface of the sun, it was so freaking hot) in Key West and in efforts to prolong that beachy bliss, I’m going to write about my favorite part of the trip. Saturday, we rented a private boat and took it out to the coral reefs for some snorkeling and then later to mangrove sandbars to catch lobster for dinner!
Although I grew up in Florida, Key West was always such a trek, so I never made it down there for a weekend. The ManFriend and I finally made my Keys dreams come true this past weekend with a couples trip with our friends, and I loved every minute of it. Since I’m sitting back in my office in a not-Floridian city right now, I’ll recap my favorite day first. On Saturday, we had reservations to rent a fishing boat off of Summerland Key from Big Pine Boat Rentals. Docked at Mile Marker 24, it was about a half hour from where we stayed off Duval Street in Key West, but it was more affordable and closer to where we’d eventually be out on the water.
While we ultimately liked the rental, I’d suggest having the boater in your group call to make the reservation. What was advertised as a 23-foot Pursuit was actually a 22-foot, 1980’s Tiara. Not exactly what we were expecting (granted, we are slightly spoiled between the ManFriend’s fishing boat and his friend’s Nautique wakeboard sport boat so maybe we’re just being brats) but it handled well and had the necessities.
The full-day rental (which was from 9am until 5pm) ran us $375, which included our fuel and taxes. Anyone can pay for the reservation, but the driver must have a boating license and also needs to put down their credit card for liabilities since they actually operate the boat. Big Pine guided us out of the channel and gave us advice on where to find lobster.
Speaking of lobster, this is my lobster-hunting gear. I didn’t end up catching any myself, but the boys managed to catch 5 that were within regulation to bring back and grill up for dinner. In the Keys, there’s a two-day “short season” early in August where it’s easy to haul away tons of lobster… we were in town at the end of the longer full season, so we didn’t have as much luck as I’d hoped. (For anyone confused about the lobster situation, no, this is not like Maine lobster. Florida spiny lobster doesn’t have claws, and really only the tail is edible. It’s sweeter than Maine lobster but I didn’t think the texture was as flaky. And no, it’s definitely not a crawfish.)
If you do plan on fishing or catching lobster in the Keys or anywhere in Florida, don’t forget to purchase a license and permit. You’ll need a saltwater recreational fishing license, and then an additional lobster permit. It’s easy and fast to apply online and your license is active immediately, just print out the proof of purchase and have it with you on the boat. (Mine is good for a year so short season 2016, I’m coming for ya….)
We anchored near some mangroves, donned dive boots, neoprene gloves with grips, grabbed mesh bags and our snorkels and carefully snorkeled around the edges of the mangroves. (I highly recommend not taking your mask off while deep in the ‘groves… it smells gross and you’ll immediately wish you weren’t swimming in it.) I wore dive boots because the ocean floor was covered in slick grasses and there were a good deal of upside-down jelly fish (they look like bowls of sea plants on the ocean floor) that I wanted to avoid stepping in.
I don’t have any snorkeling photos of the coral reefs because I was either too busy being stung by jelly fish and having an anxiety attack, or too busy being amazed by what I was seeing. So, this photo of my friend and I channeling our inner Taylor Swifts will have to suffice.
When snorkeling in the Keys, there’s no place to anchor your boat. Instead, there are public buoys labeled for vessels to tie up to. You can’t drop an anchor on a reef or you will damage all of the coral and sea life below you. (Also, it’s illegal so yeah, don’t.) We tied up outside of Looe Key (not an actual Key island, but a well-known snorkel area) for our first snorkel adventure.
I spent the time getting used to breathing through the mouthpiece. The boys brought a Brownie’s Third Lung hookah so that they’d be able to get deeper and closer without coming up for air… I was a little intimidated to try it but next time, I’m going to be a human submarine. This area was full of floating jellyfish and we all got stung a few times. Luckily, they were just moon jellyfish so the stings felt uncomfortable and itchy but didn’t really affect us.
We decided to try another snorkel spot, and I really got into it this time. There weren’t any jellies near the second reef, so I explored as much as possible. You can’t take or touch anything from a protected reef, and touching the coral will kill it so I didn’t even wear swim fins on my feet so that I could easily glide over the more shallow parts of the reef without harming anything.
Because of the way the channels run in the Keys, going form very shallow hard limestone to deep troughs, I don’t recommend novice boaters chartering their own boat. If you just want to relax and enjoy the adventure, I researched snorkel catamaran charters (try Sebago for an adventure tour, sunset tour, or snorkel trip) and private sailboat charters that include a captain and champagne (I spoke with Bruce from Blue Ice Sailing and would have gone with this option but we decided we wanted a fishing boat instead).
Sorry for the lack of underwater reef photos, but it’s just one of those things that you should really see for yourself. Fan coral, schools of colorful fish, and feeling “part of the ocean” really aren’t something a photo does much justice. Sadly, it’s back to reality for me now, but I have more adventures from the Conch Republic to share soon…