ReefNation in the Florida Keys 2014 Day 1

Needing a break from chilly Chicago, we came down to Marathon in the Florida Keys a bit before the holidays.  Marathon is located halfway down the 120 miles chain of islands, called keys, on the southern part of Florida.  These Keys form the northern  sections of the Meso American Reef, which is the second largest in the world.  The keys stretch from Panama up through Central American before wrapping around the tip of Florida.

We are renting a boat and a small house along a canal so we can take our kids out for their first trip to a real reef ( other than dad’s reef tanks back in IL).  I’m not sure who was more excited for this trip, me or the boys!   I grew up on the water in NY and our family used to road trip down to the keys when we were kids in the winter.  Ever since I moved away from the water and lived in the Midwest, I have pretty much been dreaming about taking my kids one day to the spots on the reef that my parents and I used to visit back in the 80’s and 90’s.

photo courtesy of National Geographic

photo courtesy of National Geographic

We picked up our boat on Thursday and drove it over from the marina on Vaca Cut, which is one of the places that you can get through the keys from the ocean side over to the Gulf of Mexico.   It was only about a 10 minute cruise by boat, but I couldn’t resist taking a quick spin with the boys out to the reef which is about 3-4 miles off shore.  As my boys  worked on getting their sea legs, we saw 3 rays in the water by Vaca Cut that we could practically reach out and touch as they swam by our boat, gently flapping their wings as they swam through the current.  As we headed past the last buoy and hung a right to head south towards the reef, I could see the tower at Sombrero Key off to the south and a line of clouds off in the distance setup along the warm tropical waters of the gulf stream past the reef.

We headed to a spot off Marathon called Coffins Patch where there is a channel marker that indicates the reef  mounds and where the water is about 5ft deep at low water.  As we headed across the water you can see the color change almost in a line from greenish to the deep clear blue of the reef water as we got closer.  I pulled the boat up into the shallow areas so the kids could look down and see the gorgonians, turtle grass, and even some large coral boulders.  It was a picture perfect day with light offshore winds and the air and water both about 75 degrees.  After showing them a taste of the reef, we headed back to dock at the house and pick up my wife and her parents that came down to join us for the week.


Snorkeling at Sombrero Key

Sombrero Key is a reef with a huge Texas tower style lighthouse located about 4 miles offshore from the western tip of Marathon.  It is a protected area that  has buoys marking its perimeter.  The area inside these buoys is protected from any fishing as well as boats dropping anchor and  has a set of moorings that you can tie up to in order to get a better look at the marine life that lies below.

We headed  southwest from our house with all all our snorkeling gear for the 20 minute 9 mile trip over to Sombrero Key.  When we got there, we pulled up to one of the easternmost moorings and immediately saw fish coming up to the boat.  Next to us, I noticed a small boat with three guys sitting there with fishing poles and a chum bucket over the side!  One of them even had a fish on the line. I yelled over to ask them if they knew they couldn’t fish in this area, to which they replied “Sorry”  and quickly put their poles down and left. Rookie mistake I guess, but it still made me wonder how many other people go out there without knowing where they are and do the same thing.

Our mooring was in about 20ft of water which was perfect to see the corals that were out of reach to most snorkelers below. The water temp was a balmy 75 which was fine to just jump into.   The reef at Sombrero is a set of 10-15 finger reefs that come off the south side of the light tower.  Each extends a hundred yards or so towards the drop off where the water quickly goes from 10-30ft to 300ft and deeper.

As we pulled up to the mooring, suddenly about 200 fish were schooling around the boat.  It was amazing!  There were sargent majors, yellow tail snapper, triggerfish, porkfish, and a few others I wasn’t sure of.  We jumped in and started snorkeling around and saw even more down closer to the reef at about 20ft.  There were trumpetfish, stoplight parrots and tons of others swimming around below.  The only thing that we had to be a bit cautious of was the current that was coming by bringing with it some pretty large jellyfish every once in a while.  The nice thing was that these cleared out after about 20 minutes and many of the other boats started to pack up for the day.  We took turns diving in with our snorkels and even got the kids to give it a try, although the waves and saltwater definitely freaked them out a bit since this was their first time swimming a few miles from shore with fish schooling all around them.   As we got ready to leave, we even saw a couple barracuda swimming just at the periphery of how far we could see.

Day 1 was truly an epic experience on the reef.  Calm waters, visibilities of 60-80ft, and the chance to finally take my kids to a reef that wasn’t in our house!  I can’t wait to see what adventures lie ahead for us tomorrow!