By Dale Koppel
April 27, 2003
Trophia would probably say that his dream started in upstate New York when, at age 9, he took his first caterpillar home and watched it turn into a butterfly.
Six years later, in 1975, an article in his local paper noted how, by corresponding with a college professor in Toronto, this young lepidopterist learned the techniques of banding butterflies to record their flight. Having released 57 butterflies, he hoped to hear from "some other lepidopterist, telling him that one of ... his monarch butterflies had been found in Pennsylvania or North Carolina, or perhaps even in Georgia or Florida."
Ten years ago, Trophia and his partner, George Fernandez, moved to Key West, not in search of his banded butterflies but to open Wings of Imagination, a butterfly gallery and boutique that served as a showcase for Trophia's original butterfly art and artifacts and as a springboard for his Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory.
The partners traveled to butterfly conservatories around the world in search of ideas. Five years ago, in a restaurant, Trophia drew his vision of a conservatory on a napkin. Three years later, the official groundbreaking occurred, but what Trophia expected to take eight months to undergo metamorphosis took almost two years.
Now that the conservatory is up and running, that time seems as fleeting as, well, the lifespan of a butterfly, which in most cases is a week to 10 days.
The KWBNC, which officially opened at the end of January, is a 5,000-square-foot Victorian-design house of glass (Plexiglas, really) with 37-foot Plexiglas ceilings, and an average computer-controlled temperature of 85 degrees (the humidity is 80 percent). And it's home to 1,500 or so butterflies, representing as many as 50 species from farms (these butterflies are not collected in the wild) in Central, South and North America, Africa and Southeast Asia.
Chrysalises (aka pupae) are sent to the conservatory where, in the hatching room, they become butterflies. (You can watch this happen through the windows.) Then they're transferred in a specially designed container to the conservatory, where they can dine on over-ripened fruit and flower nectar from approximately 3,500 purposefully chosen and strategically located plants -- pentas, orchids, milkweed, passion vines, lantana.
Walk around and you'll see Owl butterflies from Costa Rica (they roost during the day); Great Mormons from the Philippines; Viceroys, Julias and monarchs from Florida; Bird- wings from New Guinea; and Paper Kites, from Malaysia, that are so flaccid they look like pieces of toilet paper blowing in the breeze.
You'll also see staff, usually Trophia and Fernandez, milling around, ready to answer questions. The most frequently asked questions?
"Do you have the deadhead moth?" (Made famous in The Silence of the Lambs.)
Trophia's answer: "We could, but we don't." (As movie buffs know: "A grave misfortune to those who handle it.")
Says Trophia, "Why tempt fate?"
And: "How do butterflies mate?"
Answer: "Look over there." (With so many butterflies in such a perfect environment, love is always in the air.)
Sit down on one of the benches shaped like butterflies and wait for a butterfly to join you. It won't take long, especially if you're wearing something bright. To a butterfly, you'll look like a flower.
The rainforest refuge
Geibelt had been dreaming of a rain forest for the past 15 years. He loved tropical plants, but he also needed to hide the hideous building next door and drown out the drone of the compression engine at the grocery store behind Heron House, the 23-room hotel Geibelt owns with his partner, Robert Framarin. Until Geibelt officially dug the first hole in the summer of 1998, it had been an idea germinating in his imagination.
"This rain forest had to create a mood, a sense of relaxation and calm. And a sense of well-being," he says. "It had to make Heron House guests forget that they were in Key West. The rain forest becomes the refuge, the escape."
He read every book he could get his hands on, and he and Framarin visited rain forests, aquariums, botanical gardens -- anything with water features -- in the United States, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and St. Lucia. He always returned home with great ideas. The problem was, how to execute them?
At a botanical garden in Jamaica, he got the idea for a small viewing window.
At the aquarium in Monterrey, Calif., he saw ponds with giant Plexiglas windows that were seamless. "You absolutely felt like you were standing in that pond, but without getting wet," Geibelt says. He had never realized that he could have a window so large without a seam or frame obstructing the view.
A wall he saw in Thailand was the inspiration for his Plexiglas borders. (The wall had been made from pond stones, stacked in rows and cemented in the back, so there were no grout lines.) Geibelt duplicated the wall, using black and dark charcoal pond stones from Mexico. Hundreds of them. It took weeks to create. And no, there are no grout lines.
Geibelt is happy to tell you how he did it. And why. ("So that it would look natural.") He knew he had to have mature trees, right from the beginning. Palms that were 15 to 20 feet tall. The problem was, how to get them into the narrow space?
"I felt like I was building the Pyramids," he says. "I'd fill a wheelbarrow with soil, walk up the ramps I had to construct. The wheelbarrow would be teetering; I could have been killed."
Now ask him about the 1,200-pound boulders.
Of course, you can't have a rain forest without fog. This one, a reverse osmosis system to keep the water pure, has 80 emitters hidden among the rocks. Fifteen pumps with four different filters distribute the 4,000 gallons of water for the freshwater tropical fish from Africa and South and Central America. The rummy nose tetras, with their little red noses, are fascinating to watch because they move together in schools.
The black tetras love to swim into the bubbles of the waterfall, only to get spit out in all directions from the force. Geibelt finds the behavior "inexplicably unfishlike. They really seem to like the sensation," he says.
With tourism down, Geibelt says this is a good time to offer something unique. One of those "value-added attractions" that will make people choose Heron House over other accommodations and allow him to say to guests:
"Did you hear the weather report? Fog on the north side."
Dale Koppel's last story for Travel was on Naples, Fla. She lives in Boca Raton.