Lodging options in and around Big Pine were somewhat thin on the ground -- a couple of marina complexes with motel rooms for boaters, one highway motel, and three interesting looking guest houses. With three weeks' notice, all three were booked so tightly that I couldn't book four consecutive nights in any of them. Since they all appeared to be along the same quarter-mile stretch of road, I decided to cobble together a night's stay at different ones.
Even then, I couldn't do better than this: two nights at the Barnacle Bed and Breakfast ($115 a night), and one night at the Deer Run Bed-and-Breakfast ($95). There was nothing open on the fourth night, a Friday, so I took a chance that I would find something else while I was down there.
The drive down from Miami to the Lower Keys takes longer than the mile markers suggest, because of the two-lane driving. I pulled off to a side road at Mile 33, reaching the Barnacle about two hours later than planned, at around 4:30 p.m. Ready to stagger through check-in formalities and have a nap, I was jolted awake by the sight of three little brown dog-size animals in the driveway: Key deer.
I parked carefully and gently opened the car door so as not to startle them. They didn't seem to mind; in fact they moved closer. I stood there for a while gazing at the impossibly cute deer that were almost close enough to touch, thinking they must be pets of the owners. Then, suddenly, they dashed away toward the beach, behind the two-story wooden guest house.
The deer weren't pets, I found out from the innkeeper, who said that Key deer roam freely on Big Pine, and often stop by the guest house in the early morning and around sunset. Thrilled and surprised to be greeted by wildlife, I wouldn't have been upset if my room had been small or dark. But it was spacious, and decorated like a sleek studio apartment, "Miami Vice" vintage, with a leather couch, a coffee table, a queen bed draped with a flashy tropical print, and a red and blue stained glass window. The room, along with two others in the guest house, opened to a pleasant raised wood deck. The fourth room, downstairs, opened to the small beach covered with a gravelly white sand that turned into shallows of limestone rock. It was too shallow for swimming, but a paradise for watching pelicans and egrets.
Bikes for guests' use were parked downstairs; I took one and found the Deer Run Bed-and-Breakfast about 500 feet farther on. Beyond it, a few isolated houses broke the stillness of mangrove clusters, whooping birds and chirping insects. The road, and Big Pine Key, ended about 300 feet later. It was there, silhouetted by the sunset, that I spotted eight Key deer, including two bucks, feeding in a clump of mangrove. Florida Keys bars and bonhomie suddenly seemed much less interesting than the natural world literally at my doorstep.
The next day I took a kayak excursion led by a local naturalist, Emily Graves. It was expensive for my budget ($49), and the Barnacle had kayaks for guests' use. But I thought that I would have a more vivid encounter exploring the mangroves of Coupon Bight with someone who knew it well. Graves, a tall, rangy woman who showed up in a khaki cap with a foreign-legion neck flap, exceeded my expectations. She is a commercial crayfish diver in the off-season, a marine biologist and an avid bird-watcher, and has a keen eye for wildlife.
Minutes after our group of three kayaks pulled out into the shallow bight, Graves was pointing out the telltale signs of stingrays, scuttling and stirring the sand below the crystal-clear water. A brownish-black shadow slithered along the port side of the kayak. "It's a nurse shark," she said. "Don't worry, it won't hurt you," she added quickly, but I was still glad I'd resisted the temptation to trail my fingertips in the cool, six-inch-deep water.
The climax of the excursion, which lasted about three hours, was our slow approach to a mangrove cluster that sheltered dozens of cormorants and some reddish egrets. We approached the mangroves carefully, so silently that the cormorants, gleaming blue-black in the sun, allowed us to get almost close enough to touch. A reddish egret remained motionless for long suspense-filled moments, fluffing and unfluffing its elegant crown feathers. Then, all at once, the cormorants got wise to our little caravan and took off with a commotion of hooting and flapping.
The next day I had a less satisfying run-in with wild things at Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, which I visited as part of an snorkel excursion with about 18 other people on a dive boat run by a charter company called Strike Zone. The trip to the protected marine reef from Big Pine took about 30 minutes, time enough for me to notice that our boat was riding parallel to a parade of shiny blobs resembling plastic bags: jellyfish.