Explore all that the Keys has to offer
Most visitors head for Key West ... and speed right past tarpon and turtles and deer (oh my).
Swimming with the dolphins
Mike Reckwerdt, of Robbie's Marina, one day noticed a 6-foot tarpon, a species of game fish, flopping on the beach. Reckwerdt put it in a concrete tank until a doctor could come by. The doc diagnosed a jaw plate so torn up that the fish couldn't eat and jury-rigged a jaw hinge that he sewed into place with twine. Within a month, the tarpon had healed so well that Reckwerdt released him.
Except that the tarpon with the prosthetic jaw hung around. Soon he was joined by another tarpon, then another, and pretty soon Reckwerdt started selling small buckets of fish to tourists who came by to feed them. And that is why today hundreds of tarpon hang around Robbie's Marina. There is something mesmerizing about watching those tourists who, instead of tossing bait, lie on the deck and hold the little fish within fractions of an inch of snapping tarpon jaws lined with sharp, sharklike teeth. It's like waiting to see an almost-certain train wreck.
You might conclude, after a few days in the Keys, that there's something about the place that encourages a charming eccentricity.
Like the bar patrons who started pasting dollar bills to the walls and ceilings of the No Name Pub on Big Pine Key, where tourists and locals alike sit and conjecture about how many tens of thousands might be hanging all around them.
I stopped at the pub after driving into the area to see Key deer -- a unique breed of small deer that, when full-grown, are the size of Bambi. I ended up sitting next to an old guy who lives on his boat nearby, and I mentioned that I'd seen only a few of the deer on my drive.
"You want to see a lot of Key deer, plant a garden," he said.
And then there's Moretti, the owner of Marathon Key's Turtle Hospital and the adjoining Hidden Harbor Motel. He bought the motel along Florida Bay intending to tear it down and build his dream home. Before he got around to that, he ended up taking in some injured turtles. Soon he found himself renovating the motel to raise money for more and more turtles, which he says are shipped to him from around the United States and the Caribbean. FedEx and American Express do the transport for free.
Hidden Harbor was hit by the hurricanes and has yet to reopen. However, the hospital is open for tours, and visitors can stand for as long as they like along a large pool filled with a couple dozen turtles. Most will be freed after they heal. Then there are the permanent residents, like April, Bubblebutt and Rebel.
April is blind, so workers at the hospital bang a metal hook to let her know it's feeding time. She comes near the sound, opens her mouth and waits for food to drop in.
When a turtle's shell is broken, it cannot swim beneath the surface, even after the wound heals. Bubblebutt, a 70-pound green, and Rebel, a 225-pound loggerhead, are permanent residents because they have to wear weights on their rear ends; otherwise they'd float to death.
Most of the turtles that come here have been injured by human thoughtlessness -- like carelessly tossed fishing line or other garbage, particularly plastic. Vets at the Turtle Hospital once found 325 cigarette butts in one turtle's bowels. One turtle couldn't survive the garbage in her gut, including a piece of metal stamped "USA" and a plastic bag made in Australia. Said Moretti, "It took at least two countries to kill her."
Dolphins in residence
The 16 bottlenose dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center could easily have headed to sea during Hurricane Wilma as 10-foot water surges overwhelmed the fencing in their lagoon. But as in past storms, they all chose to stay.
The research center is one of five facilities in the Keys that offer dolphin observation and swimming with dolphins. Three are licensed by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums -- the minimal credential I'd demand before even considering participation.
I have qualms about keeping gorgeous wild animals in captivity and about swimming with dolphins in general. But my unease lifted when I saw the natural waters available at the Dolphin Research Center and witnessed the research and public education efforts aimed at protecting dolphins in the wild. Fees from tourists subsidize the $80,000 it costs per year to feed and care for each of the dolphins at the facility.
Purists could argue that the dolphins stick around willingly because, conditioned by the free food, they've adopted a slave mentality. But who am I to question the choices of a dolphin?
None is forced to swim with the small groups of tourists that are allowed into their lagoon at specified times. Trainers hold up symbols that represent the names of those invited to swim with humans during a given session, and if they want to come, they do.
All four dolphins invited to swim with my group of eight responded to the calling cards, and for 25 minutes we had the great privilege of frolicking in the water with what I consider to be the most graceful and beautiful of all sea creatures.
The dolphins here each know up to 100 commands and sometimes teach each other moves and tricks. We got to stroke their smooth bodies, and each of us had a turn performing with a dolphin: The trainer gave them the "imitate" command and then, whatever each swimmer did, the dolphins mimicked. I took water in my mouth and spewed it in an arc, and soon found my face covered with the water that the dolphins spewed at me. One human in my group twirled, and the dolphin twirled. You jump up, they jump -- only higher and more gracefully.
The grand finale: I floated stomach down, legs extended, head up. Two dolphins, each with its nose against one of my feet, pushed me around the lagoon.
The research center was home to the original Flipper, back in the days when it was Santini's Porpoise Training School. Actually, though, Flipper was three different dolphins. Mitzi, who had a very pretty face, played Flipper in all the close-ups, but she wasn't the most athletic of dolphins. She therefore had two stunt doubles, Little Bit and Mr. Gipper. All three were trained by founder Milton Santini, a commercial fisherman who got into the dolphin business after accidentally netting and injuring one. During the dolphin's recovery, the two mammals bonded and Santini found a second career. In the 1970s, the facility was taken over by a marine mammal scientist. Today it's both a research and a rescue center for injured dolphins and manatees.
Mitzi is, sad to say, long gone. But Little Bit and Mr. Gipper had a daughter, Tursi, who is now 32 and still lives at the center, along with her two sons, Pax and Talon. Tursi, by the way, is a great jumper, but terrible at math. Talon, however, is a math whiz, routinely scoring 80 percent or better on exams that are part of a project to prove that dolphins understand numerical concepts.
I spent much of my childhood wishing I could live in a place like the one where the boys in Flipper lived, and wishing I could ride the waves with a real live dolphin.
And for a short time, at least, I found myself in the Florida Keys, living the dream.