January 17-31, 2013... The Lower Keys

Ah yes.  Another cold front coming.  Winter in the southwest north Atlantic.  Had to leave Bahia Honda to find shelter from the storm.  By the time we woke up, the other boats in the anchorage had gone.  Close by is Newfound Harbor/Coupon Bight, a great big stretch of water in the Lower Keys formed by Big Pine, the Torch & Ramrod Keys, and the small oceanfront Newfound Keys.  We anchored south of the mangroves of Little Torch Key figuring the winds and fetch would be minimal here.  Indeed, the cold front came, bringing very cold winds.  Day one we stayed on the boat wearing long sleeves and pants (ugh), doing some boat chores.  Day two, the sun was out -- aaahhh.  Lowering the dinghy for the first time in weeks, zipped over to Big Pine.  First to the annual nautical flea market.  Second, Winn Dixie to restock the produce larder.  Third, Big Pine restaurant.  So full from that lunch, didn’t need dinner.

Next day, splashed the kayak to paddle through Coupon Bight Aquatic Preserve.  Lots of mangrove shorelines, some great white herons, turkey vultures, little blues, millions of cormorants, pelicans, a couple of ducks.  We were heading past one tiny island covered with cormorants when we heard a distinctly different noise -- a deep, very loud bellow.  Oh no!!  Not alligators!  We listened again and were sure this was a large reptile.  Upon further research we learned that the American crocodile lives around here, and since this was not a freshwater area, but saltwater, it was likelier to be a croc than a gator.  The good news is that they don’t attack people... usually.  The bad news is that January is mating season.  We paddled with haste but dignity away from the island, never having actually seen what was making the noise.

Monday morning.  No wind - a great day for snorkeling!  Dinghied out to sea to Newfound Harbor Key patch reef just a half mile from the channel.  Only ones there, picked up a sanctuary mooring.  Believe it or not, this was the first time snorkeling in almost a year and a half -- since leaving Bonaire in 2011.  We were spoiled by that fabulous experience and didn’t want to get in the water anywhere if it wasn’t pristine and with the promise of wonderful things to see.  Here in the Keys we have the clear water, but we didn’t get our hopes up after reading about the coral bleaching and how the reefs are deteriorating.  We were determined to try anyway.  But we went wearing full wetsuits  -- the water is still too cold in January.  Once in the water, it was like being with old friends.  Sergeant majors, blue tangs, French angelfish, damselfish, and more.  Sponges, corals, fans.  New friend -- the porkfish -- adult and juvenile!  Not so much diversity as we have come to expect, but pretty cool anyway.  Lots of barracuda (or cuda as they are known here...)  Lots.  Everywhere.  Little, big, and huge.  Good thing they thought we were pretty scary and swam away from us after trying to stare us down.  After about an hour we were getting cold (though John said he hadn’t been warm ever) so we swam back to the dinghy.  Felt great to swim on a reef again.  Looking forward to the next low wind day to do it again!

Still here after another week.  Stuff to do.  Had to stay for the Island Grass Music Fest hosted at Boondocks restaurant -- a wonderful fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity.  All the bands donated their time.  Of course we had a great time dancing -- thanks to Bill Blue’s band.  Met some great people -- thanks to Larry and Eusebio for making us feel welcome.

Did we mention the water gets very shallow here at low tide?  Another all-day paddle between Little Torch Key and Ramrod Key and we found that out the hard way.  Going to Ramrod, we were just fine.  On the way back... well someone had to get out of the boat and pull.  Just like Bogie in the African Queen, Johnson’s our man.  Thankfully, no leeches...

Little Torch Key:  24d38.817’N  81d23.080’W

January 15-17, 2013... Bahia Honda Key

Headed south and then west as the island chain turned, sailed to the entrance marker of Bahia Honda.  As in all the waters around here, we had to weave through the lobster and crab pot floats, so no autopiloting.  Almost mistook a big turtle swimming by as another pot!  Love seeing them.  The entrance to Bahia Honda is fairly distinctive as the old railroad bridge remains standing with a cut through to allow taller boats into the waters just west of the key.  In a bit of a roll in the anchorage, we faced the north current rather than the wind from the east.  Then we realized we were west of the Florida peninsula -- and the waters to the north were the Gulf of Mexico!  Another first for Anhinga.  We enjoyed the sunset and planned the next day.

Bahia Honda State Park is a fabulous park on the Key.  Some of the brochures go so far to say it has one of the 10 best beaches in the U.S., but well, maybe.  We were happy to walk the island.  Saw what we thought was a rare butterfly... till we saw hundreds of them... then found out they are the zebra longwing, Florida’s state butterfly.  Saw some interesting plants, like the gray nickerbean, one of those that has seeds that float to far off exotic places (maybe that’s how it got to Florida?)  And after learning about them on Lignumvitae, we saw golden orb spiders here.  (So now we are identifying spiders... isn't cruising grand?)

The water is beautiful and hundreds of people come to the beaches on the island as daytrippers or campers.  After our walk we decided we liked the long stretches of Sandspur beach the best.  There are campsites along here for those hardy tent campers (not RVs -- they have another area) looking for a wonderful oceanfront experience.  The wooded areas smell fresh and the sound of the waves is great -- if you like camping, this is an excellent spot.

The park allows you to walk up onto the end of the old railroad bridge for a sweeping, panoramic view.  The highest natural elevation in the Keys is about 15 feet, so getting up on this bridge is really a unique experience.  Can’t get enough of those views.

We tried to swim, but found the water too cold.  Others were frolicking away.  They must have been from Ottawa or something.  We were getting numb.  Just have to go further south.  On our way back to Anhinga from the boat basin, we came close to a manatee.  First time in the kayak.  They are big!  

Bahia Honda Key:  24d39.426’N  81d16.848’W

January 8-15, 2013... Matecumbe Bight

Another beautiful place, but the winds howled! After one day confined to boat, we braved the high winds and lowered the kayak to explore. To get out of the fetch (even on the bayside, the waters were rough) we went through some of the neighborhood canals and enjoyed seeing mangroves again. And, surprising us, lots of spiky orange iguanas perched in the branches, that we hadn't seen while on the mainland. Bright orange sponges clung to the mangrove roots along with oysters. And pelicans clustered above in the pines. Very soothing to see all this. There is a channel through the mangroves on the north side of the bight, so we paddled through there too, surprising a ray that was dug into the sand.

One day we had a big adventure. Splashing the kayak again, we paddled through the mangrove channel and headed out to Lignumvitae Key, a botanical state park where a park ranger provides a tour of the hardwood hammock. This kayak expedition took us over some shallow turtle grass which helped damp down the rough ocean waters coming through the bridges. But, we got completely drenched anyway by the time we landed. Luckily for us, the park had a hose so that we could wash off the salt water before walking the forest trails. The ranger, Marty, provided an incredible amount of information about the native trees of the hammock, pointing out specimens of the Lignumvitae, poisonwood, strangler fig, mastic, gumbo limbo, and ironwood, among others. We learned quite a bit, not only about the trees, but the insects and land snails, and the osprey pair (Lucy and Desi) that has been coming to the island for 11 years. This was a terrific visit and would recommend it to anyone coming to the Keys.

The adventure came with our paddle back to the Bight. The winds were down a bit, which was welcome, but so was the tide. The turtle grass areas were quite a bit shallower than they had been 3 hours earlier, providing a good view of pretty large rays feeding. But, at one point, we grounded the kayak. John, our hero, decided to get out of the kayak and pull Patti across the flat for the short distance to the channel. Not such a simple maneuver -- John gets up, steps out of the boat, and is down! He sunk in quicksand, and fell out of his shoe in the process. We searched for the shoe, but it was gone -- swallowed up by the sand. Oh well. Back through the mangrove channel we paddled, again seeing a ray, and glad we didn't have to fight the wind to get back to Anhinga.

Finally, a break in the howling winds was forecast! We left Matecumbe on Tuesday for Bahia Honda Key.

January 4-8, 2013... To the Florida Keys

We stayed in West Palm Beach to celebrate New Years Eve watching fireworks from Anhinga. Then, last minute provisioning (including the bagels and cookies! from Renee and Irv) and the wait for weather to make the overnight trip to Key Largo. Checked and double-checked, asked advice of our weather router and decided to go. Just one thing we forgot about... the Gulf Stream. The winds were lighter than expected, so we didn't have the oomph to overpower the adverse currents as we moved south offshore. It wasn't until entering the Hawk Channel at Biscayne Bay that we were able to get out of the Stream and move easily. That was after a pretty hair-raising time passing the Port of Miami. Bet you didn't know that at least six cruise ships line up at 4am Saturday morning to wait for pilots to take them in. Well, now we do. Yes, we have AIS, so we could see them all, but with the Gulf Stream against us, getting out of the way wasn't all that easy. One of these monster cruise ships passed us with 100 meters to spare... talk about a close call!

Once the sun came up and we started passing the Keys, we could see that we were really in a very different place. The clear, turquoise water, the wide open sky, we were here! Our first anchorage was Rodriguez Key on the ocean side of Key Largo. It was much warmer than in WPB, and we just soaked it up. And there were frigate birds flying over Rodriguez -- now we knew were in the tropics again. We explored by kayak to see what Key Largo was like and were a little disappointed. Very developed and not very attractive up close, though not important as our main purpose in being there was to snorkel in Pennecamp State Park. But, that was not to be. Yup, the weather. The wind came up and the reefs would be too rough to swim. The prediction -- at least 5 days of 20-25 knot winds with seas of 6-9 feet. So, consulting the charts, we decided to head down to Lower Matecumbe Key and anchor on the bayside of the island to get out of the rough seas.

Rodriguez Key, Key Largo: 25d03.353'N 80d26.980'W
Matecumbe Bight, Lower Matecumbe Key: 24d52.132'N 80d43.127'W

(Note: to prepare for our trip, we watched the Bogart-Bacall-Robinson classic, 'Key Largo' and kept our eyes peeled for Dad Temple's Largo Hotel... didn't see it!)