During our June adventures in Florida we were able to squeeze in 3 days in the Florida Keys. This chain of 882 sun-drenched small islands lies along an arc which extends over 150 miles from Miami to Key West. The term "Key" comes from the Spanish word "cayo" which translates to small island. In total there are over 1700 Keys but only 882 are recognized as islands. The group of islands farthest north is known as the Upper Keys. Below them are the groups known as the Middle Keys and the Lower Keys (Key West is located in the Lower Keys). A fourth group is known as the Outer Keys and is made up of islands that can only be accessed by boat.
Activities included in the blog:
Kayaking at sunset
Tiki Hut cruising in the Gulf
Indian Keys Historic State Park
Blond Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory
For this trip to the Keys we stayed in Islamorada, a village made up of six Keys located halfway between Miami and Key West. During our brief stay we limited travel to the Upper Keys. Due to heavy Memorial Day traffic, there was no way to drive further South without running into huge traffic jams and spending hours in the car. It was an easy decision since we plan on returning and exploring the rest of the Keys during another trip.
From the online pics we knew the Airbnb looked nice, but it easily surpassed our expectations. We had the entire 1st floor to ourselves and easy access to the water.
The house was located at the end of a short canal that led directly to the Gulf of Mexico. Palm trees and flowering bushes lined the waterfront.
Beautiful boats parked along the canal.
There was plenty of space outside to sit or lie down and relax.
Best of all, we had access to kayaks. We took full advantage of them and paddled out for the sunset over the Gulf. In less than 10 minutes we were out of the canal and among the mangroves that line the bay.
We carefully maneuvered through the shallow water (less than 1 foot deep) in order to avoid damaging the fragile seagrass meadows. Healthy seagrass communities are vital to the health of these coastal waters. Not only does seagrass help reduce erosion but it also provides habitat for thousands of marine organisms.
Damage to seagrass ecosystems from accidental boat groundings and propellers are a major source of concern. Groundings create scars through the beds that fragment the habitat. The scarred areas are no longer able to stabilize sediment and can erode into larger damaged areas with tidal flow. After the damage occurs, it can take over 10 years for an area of seagrass scar to recover naturally.
Tread lightly in this environment.
It was such a great experience sitting on the water and waiting for that moment when the sky burns with red and orange tones.
It was so peaceful and quiet just sitting there.
We stayed a few extra minutes and enjoyed the changing colors as dusk approached.
Soon it was time to head back home for post sunset drinks.
We spent the rest of the evening enjoying our drinks and snacks under the lights of the cabana.
Contrary to popular belief, the Keys don’t offer up a plethora of sandy beach options. Think of it as a sacrifice made in order to have a fantastic coral reef system off the coast. The coral reef acts as a barrier from waves that would normally deposit sand on the shore and create beachfront. However, we weren't far from Annie's Beach (Mile Marker 73.5), a natural sandy beach and a rare find in the Upper Keys.
A dense layer of mangroves and trees trim out the small narrow strip of beach along the water creating a secluded and relaxing environment.
We managed to find a small patch of sand near a tree that provided needed relief from the sun.
Annie’s Beach is located on the Atlantic Ocean. There is almost no wave action due to the wide expanse of shallow water that is typical for beaches on the Keys.
The water was almost too shallow to swim.
We walked along a narrow sand bar of scarred seagrass for several hundred feet ....
and the water was only waist deep.
Roaming the beach were sand fiddler crabs. These little creatures play a critical role in mud flat and mangrove forest ecosystems. Their role is to eat small things and in turn get eaten by birds, fish, raccoons, and even other crabs.
Their name comes from the oversized claw that males possess. They wave their large claw, like someone playing a fiddle, to attract females and fend off male competitors. These oversized claws are useless in feeding because they're just too big in relation to the rest of the body.
After spending the afternoon at Annie's Beach we headed to Key Largo for a Tiki Hut Cruise along the bay in the Gulf of Mexico.
A brown pelican greeted us as we boarded the "boat" along with four other passengers.
The boat hugged the shoreline giving us great views of the multimillion dollars homes that line the bay. It’s all about location, location, location.
After half an hour, the Captain steered the Tiki Hut toward one of the mangrove forests.
You ask, what are mangroves? A mangrove is a shrub or small tree that has adapted to life in a saltwater environment. Mangroves line more than 1,800 miles of shoreline within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Mangroves are known for their twisted, tangled, and exposed roots that make the trees appear to be standing on stilts above the water. This tangle of roots allows the trees to handle the daily rise and fall of tides, which means that most mangroves get flooded at least twice per day.
The roots also slow the movement of tidal waters, causing sediments to settle out of the water and build up the muddy bottom. The intricate root system also help stabilize the coastline and reduce erosion from storm surges, currents, waves, and tides.
We anchored beside the mangroves and then spent a casual half hour floating in the warm waters of the Gulf.
Oh, did I forget to mention it was a "bring your own booze" cruise so we made a bottle of mojitos to enjoy during the late afternoon cruise and plunge.
Despite spending the entire day in or around the water, we couldn't resist taking the kayaks out for another sunset.
Today we rented kayaks at Robbie's Marina in Islamorada (Mile Marker 77.5) in order to visit Indian Key Historic State Park. This 11-acre island is located slightly more than a half-mile offshore. Here is a photo of Indian Key from Highway 1 in Islamorada.
I have no idea how long it took to kayak to the island because we stopped many times for photographs.
An anhinga perched on a block somewhere between the shore and Indian Key. These birds are found all over the world in warm shallow waters. They pursue their prey under water and spear fish by rapidly stretching out their neck, but being an underwater hunter creates problems.
These poles or stakes are installed by Florida Park Service staff in areas where seagrass has been damaged by boats. A variety of seabirds including cormorants, osprey, terns, gulls and pelicans help “fertilize” the grass with their waste products when resting on the wooden blocks. The fertilizer encourages the regrowth of the seagrass which in turn stabilizes the sediments. To avoid damaging the sea grass meadows, please stay in channels and deep water even if you are traveling by kayak
Unlike ducks and pelicans which coat their feathers with oil from an internal gland, anhinga do not have waterproof feathers. Since they can not float on the water to dry their feathers, they must search for areas above water where they can spread their wings and dry them in the sun like this bird we spotted on the shore of Indian Key.
A kayak landing on the south side of the island provided easy access.
Boats no longer have direct access to the island. The only boat dock on the island is closed due to storm damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017. It hasn't been repaired and it may stay in disrepair in order to help protect the sensitive shoreline environment.
Indian Key was not permanently inhabited until the 1820s. By the 1830s, there was a thriving community. A court house was built and a post office soon followed. The growing town eventually had a three story warehouse, a two story hotel, two stores, and dozens of individual residences. Only Key West was a larger outpost in these islands. It was home to a community of wreckers — folks who salvaged goods off the many ships that ran afoul of the nearby reefs. However, all that changed when Seminole Indians attacked the island in 1840 killing several residents and burning down most of the buildings. The town never fully recovered and was abandoned before the start of the 1900s.
Now the island is deserted except for town ruins that are overgrown with vegetation.
Hurricanes have further erased what was left of the abandoned town. Only the rubble of stone foundations, a couple of grave sites, and several large cisterns remain.
Streets signs mark the walking paths that follow the original roads of the town.
During our walk, Dave spotted a huge green iguana dangling high above us on the stem of an agave plant. These iguanas are typically green but like this one can also brown or even black in color. They have a row of spikes down the center of the neck, back, and upper portion of the tail, and have dark black rings on the tail. Mature male iguanas develop heavy jowls and a large throat fan. They can grow to over 5 feet in length and weigh up to 17 pounds. Green iguanas are not native to Florida and are considered an invasive species due to their impacts to native wildlife.
Indian Key, like all of the Upper Keys, are island remnants of ancient coral reefs that flourished for millions of years until around 100,000 years ago when Earth’s climate entered a cooling period and the polar ice caps began to expand. As the ice sheets grew, they locked up water from the oceans lowering the sea level by as much as 350 feet and exposing the ancient coral reefs which became fossilized over time forming the rocks that makes up the island chain today.
Today the shoreline is made up of prickly, sharp-edged reef rocks. You definitely need to wear water shoes so you can scramble over the rocks. Luckily, we found a relatively "smooth" area to sit, enjoy a snack, gaze at the jagged rocky shoreline and stare into the crystal clear waters.
The water was so inviting that we jumped in to cool off. The drop off was significant; after two steps the water was easily over our head.
I managed to get a few close ups of the limestone coral rocks that form the surface of the island.
I think this is Dave's favorite photo from the trip, but I'm rather proud of it. It takes an effort to get just the right photos.
I got even lower in the water for this shot.
It was a fun and unique experience visiting Indian Key.
After a day of kayaking we treated ourselves to key lime pie from the Blond Giraffe Key Lime Factory located in Tavernier. It's definitely worth a visit!
Our last night and last sunset in the Florida Keys. Tomorrow it's on to Everglades National Park.