yduJ's Whirlwind Tour of the Florida Keys

I'd been itching for a scuba trip for a while, so I decided that I would just up and arrange one to Florida, which would be somewhat cheaper than going to an island in "the real Caribbean" and easier to arrange. It turned out that my vacation day allotment was growing short, and for various reasons it turned out that we should do it in the middle of July, so I arranged to fly down on Thursday night, July 17, and return Monday morning, July 21. (It saved $225 to fly home Monday morning instead of Sunday night. Amazing. I just blew into work at noon after the flight, which isn't too much different from my usual time, so all was copacetic.) I went with my housemates Ken Olum and Valerie White.

We arrived at our hotel late on Thursday night, having had a hassle at the rentacar agency (Alamo, but they all suck equally; or maybe I'm just argumentative. :-) We took it easy and got up in a leisurely fashion on Friday morning. Valerie, who rises early anyway, made us scuba reservations for Friday afternoon with the dive shop that was physically but not financially attached to the hotel. The hotel, Best Western Suites of Key Largo, turned out to be a loser in the end, as they refused to give divers late checkout. Checkout time is 11:00, and if you do a morning dive you don't return til noon or a bit after. And it's really nice to take a shower and change before getting out, so you want to checkout at 1:30. But no, they had some stupid excuse about housekeeping. Seems stupid to me; divers are their bread and butter. But, "We don't care; We don't have to" is such a prevalent attitude among businesses these days... So we decided to blow off diving on Sunday, which turned out to be useful in the end.

The dive place, Sundiver, with their boat Dive-O-Mite (what a horrible name), was a great place. The boats were small, only taking six passengers. It turns out there's a different licensing issue in taking more than six paying passengers, so you tend to have six passenger boats and 20 passenger boats, and not much in between.

Anyway, they would load up gear and tanks, and one person would drive the 5 or 6 of you out to the reef, about 45 minutes away. He would tie up at a mooring (no anchoring---that would be bad for the reef---only diving in designated locations), then describe the shape of the reef or wreck, and say "see you in an hour." This has a disadvantage over diving with a divemaster running the tour, in that you have to pay attention to navigation while you're underwater, but it has a significant advantage, which is that you get to choose your own pace. I've often found on dives that the divemaster will go way too fast for me, and I'll glimpse something cool out of the corner of my eye, but if I go back for a closer look, I'll lose the group or have to play really heavy catch-up.

Our first dive was at the Benwood wreck, which is a navy ship that sank during World War II. It didn't sink deep enough, so they had to blow it up further, so there's no interior of this wreck, it's kind of blown flat. Not completely---there's still quite a lot of structure, which now provides a habitat for fish and coral. There were a lot of fish here---the most we saw on any of our dives. We had one more dive Friday afternoon, on French Reef, and two more on Saturday morning, also on French Reef. Fortunately the reef is large, and there are lots of different moorings, so we got to see different areas. The fish really like the up-current side of the reef; it was dramatic how many more fish were clustered up against the reef wall there than on the "leeward" side. So we saw a lot of neat fish and other sea life---I particularly liked the irridescent blue spots on one particular species of fish, and little irridescent blue worms crawling around in the grooves of coral.

After our dive on Saturday morning, we had reservations for a Swim With Dolphins. This was cool, but not nearly as cool as I had hoped. We signed up for what they call the "unstructured program," which means that you swim (with mask, snorkel, and fins) in the same water as the dolphins, but they aren't trained to do anything special for you, you don't feed them, and you're asked not to reach out to the dolphins to grab them or anything. So, the dolphins are free to ignore you, which mostly they do. It was still cool to swim alongside dolphins for as long as they'd go slowly enough for you, eyeing you, "hey, slowpoke, you comin'?" One buzzed me while I was taking a break treading water, slammed into me pretty hard.

The unfortunate thing about the whole experience was the water quality. The place is on a canal, with black murky water that's full of pollution from boats. There is a chain link fence between the dolphin pen and the canal, so it shares this water. Then, the dolphins swim around, buzzing the muddy bottom and stirring up the water. The visibility was very bad---10 feet at the best. The pen itself was like 50x75 feet, so the dolphins were normally invisible in the water, and they only broke surface about once per circuit. They really liked to swim in a counterclockwise circle around the pen in a group. So you'd have to guess when the dolphins were going to come around, and stick your face in the water and start swimming. Maybe try to dive or do something interesting to attract their attention. They liked some people better than others, and if the water were clear, I would have enjoyed watching the dolphins interact with others, even if they didn't care much about me. But I didn't get to see anything except brief glimpses as they came around the circuit.

It was expensive---we did the whole hour, at $145. (You can also do a half hour for $85.) The second half hour was somewhat better than the first, as they swam slower for us to come alongside, while in the first half hour they'd been swimming around the pen much faster. The visibility was even worse, though.

Ken woke up Sunday morning with a terrible earache---we think the biohazard water we were in probably contributed to this. So we dropped by the emergency room to get him checked out, and set up with antibiotics, so it really was a problem, and headed north to the Everglades.

The Everglades were nothing like I expected. I had expected tall trees, with moss hanging down, dark and gloomy, and water all around the tree roots. Well, I got the water. But the rest of it is a savannah. Acres and acres of grasses growing in 12 inches of water. We stopped at Sawgrass Recreation Park for an airboat tour. There were two options, a 30 minute ride in a 15 passenger cattle car for $15 each, or a private airboat for $150 for the three of us for an hour. We opted for the more expensive choice, and after a bit of running around were on our way. Airboats are pretty cool. They give you earplugs, and a good thing too. Ken needed to get one of those headset ear protectors, which they normally don't give out, but he pleaded illness and they relented. It's very noisy with a car engine and an airplane propeller right behind your head. The boats go about 40mph top speed, and our guide took us up to that a few times. Handling is awful. You turn, the boat turns, but continues going the direction it had previously been going (which is now sideways) for quite some time before the thrust gets it going forward again. Mostly we went on water, and didn't go directly over the heavy grassy areas, because it does damage them to be flattened by a boat, and the Everglades are already pretty badly in need of preservation. There are airboat paths all over the place where there isn't a natural break in the vegetation.

We saw one alligator in the wild; our guide stopped the boat, we sat quietly for a while, and then he started throwing bread chunks into the water. Alligators are attracted to splashing sounds. It usually means dinner. This alligator was semi-tame---lots of boats stop here and look for him, and he's predictable. They call him "Stumpy" because he's missing one rear leg. Stumpy showed up after about 2-3 minutes of the splashing procedure, and I said, "Hey, Stump, yawn for the customers!" So the guide reached down and tapped him on the head. Stumpy obediently opened his mouth, displaying his huge array of teeth, and the guide tossed a chunk of bread in his mouth, which Stumpy snapped shut. (Can bread really be nutritious for an alligator?) He repeated this trick two or three times, causing me to remark about how we're going to be calling him stumpy pretty soon! We got a little lecture about habitats and diet (bugs and fish, mostly), and went on our way.

It was fun. Towards the end, when we'd stopped to look at some particular piece of vegetation (the sawgrass for which the park is named; many parts are edible---tastes like celery, actually) I asked, "Can I drive?" expecting to be turned down for insurance regulations. But no, surprisingly he said "Sure!" So Ken and I each took a turn at the tiller. We didn't get to make any of those 40mph sideways turns, but it was still fun. The gas pedal was very stiff, and working the tiller (which just turns vanes behind the propeller to direct the airstream) was a bit unintuitive, but I got the hang of it.

We finished our tour of the Everglades with a glance at many captive alligators and other reptiles back at Sawgrass Park. We missed out on petting a Florida panther because it was about to start pouring (it rains a lot in Florida, all thunderstorms) and they'd packed up the panther to keep him from getting wet, it being a kind of open-air place. They opened the back of the truck and I got to admire him in a regular travel crate for dogs, but it was kind of lame.

That evening we had dinner with some friends who live nearby in Boca Raton, and headed off to the airport hotel and our early morning departure.