The Songlines of Key West: The Other World

Travel Stories: In a three-part series, Bill Belleville burrows deep into the spirit of the mythic island. Part two: Into ancient reefs and mangrove islands.

Unlike the Tarot and palm readers back on Duval Street, the cosmos isn’t dogmatically packaged. On the last outing, Victoria dragged me behind the boat in deeper water on a ski rope, and I gripped a wooden tow board that allowed me to dive and spin like a giant human fish, more of a rush than a revelation. Other times, we’ve fished and even scuba dived. 

Like most native “Conchs,” she’s also one hell of a navigator—tourist boaters unfamiliar with the shallows around Key West often run aground or become stranded in a falling tide. Beyond the bridge, we glide across the shallow hardbottom, aiming for some offshore keys. I look at the map and see islands named Woman, Man, Ballast, Joe Ingram, Little Mullet, Crawfish. Most are a fret of red mangroves with little solid land, but some are rimmed with white sand, and a few larger ones hold pine rockland and tropical hardwood hammocks. 

As we approach the first island, she throttles back and we skim around the edges at idle speed so as not to disturb any of the wading birds that nest here. Victoria points out a sandy shore where she once had a tree house, cruising out here at age 10 in a boat her dad built for her. 

Ospreys swoop overhead, and I notice their plumage is much more vibrant than the ones I know back home in Sanford on the St. Johns River. We spook a large southern stingray, and it swims away, undulating its wings like a large underwater bird. At the surface, a half dozen Atlantic needlefish flit nervously, and a few feet below, a school of silverside anchovies flash in one great unified movement. Sharks will follow the tide into the mangroves to hunt, as opportunistic as the pirates and wreckers ever were. 

We head for the “Mermaid Pool,” a deep tidal creek that runs through one of the clutch of mangrove islands in the distance. Playing the straight man, I ask Victoria if the mermaids will be there, and she says: They’re always there when I’m there.

There are two massive wildlife refuges here that together protect more than 600 square miles of water and ephemeral land, ranging north to Marathon and west to the Marquesas, not far from where treasure hunter Mel Fisher discovered the Atocha. We zigzag through the shallow water to avoid grounding, Victoria reminding me, “You can’t get anywhere in Key West by following a straight line.” 

On the horizon, the mangrove isles seem disembodied, floating in perfect mirages just above the water. The Spanish first charted these keys as “Los Martires” for the suffering martyrs who lost their heads back in the Old World, a trick of illusion informing geography. 

Susan, an avid scuba diver, tells me she now sees a flamboyant species known as the lion fish out on the local reefs, a saltwater aquarium import from the Pacific now gone wild after being released here. It’s a wonderfully gilded animal, as ornate as the passion flower back ashore. But it’s loaded with neurotoxins and a sting can pack a powerful punch. Key West, says Susan, is full of such exotics, some of them underwater, and some of them on the streets and in the bars. 

Inside the tidal creek, Victoria noses the boat into a natural hurricane hole where we tie off to a mangrove. Beneath us is the berm of limestone that was once a coral reef; the top of it is now covered with a marine community known as “hardbottom”—sponges and bryozoans and star corals, all studded with algal plants in the form of little feathers and trees. At ten to 15 feet, it’s shallow enough to snorkel, and so we all gear up to do so, no need to clank about with heavy tanks and weights. 

Victoria tells us of folks who like to announce their food chain preeminence by splashing loudly overboard, simply because they can. 

“How would you like it if someone jumped into your bedroom unannounced?” she says. Clearly, Victoria’s tenacious as hell—but she’s also gentle enough to care about the consequences of our visit. “We’re guests out here,” she adds, smiling. “So we ought to be polite about it.” 

The five of us slip easily over the gunnels of the boat wearing masks, snorkels and fins, taking care to disturb the water under us as little as possible. Besides simply being “polite,” we’re also far more likely to see marine critters if we don’t thrash about. 

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Bill Belleville is an author and documentary filmmaker specializing in nature and sense of place. He once lived in Key West in a little Conch house on White Street, not far from where Elizabeth Bishop wrote of "The Bight," and a few blocks from where Hemingway once refereed boxing matches in Bahama Village.

2 Comments for The Songlines of Key West: The Other World

Julia Ross 01.08.09 | 4:40 PM ET

Gorgeous writing. Thanks Bill.

Student 02.21.09 | 4:31 AM ET

It is perfectly written. Many thanks!

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