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.

As soon as I’m in the water, I gently fin down a narrow slough under low mangrove prop roots, an aquatic alley that’s too tight for our boat to even enter. The creek is a netherworld of its own making, as secretive as the offshore waters holding the deeper reefs. A school of silversides swarms around us, moving as one, and for the first time, I notice how blunt their noses are. Susan, who is next to me, points to a miniature barracuda, sized down and camouflaged, but still nurturing its thousand-yard stare. Reddish sea stars appear, some strolling with great invertebrate purpose on the sand. 

I duck out of the deeper creek and pull my way through the bow-like roots, back to shallow water where the light is amber. I see small mangrove snapper in schools, pinfish, porkfish, a juvenile snook. Two hermit crabs war with each other over their shells. A huge Atlantic spadefish hangs nearby, so out of scale that it seems like a balloon in a holiday parade. 

It’s quiet down here, the only sound is the one the snapping shrimp makes as its flicks its tail in a series of repetitive clicks. I hold my breath and swim to the bottom, past the tips of the prop roots covered with blue and red sponges, down to the old paleo reef itself. The antenna of a large spiny lobster waves at me from a ledge, and a queen angelfish flips her body sideways as if to show me her bright colors. The fossilized reef seems like a sprawling, low-slung castle from a kid’s dream, parapets and archways and bastions of ancient calcium, bright colored gobies and damsels floating in and out of it all. 

When I descend again, the underside of the soft earth under the mangroves opens up like a large organic cave. I poke inside as far as I can and see a basket-sized hole letting in a bright ray of sun, a sort of natural skylight. Susan is following, while the others have taken another channel, leading who knows where. 

I take my head out of the water and remove my mask. In the far distance, I see a flats guide poling his small boat in inches of water, trying to sneak up on feeding bonefish and permit that move between pastures of seagrass and open sand. 

Key West is only three miles away but Duval Street might as well be on another planet. Once, a very good poet rode with Victoria into the backcountry and later wrote “Rounding Ballast Key” about it all. Any few lines are part nature study, part metaphor: 

I stood in your wake, 
sinking in that mud, its surface webbed with turtle grass
and calcareous algae rising on my calves.
About us the conch crawled from green to brighter green
the sea turtles lolled the miles across the keys from Tortuga,
and tarpon and porpoise broke the surface at the edge

We fin back toward the others and climb aboard the dive platform on the stern of Victoria’s boat, and she hoses us each down with fresh water. It is wonderfully exhilarating. I feel myself finally breathing deeply, inhaling the scent of sun-warmed mangrove and sea purslane and salt air, happy to be alive in a rare place where rays glide like giant birds and lobsters wave from archways in fossilized castles of coral. 

I think of the way perceptions arrive on the ebb of a slow motion slog back ashore. It finally strikes me that experiences here oscillate, almost like an old fan: Sometimes, they give visitors what they think they want; sometimes they acknowledge the pure sensory joy of a once-in-a-lifetime moment. I feel myself shift, however imperceptible, and my senses open one more notch on the aperture. 

Figuring out the true Key West is illusion wrangling—like sorting a perfect mirage from the geography, a sea turtle migration from a metaphoric loll. But I realize now what I had forgotten: It probably always was.

MORE ON KEY WEST: Slideshow | Part one: Doing the Duval Crawl | Part three: The Conch Republic, Unscripted.

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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