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.

01.08.09 | 9:40 AM ET

mangroves in key westPhoto by Michelle Thatcher

Capt. Victoria Impallomeni guides her center console boat carefully through a canal cut into the limerock of Stock Island, headed for a rare place where ancient reefs and mangrove islands of the backcountry conspire to create an Other World. Fossilized corals and oolitic limestone form the canal walls, transparent water allowing me to see its composition nearly to the bottom. We’re floating on air, just for now. 

Stock is the first island north of Key West, just over the Cow Creek Channel. It’s gritty in the way working waterfronts can be when not coifed up. Most of the commercial fish and shrimp trawlers migrated up here years ago, along with a few backcountry guides like Victoria. Laid back hangouts, like the Hogfish Bar & Grill, have followed, advertising themselves as “The Way Key West Used to Be.” 

I haven’t seen Victoria for three years, but it’s easy to pick up where we left off. It seems just yesterday I was standing next to her at the helm, headed out into the Gulf, anticipating almost anything. Victoria’s into having fun, and for me that often begins where the land ends. 

After a couple days trouncing about the streets of Key West, I begin to feel as if the vernacular island architecture, its out-of-plumb culture and baroque hype have settled onto my senses like limerock dust on my skin. The romantic history being peddled is illusive, more like deja vu than a flesh and blood experience. There’s only so much a shot of tequila in a bar at 4 a.m. will reveal, regardless of what famous writer sat on the same stool 50 years before you. 

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

During hurricane season, the sea seems if it has come ashore onto Duval and Caroline and Fleming streets in one languorous tide of moisture and torpor and sweat. The air is so thick you may as well be underwater. 

It was the sea, after all, that first defined this place—that rare fusion of Gulf Stream and coral reef and mangrove fringed shoal. When Miami was still a coastal swamp, Key West was the wealthiest city in all of Florida, thanks to pirates and wreckers who ransacked the ships that grounded just offshore. Opportunism has prevailed ever since. 

Safely out of the canal, Victoria trims the tabs of the motor and pushes the throttle forward, and soon we are skimming over water barely 18 inches deep, cool now from the salty wind in our faces. Aboard are Susan, a publisher of a magazine in the Keys; Christian, an attorney from Seattle; and my friend Michelle. The three women seem vibrant, engaged. Christian, soft spoken, looks as if he just emerged from an extended rain, and he likely has. I’m grinning from ear to ear, happy to be where I am for the moment. 

We zoom towards the bridge for the Overseas Highway, and once under it—encouraged by our captain—we howl like wolves, letting our voices reverberate in the concrete tunnel. 

The “backcountry” here is comprised of all the hundreds of low, uninhabited cays that spread out to the westerly horizon. The shape of each usually mimics that of the Atlantic’s “spur and grove” coral reefs, with sand-covered limestone shoals carved into finger islands by the tides. Before being first linked by a railroad, and then a series of bridges and causeways, this is how all of the Keys once looked. Key West, at the tail, was the largest southerly island, underlain by just enough hard rock to keep it a few feet above water. 

Victoria’s been taking charters out here for 32 years, and in that time has morphed from a flats fishing guide to a sort of New Age sea priestess. True believers seeking transcendence rely on her to show them the way, mind melding with curious dolphins or meditating in the warm tropical waters. She sometimes drops speakers under the surface, playing reggae, blues, even polkas. Bottlenose dolphins regularly approach her boat, and she’s convinced they’re drawn in by the music. When I press her on the legitimacy of the rest of the New Age stuff, she smiles and says: It’s just good thoughts. It can’t hurt. 

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. 

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.