All photos © Robin and Arlene Karpan
The Florida Keys are surrounded by water, so what better way to experience parts of this string of beautiful islands than by boat? Consisting of hundreds of islands, the Keys are a coral cay archipelago stretching south and west from the Florida mainland. Even on the largest islands you’re never far from the sea. There are several ways to get out on the water – sightseeing cruises, sailing, fishing, diving, snorkeling, kayaking, and more. Here are three that we enjoyed.
Key West Sunset Cruise
Key West is the southernmost of the islands accessible by road. The most famous of the Keys, it’s a worthy destination on its own. We will be looking at Key West’s many other attractions in an upcoming post.
The waterfront teems with boats offering excursions. We did a two-hour sunset cruise on the SV Argo Navis a 75-foot luxury catamaran with sails. The vessel is quite spacious with places to sit inside or out. Sitting outside on the front of the deck provides uninterrupted views.
We headed out to sea to where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Gulf of Mexico. Captain Emyl soon hoisted the large sails and invited passengers to volunteer to help. They make a point of saying that they don’t play music during the trip, that on a sailing vessel you should instead enjoy the soothing sounds of the wind and waves along with great conversation. It’s a refreshing change from some trips we’ve been on where music at eardrum-shattering levels is supposed to be entertaining.
Snacks are included in the ticket price along with a selection of fine wines, craft beers, and several signature cocktails. They kept bringing several charcuterie-style appetizers which are almost a meal themselves.
On the way back, a crew member climbed on top of the deck and blew a conch shell, which sounds like a trumpet when you know what you’re doing. The conch looms large throughout the Keys, and especially Key West. Conch fritters seem to be a staple on every menu. Then there’s the political connection.
In 1982, The US Border Patrol set up a blockade on the Florida Keys to check for drug smugglers and illegal aliens. This caused a lot of disruption. So Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow said that if the US insisted on treating the Keys like a foreign country, they would secede and become the independent Conch Republic.
This clever publicity stunt succeeded in getting widespread media coverage and the blockade soon ended. But the idea proved so popular that they continue to have tongue-in-cheek Independence Celebrations of the Conch Republic every year.
It was a pleasant trip but one thing was missing from our sunset cruise – a sunset. Thick clouds blanketed the overcast sky, and it looked as if we might be out of luck, but just before we returned to the harbor, the clouds parted enough to light up the sky with brilliant colours.
Fury’s Key West Dolphin Watch
Also in the waters near Key West, we went in search of bottlenose dolphins. While we can often see captive dolphins in zoos, aquariums, and marine parks, nothing can compare with watching them in the wild. We took our tour with Fury, the only company in the Florida Keys to have “Dolphin SMART” certification, a national program that protects and promotes responsible dolphin watching. They never chase or feed the dolphins. Rather, the boats go to the general vicinity where dolphins often hang out and wait for them to approach.
Dolphins are quite playful and often enjoy interacting with boats and the current they create. They sometimes use the waves generated by boats to increase their swimming distance and speed or feed on fish disturbed by boats.
Captain Stevie headed into the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and before long we came across a pod of dolphins in an area often referred to as a Dolphin Playground. They especially like this environment where the fairly shallow water is close to mangroves which are a haven for fish that they feed on.
The dolphins kept their distance at first, then started coming closer and closer, and eventually swam right beside and under the boat. Adults grow to between 6 and 15 feet long so we get a sense of their size beside the boat. Captain Stevie recognized some of the individuals from the patterns on their dorsal fin.
Then the dolphins got more playful and some even treated us to some impressive jumps out of the water. Scientists aren’t certain why dolphins jump. It could be anything from looking for a better view of the surroundings, communicating with others in the pod, getting rid of parasites, scaring off predators, and several other reasons. Given their spirited nature, it’s also thought that they jump just for fun.
After leaving the dolphins, the boat goes to the shallow waters of a wildlife refuge. Passengers could go snorkeling if they like (gear is provided), though we decided to skip this due to the unseasonably cool weather. Beer and wine are included as part of the ticket price, so it’s the perfect opportunity to raise a toast to the dolphins. In true Florida Keys style, one of the beers on offer is a Key Lime Lager.
The African Queen
The most unusual boat trip we took was on the African Queen – the original boat used in the famous 1951 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Built in England in 1912 and used by the East Africa British Railways Company, the rather ordinary working steamboat rose to fame when it was used in the African Queen movie filmed in the Belgian Congo.
In the World War I movie, Bogart is a gin-swilling riverboat operator who rescues the straight-laced missionary played by Hepburn after her mission was attacked and burned by German soldiers. Together they set off downriver to attack a German warship, with plenty of wild adventures plus a love story, along the way. Bogart won an Academy Award for Best Actor for the film, the only Oscar of his career.
The boat was purchased by a San Francisco restaurant owner in 1968, and for the next few years it was used for charter operations in different parts of the United States, eventually ending up in Key Largo where it was restored to its original condition as seen in the movie. The African Queen is registered as a National Historic Site. Key Largo has more Humphrey Bogart connections. It was the setting for the 1948 Bogie movie called Key Largo, and for many years the island was the site of a Bogart film festival.
Our tour started with Captain Eddie giving us a rundown on the African Queen – both the boat and the movie, including a lot of fascinating behind-the-scenes trivia. A Union Jack flies at the bow since the Queen was a British vessel in the movie. When the boat was brought to the United States, Queen Elizabeth II herself granted royal approval to fly the flag, commenting that she was a fan of the movie.
The trip is fairly short, about an hour and a half cruising through the Port Largo Canals to the ocean, then back again past expansive mansions. The excursion is less about the cruise but more about just being on the African Queen and its iconic historic connection.
Passengers are welcome to stage photos of scenes from the movie, such as where Katharine Hepburn pours Bogie’s gin overboard to his great consternation. A couple of re-enactments that we were relieved to see that weren’t included in our tour were the leeches scene, and where the boat was blown up at the end of the movie.
Here’s some other ideas to add to your Key West adventures:
- For a comprehensive look at these fascinating islands, see the Florida Keys Visitor Website
- Key West, Florida – Surprising and Quirky by Nature on Photojourneys
- Discovering Island Charm on Islamorada on Photojourneys