Toronto Star, April 19, 2017: KEY LARGO, FLA.-Capt. Dan Harvey chuckles as he hauls out his phone to see how late we’re running. We’re in a sturdy white zodiac exploring the waters off Key Largo for what’s meant to be a two-hour tour. We’re at two hours 10 minutes but no one’s in a hurry to get back to shore.
Which is good, because Harvey spots a white heron on an island of mangroves — a hammock — and we veer off to have a looksee. As we get closer, he tells us that herons hunt by standing completely still in the shallow water for so long the fish think they’re part of the scenery. Then boom, the fish are lunch.
You can’t help but learn about wildlife when you visit the Florida Keys. From Key Largo, where Harvey grew up, all the way down to Key West, people come here for the fishing, snorkelling and diving. Or, on this morning, to take an “eco tour” and get to know the locals a little.
Harvey picks us up at the dock outside the hotel and we head off toward the mangroves. He explains how the different types of mangroves filter salt from the water and he tells us the term “mangrove” came to be when people started building shelters in the groves of trees. I’m not sure I believe him, but I see the logic.
We head through a winding channel (“If they were man made they’d be straight,” he says with more logic) to emerge in a cul de sac of houses on the water. Harvey calls it Little Jurassic Park because of the iguanas lounging in the trees, limbs and striped tails dripping off the branches. After the first couple sightings, you get better at spotting their orange heads in the lush greenery.
Harvey doesn’t get the boat too close because “they like to go to the bathroom.” And the iguanas spit salmonella-tainted saliva. While we watch the reptiles as if they’re “laid out after a couple of beers, not doing too much too quickly” a very sober blue heron crashes out of the bush just in front of us. We jump. The iguanas don’t.
“Hang on to your hats,” Harvey says as he hits the gas on the Intracoastal Waterway. We’re off to see a family of osprey chattering in their nest atop one of the poles planted in the water for that very purpose, subsidized housing that helps keeps utility poles free of giant nests and baby birds.
We arrive at Pelican Key where there are no birds in the mangroves today but there is always an abundance of Cassiopea, upside down jelly fish in the water. Harvey collects one in a net and jokes: “If we had bread and peanut butter we could have a PB and jelly sandwich.”
We hang on to our hats again as Harvey guns it across Florida Bay to Everglades National Park, one of the largest wetlands in the world. It’s also the only body of water on the planet where you can see alligators hanging out in fresh water and crocodiles lounging in salt or brackish water. On the way back to the hotel, after our white-heron detour, I sit on my hat so I can use both hands to take pictures of the graceful brown pelicans soaring alongside.
Later, I’m shocked to learn the elegant pelican is also a bit of a jerk. “Be careful of the birds, they bite,” says the guy with the straw cowboy hat at Robbie’s Marina, a 20-minute drive south of Key Largo. For two bucks you can go on the marina’s docks to watch people feed little fish to much bigger fish, tarpon. (You buy a bucket of little fish for another $3.17). It isn’t as simple as it sounds because pelicans are also looking for a free lunch and they aren’t afraid to steal it.
A few big men and one little girl lie on their bellies on the dock, dangling the bait over the water. Every now and then a tarpon almost as big as the girl jumps out of the water to snatch it. Meanwhile, the pelicans try to intercept the bait from behind, above and below. People holler out of surprise, horror and delight all at once when a pelican gets a fish.
Up close, pelicans look a little shifty, their beady eyes looking you up and down to see whether you have any bait. They stick around like bullies at the bike racks until people and their buckets of fish dwindle from the docks. Then they take off toward the string of utility poles that run alongside the overseas bridge. As you watch the pelicans soar over the turquoise water you both recover some poise and you’re happy to have hung out with another local critter, beady eyes and all.