By John Christopher Fine
Joanne Birdsall, Gift Store Manager at the History of Diving Museum (HDM) in Islamorada, took out her phone. She scrolled down to show me photographs along US 1, known in the Florida Keys as the Overseas Highway. Her shots were taken after residents were allowed back and clean-up started in the wake of Hurricane Irma. Irma was a category 5 hurricane with sustained winds of peak intensity measured at 185 miles per hour.
The storm destroyed Puerto Rico then did great damage to Cuba, St. Martin and the leeward islands before it made landfall at Cudjoe Key with sustained 130 mile per hour winds on September 6-7, 2017. Meterologists predicted ocean surge of ten- to fifteen feet on the southern tip of the Florida Keys, nine foot surge on Florida’s west coast.
While devastation was evident, Joanne’s pictures of rows, stretching several blocks long, of refrigerators, washing machines, dryers, hot water heaters, air conditioners and other appliances looked surreal. They were left along the road side for eventual pick up and disposal. Appliances ruined by water damage that had to be discarded. Joanne’s next series of pictures showed long roadside piles of mattresses.
“Hotels had to throw them out,” Joanne explained. She evacuated her home as did Dr. Sally Bauer, founder, with her late husband Joe, of the History of Diving Museum at Mile Marker 83 in Islamorada. When Dr. Bauer was able to return to her ocean front home the disaster was apparent.
“I drove in. Brown stagnant water covered the driveway and lawn. I saw a refrigerator out by my mailbox. I considered that thoughtless of someone to dump their refrigerator in front of my property. Then I got to my house and guest cottage. Ocean surge crashed open my cottage door, blew out and twisted its two garage doors. The washing machines were out in the yard. I realized it was my refrigerator I just bought it new a couple of months before. My new refrigerator. The storm winds and water carried it off its two-foot shelf inside the building, took it four hundred feet out to my mailbox on the highway,” Sally said.
Dr. Bauer was in the process of getting her home back to habitable state. Her ocean front swimming pool had water in it. Repairmen were at work trying to fix a leak. “You could walk across the pool on sand,” Sally explained. “That dolphin sculpture was buried in the pool under sand. We only found it when we dug out the pool.” The sculpture is a six foot high bronze casting of leaping dolphins. Next door, Sally’s neighbor’s house was full of sand, its refrigerator thrown over onto the floor. Seven storm glass windows, protected by hurricane shutters designed to withstand 130 mile per hour winds, were broken on Sally’s home. Their shutters had been destroyed leaving Sally’s house open to the elements.
Devastation was everywhere. Beautiful plantings were uprooted, others killed by salt water. Large sailboats were thrown up into yards, marinas destroyed, homes obliterated, docks torn apart. Restaurants were destroyed, hotels ruined. Hurricane Irma was the second worst storm to hit the keys in history. Ocean waves and surge that washed over the islands wreaked havoc not only to island dwellers and the land, its fury also created great damage to offshore reefs.
“The biggest problem in town is not enough hotel rooms. People want to come diving but occupancy is not yet back to normal,” Captain Ken Wangen said. Ken works with Mike Goldberg owner of Key Dives at Mile Marker 79.9 just north of the Tea Table Relief Bridge. Key Dives shop and their 42 foot Newton dive boat are located in the Bud N’ Mary Marina. Key Dives is back in full operation having remedied their hurricane damage.
“Irma did a number on the Eagle wreck. Part of it was turned, a mast broken off. The shipwreck is at 110 feet underwater so you can imagine the power of a storm to break and move parts of a steel ship at that depth,” Captain Ken added.
“There are a lot more bull sharks on the wreck now after the hurricane,” Mike Goldberg said. Mike and his wife Marci came to the keys after successfully operating a dive business in the British Virgin Islands. They brought with them island hospitality that emphasizes customer service. Mike, Marci and their daughter Jeri dive although it is not always that frequent that Mike can break away from work in the shop to dive for fun unless it is to instruct students.
“Storms come and go. Soft corals will come back quickly. Hard corals take time. The Coral Restoration Foundation is working hard to restore reefs. Most of their previous efforts were negated by the hurricane,” Mike said. He then described reef damage: “Rocky Top looks like the storm missed it. Another reef a quarter-mile away got beat up. Sand was redistributed.”
“Many reefs were silted over, some coral broken, some covered by sand, some shipwrecks were uncovered by the hurricane. Now some show wooden members that had been under sand,” Mike continued.
“We need, as a community, to take the initiative to restore reefs that got damaged. That is why people come here. The water is alive because of the reefs. If you remove that from the equation there is no reason to come here. People can go to Arizona for the weather. We have done fund raising for coral reef restoration. We’re all here because of the reefs. It will take generations of effort to get it all back,” Mike added.
I joined Key Dives instructor Hayley Martin on dives to the Eagle. While I noted its broken mast and what appeared to be twisted sections moved by Hurricane Irma, the 110 foot deep shipwreck was as exciting and beautifully bedecked with marine growth as before the storm.
Captain Ken Wangen took us to Captain Arno’s Reef for the second dive. Hayley guided us around the reef. While visibility was less, with particulate matter in suspension, fish life was abundant. Huge blocks of hard coral were broken off ledges. They will form substrate for future coral larvae and attaching organisms to grow on. A tame green turtle offered divers great photo opportunities. The turtle remained still, unconcerned as we explored the reef. Resident nurse sharks swam around us. A Goliath grouper posed for pictures in its niche under a coral ledge.
After rinsing my gear in Key Dives fresh water tank, I headed north six miles to the History of Diving Museum at Mile Marker 83. Lisa Mongelia, the director, met me. Lisa gave me a tour of the facility. There had been some water damage as well as a few leaks in the roof. Museum collections were unharmed for the most part, although their carpets needed cleaning as did some exhibits. Apart from that, all was back in full operation. HDM’s library of rare books about diving, ocean science as well as history under the sea and ocean exploration was intact. The library sustained no damage. Drs. Joe and Sally Bauer had presence of mind to build hard wood, glass fronted cabinets that house its extraordinary collection, high above floor level in the event of storm surge or flood. The museum itself is on higher ground that protected it from surge during Irma.
Any visit to the keys should include a stop at the History of Diving Museum. Visitors can take a tour of the exhibits that trace the advent of undersea exploration to the era of current diving technology. Their collection of hard hat diving rigs is unique in the world. Treasure exhibits in the museum offer proof positive of early exploration when Spanish galleons wrecked in a hurricane in 1733 just offshore of where the museum is situated. Their gift shop offers unusual souvenirs as well as educational materials for young and old. HDM is pet friendly, a place that will intrigue and entertain for an hour or for days.
I went north to dive with a friend and fellow scuba instructor Spencer Slate. Captain Slate is celebrating his fortieth year diving and teaching diving in the Florida Keys. I spoke to Matt Pehrson, Captain Slate’s Scuba Adventure’s Operations Manager. “Slate did not evacuate. He was the first one to take divers out after the hurricane,” Matt told me. Not at all surprising for this veteran diver and dive instructor. Captain Slate’s great love is the ocean and its underwater creatures.
“Headpin’s gone. That is the channel marker that marks the beginning of the channel for Tavernier Creek. A lot of mooring balls were gone. Molasses Reef Tower measured 75 mile an hour winds during the hurricane. You can’t go by that. On normal windy days birds sit on the rotating device and slow it down. It can read three miles an hour when the wind is howling out there. A private person put a turtle memorial down for his son killed by a vehicle while walking on US 1. The cement sculpture required five men to carry onto the boat. It was placed on Pleasure Reef. It is gone. Maybe moved then covered over by sand. Most mooring balls have been replaced,” Matt added.
“I stayed here. I took our dive boats west into the mangroves toward the Everglades. I went to check on them after the hurricane passed. First day I put on fins and swam a mile into the Everglades to start their engines. The bilge pumps had been working all the time. I cranked the engines up and pumped them out. If I didn’t the pumps would have failed and the vessels sunk. That boat,” Captain Slate pointed to his Spiegel Eagle dive vessel, “was pushed into the mangroves. Next day I had to get a kayak and go in with a chain saw to get it out. Some damage. All the vessels were sea worthy. Our shop and compressors are a little higher here so we didn’t get flooded out. I was the first shop back in business after the hurricane here in the keys,” Captain Slate said.
He’d undergone elective ankle replacement surgery. His foot was in a cast. A friend drove him down to the shop to talk with me and greet his divers. A large group, under the auspices of Dr. Dan Marelli, chartered Slate’s Coral Princess IV as part of their curriculum for Scientific Diving International based in Tallahassee.
“There were 125 mile per hour winds here. A lot of trees were knocked down. We got lucky. The hurricane hit Seven Mile Bridge and further south hardest. The reefs got churned up on the outer ledge from Sand Key to the Elbow. Coral heads were moved around. One mile in from the outer reef edge, Hens and Chickens and Shark Reef were not damaged. You dove the outer reef today. It is OK. The Spiegel Grove shipwreck was shoved about five degrees, a spot on the hull got cracked. The Eagle was not damaged much. This was the first bad hurricane to hit the upper keys since 1960,” Captain Slate added. He is impatient to get back diving. His orthopedic surgeon says he will be back underwater in a couple of months when his ankle fully heals.
The Florida Keys Memorial, known as the Hurricane Monument, in Islamorada commemorates a great hurricane that came ashore on Labor Day, September 2, 1935, bringing destruction and loss of life to many. A crypt at the memorial houses cremated remains of 300 people, victims of that terrible storm. By comparison Irma claimed 134 lives and caused $66.77 billion damage.
When asked about some other memorials that had been established on the reefs Captain Slate frequents he indicated that a large Buddha was recovered thirty feet from its base and has been replaced. He assumed that smaller Buddha statuettes that are missing were pushed over and are buried under sand. “We’ll find ‘em eventually,” Captain Slate smiled.
Captain Slate became serious when he said, “We need to get the word out nationwide. People think we got slaughtered and we did. As far as diving in the upper and middle keys is concerned, we survived pretty well. The shops are back and open. Key West is open. The dive boats and fishing charter vessels are back. Our Christmas holiday was a little soft because people couldn’t find rooms. What we do in the keys is come back. Fishing is good. I talk to those guys. I do not know anywhere where dive boats were sunk or lost. A little damage. Sailboats and houseboats went down because people were not here to take care of them. I’ve been here forty years. This is the biggest storm to hit the keys in all my time here,” Captain Slate said. He emphasized that diving in the keys is back and dive charters, shops, dive instruction, reef and shipwreck trips have resumed normal activities.
Captain Slate’s observations were echoed by Dan Dawson a dive instructor and owner of Horizon Divers in Key Largo. Dan said, “Our local reefs at the upper end endured fairly well. Sand was displaced. Divers and dive students come back now and where shipwrecks were covered over they can see parts of wreckage that have not been seen for a really long time. Wood members are exposed. We lost sea fans. A lot more coral was damaged further south. It is part of the natural cycle of things. Fish came back to normal slowly over time and are back on the reefs. There are still spots of broken stuff. Wrecks probably took the most hits. The Benwood, an English merchant ship that collided with another vessel in1942, has its bow pushed in more. Parts and pieces of the wreck have been moved on the side or flipped over. The deeper wrecks are missing structures. The Duane, a former U.S. Coast Guard cutter, has its smokestack now in the sand. Water movement during the hurricane even affected the deeper wrecks like the Northern Light at 185 feet. Parts of the shipwreck that were intact are now collapsed in. One whole side is pushed in,” Dan added.
Horizon Divers maintain their dive shop at Mile Marker 105.8 right on US 1 “Our shop here fared pretty well. At our pier location water came up over the dock. We cleaned it up. We were very lucky. There is good fish life on the reefs. As more time passes the better things will be,” Dan explained.
Those traveling to the keys should always check the status of accommodations. Many large hotels predict that they will not be back in operation for several months or even longer. Some restaurants sustained extensive damage. Some have either closed permanently are are in the process of rebuilding. The following restaurants in the Islamorada area are in full operation:
Twisted Shrimp is an owner operated restaurant with seating inside or outside under a chikki hut. They also offer take-out. Located on the oceanside at Mile Marker 87.7, Twisted Shrimp is a great place for divers and sportsmen. Cary Mraz opened his restaurant only a year ago. He has already made a name for himself cooking up amazing island specialities in full view of patrons. Decor of ship models, signatures or drawings by patrons that scribbled their welcome graffiti on the walls, as well as photographs of shipwrecks adds to a wonderful ambiance of relaxed keys life. Twisted Shrimp, with only five tables inside, is one of those great discoveries. Patrons pass the word that Cary’s food is extraordinary. Everything is freshly prepared in front of diners by Cary himself.
Expect plain wood tables, plastic utensils and cups, wood floors and a lobster bisque that even world class chefs in Marseille cannot come close to. Food is delivered in baskets with fast service. Cary was born in Chicago near Midway Airport. “There was traffic, hustle and bustle and cold,” he laughed. He attended Chicago’s St. Symphorosa School and De Salle High School, tried to figure out what he wanted to do then became a mason and contractor. “There was snow and cold so I basically took one winter off and came down to the keys with a boat. I always had the idea of living on a boat and opening a restaurant.” Cary’s dream became a reality last year when he opened Twisted Shrimp.
He explained the unusual name. “I like eating shrimp. Things fell together. I got a chef to help with recipes. The keys are losing little hole in the wall places. I always went to hole in the wall restaurants. You get good food, fun, enjoy meeting people from around the world,” Cary said. Fried dishes are cooked in rice oil. “I’m getting a little older and we have to eat healthier. Half our menu is grilled, it does not go in rice oil. Rice oil helps with breading, it is just as good as peanut oil. We conform to our patron’s taste. If it is not on the menu, if they bring their own catch, we make it. After the hurricane we came up with green beans and sweet potatoes. We do not put sugar into anything and make all our own sauces,” this master mason turned master chef said.
I chose Twisted Shrimp’s crab cakes. They were the best I’ve tasted anywhere, pan roasted and savory. When I got through Cary came over and suggested I try fried shrimp. “I make them with special breading, very light,” he said when he brought three shrimp to my table just for me to taste. Delicious, light, crunchy breading and savory without any oily taste. Cary makes a chocolate eclair cake in house. Unlike the usual eclair it is served square and offered in a large portion. Twisted Shrimp provides a handy container with admonition that it may indeed be too large a portion to eat after dinner. Prices are very reasonable for fish, shellfish and their chicken.
Cary’s philosophy was echoed by John Erhard dining with his wife and in-laws at a table opposite me. John was able to get back to the keys a few days after the hurricane passed by showing his driver license. “It was very fun. Restaurants gave away food. Things were pretty devastated. We had almost no damage in Key Largo where we live. We lost a screen. I really like Twisted Shrimp. Small place with great food,” this former Chicagoan told me.
Not far away at Mile Marker 90 on the bay side is Craig’s Restaurant. Craig Belcher has operated his restaurant for 36 years. Born and raised in Miami this affable chef came to the keys in 1968 when he was 26 years old. “What makes us unique is three miles offshore. The ocean reefs are spectacular. The older I get the more I appreciate living the island life. Most people that live here have an expression of relief when they cross over Jewfish Creek Bridge,” Craig said.
He enjoys talking to customers and is a gracious host. When asked what he likes to eat himself he remarked, “What’s not to like to eat. To get the best dining in the keys is not to go to corporate owned restaurants. Owner run and managed restaurants provide good home cooked food at reasonable prices.”
Craig’s Restaurant had no damage from Hurricane Irma. “We didn’t lose power and didn’t lose any food. All my employees were OK. There was a five- to eight foot tidal surge on the ocean side. The artery, US 1, is OK. Don’t write the Florida Keys off. We’re still here,” Craig said. He stood with Vicki, a veteran keys resident and server at Craig’s Restaurant, in front of a mosaic glass panel behind the bar that he commissioned in 1983. The artist was given Craig’s mandate of a wind god blowing a sailboat toward and island. The artist’s interpretation is stunning.
While I didn’t have time to try Craig’s “World Famous Fish Sandwich” on this trip, he assured me that it is the best anywhere and I must return to try it. Craig’s offers everything from steaks and baby back ribs to an amazing spinach salad that comes with a whole sliced tomato, hard boiled egg, bacon and mushrooms. I chose their tomato, raspberry vinaigrette dressing. There is a full bar, informal atmosphere and great food.
If you have a flair for Mexican food Puerto Vallarta Restaurant on the ocean side at Mile Marker 86.7 is the place to go. Informal family atmosphere and authentic specialties with a Latin taste and reasonable prices make it an outstanding restaurant to eat. Puerto Vallarta has a large dining room, wood tables and is well lit. Margaritas and Sangria are specialties from the bar. The Top Shelf Margarita is made with premium Tequilla, Cointreau, sour mix, fresh limes and a splash of Grand Marinier. It goes well with Mexican chips and salsa that are placed out on the table. Appetizers include guacamole, tostada ceviche, shrimp cocktail in special salsa along with other temptations to start with.
Puerto Vallarta’s shrimp tacos can be ordered with corn or flour tacos and come with seasoned shrimp and avocado. Paella is made with red snapper. The menu describes Mexicanisimo fare of taquitos, chalupas, cabana, tamales, burritos and other wonderful freshly prepared specialties. Elizabeth and Rosalie served at table with efficiency and grace. The food was generous and flavorful. Clearly the restaurant is favored by locals, a sure sign of good food. For my main course I ordered shrimp and steak. The dish was served in an iron skillet on a wooden base. It came sizzling, savory and delicious to table topped with onions.
For anyone with colossal appetites the grand buffet at Whale Harbor Restaurant and Marina is a must. Located on the ocean side at Mile Marker 83, the complex is managed by Jody Roberts. Describing the hurricane, Jody said that “The restaurant was completely refurbished last year to 2017 hurricane standards. We really didn’t sustain much damage. We have some work to do on our rooftop bar and expect it to be back in operation soon. There are terrific views of the ocean from upstairs. Our marina had damage but we were able to repair it all with our own staff, it is fully back in operation. We have fresh catch of the day every day along with a variety of seafood. Salads are in that area, the carving station for beef here with an assortment of baked bread, oysters, clams, mussels and giant crab legs are there and desserts at the end. It is all you can eat,” Jody pointed out the amazing array of food.
Whale Harbor’s buffet line is a block long. It is difficult too choose since there are so many savoy and eye appealing choices. Meat lovers will relish sliced beef, spare ribs and fried chicken. Fish lovers will savor mahi mahi, snapper or grouper in the catch of the day section. Shellfish lovers will favor iced fresh raw oysters, clams, shrimp and crab legs. All you can eat crab legs alone make Whale Harbor popular. I tried their crab cakes and was pleasantly surprised at how fresh and tasty they were. Whole cooked small orange, red and yellow peppers were extraordinary. It was hard to leave room for dessert yet temptations included miniature key lime pies, carrot cake and soft ice cream with a variety of toppings.
Whale Harbor restaurant can seat 275 people. They get a big week-end crowd. “I add a lot to the buffet on week-ends. Much of the same we serve every day but a lot more,” Jody said.
Unique gifts can be found at Old Conch Harbor’s store and marina located ocean side at Mile Marker 90. The gift shop and gallery suffered a lot of water damage but is back in operation. Two Cuban fishing boats that Jorge and Angel Cabrera saved as remarkable memorials to immigration were sunk in their marina. They expect to re-float them in time. Wave runners and kayak rentals are back in operation.
If there is one message from Islamorada and the middle-keys it is that they are back. Perhaps some operations will take more time to return to full service, however, the diving is great. Coral reefs beckon, artificial reef-wrecks offer special challenges to divers and underwater photographers and marine life has returned to their favorite spots on some of the world’s most beautiful reefs.
Islamorada Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center 1-800-FAB-KEYS or 305 664 4503; History of Diving Museum 305-664-9737; Key Dives 305-664-2211; Captain Slate’s Scuba Adventures 305-451-3020 or 1-800-331-DIVE; Horizon Divers 305-453-3535 or 1-800-994-3483; Twisted Shrimp 305-453-6377; Puerto Vallarta 305-451-4083; Craig’s Restaurant 305-852-9424; Whale Harbor Restaurant 305-664-4959, Old Conch Harbor 305-853-1010.