By John Christopher Fine

“Yeah, that’s right. I want more.” Famous lines spoken by Rocco in a classic film staring Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. The gangster, Rocco, stranded at a Key Largo resort during a hurricane, became a tyrant. Winds howled, ocean waves crashed upon the island as Hollywood created artificial fury setting the stage for the story.

Hurricane Irma raged ashore in the Caribbean and Florida Keys on September 10, 2017. The storm left death and destruction in its wake. Some islands will not recover for years to come. Key Largo was lucky.

“It came through but did little damage to Key Largo. We were impacted by debris. Very few businesses were damaged. Some properties opened immediately. We opened the Tuesday after Irma hit,” Mark Calibo said. Mark is Regional Director of Sales and Marketing for fifteen hotels and resorts in the keys. Their 153 room Key Largo Bay Marriott Beach Resort became the center for rescue and clean-up operations immediately after the hurricane.

“We opened up immediately. We never lost power or water. We became headquarters for first responders. Key Largo was one of the few main keys without great physical damage. This property had minor landscaping issues. We became a staging area. First for police and first responders, then health and safety, then road and utility workers then insurance people. By mid-November we were open to the public. People asked if we were closed since they could not book rooms until November. We were open the day after the hurricane. All our rooms were occupied by workers,” Mark explained.

Divers enjoying a meal outside Sundowners restaurant

Located at Mile Marker (MM) 104 the Key Largo Bay Marriott Beach Resort is one of the most magnificent properties in the keys. Rooms and amenities are designed for casual comfort in a tropical setting. There is no evidence of damage to the property after Irma. The large bayside pool with water jets, kayak and wave runner rentals, fishing charters, restaurant services with magnificent views of the bay and sunset, continue to function. Guest suites at the Marriott Resort can be used for families or groups. Marriott’s spacious suites with large balconies, offer two large bedrooms, a full kitchen with stove, microwave, large refrigerator and utensils. A spacious dining area, bar and salon make the suites perfect for a dive group stay. The resort has covered parking on the ground level a great benefit in Florida’s hot tropical sun.

A full service dive shop on property is operated by Ocean Divers at dockside. Divers simply walk to the shop, sign in, obtain gear they may need then step aboard a modern Island Hopper dive boat for a short run south to a cut then out into the Atlantic Ocean. Ocean Divers ocean side location is a complete, modern facility, about three miles south of the Marriott Resort, located on a canal with direct access to the Atlantic.

 “The storm blew up sediment,” Hadriam Vega, Ocean Diver’s General Manager, said. “A month after the storm smaller fish came into the reefs. More than I’ve ever seen in a long time. The small fish brought in predators,” he added.

Hadriam Vega was born and raised in Miami. He had just returned from diving, what he calls his weekly ‘quality control.’ Hadriam has been on the water since he was two months old, “I grew up on the water. My Dad always had boats. Every good memory of my growing up is being together with my Dad on the water. Then I became an office guy in sales. I got into scuba and ran Divers Direct at their Miami and West Palm Beach stores. Two years ago I was hired by Ocean Divers to run the two locations here and at Marriott.”

Hadriam, who lives in Florida City, was working the day before Irma made landfall in the keys. “We set the boats in mid-canal. We got very lucky. The media blew it out of proportion,” Hadriam said.

When asked about offshore reef damage, the General Manager of Ocean Divers explained, “Some soft coral got blown off. We were back one week after the storm. As soon as they let residents back we set up free dive trips for any local that wanted to dive the reefs. It was neighbors helping neighbors. People with chain saws would stop, cut a tree that was blocking a driveway then drive off without ever stopping to be thanked. Stores, restaurants and people were giving away food and water. We had 95 people diving on Molasses Reef. It was a great day. We had zero damage to our boats, very little to our stores. We have to get people into the mindset that the keys are open for business. We are still getting calls asking if we are open.”

Ocean Divers operates five dive vessels. Two out of the Marriott location bayside including their 29 foot Island Hopper and a 45 foot catamaran. At their ocean side location Ocean Divers operate two 46 foot Newton dive boats one 42 foot Newton. Air tanks remain aboard ocean side boats, filled by whips that run to a console directly from their fill station. Nitrox is also available. Staff carry tanks to the boat when divers choose to use Nitrox.

 “We can stagger trips making early and later departures both morning and afternoon. We try to run a reef trip and a deep trip every morning and afternoon. We mix things up. We just celebrated Earth Day with a clean-up. Divers recovered 500 pounds of trash. We do spearfishing, lion fish hunts, photography trips. We try to be open to what people want.  We offer coral watching dives when spawning occurs. While our 46 foot Newton dive boats are certified by the Coast Guard to carry 35 divers we limit them to 24 so we do not cram divers together,” Hadriam said.

Holiday Divers, owners of Divers Direct stores and other dive related enterprises, also own Ocean Divers. “Divers Direct is one stop shopping. While we have a close relationship with them I do not push Divers Direct. We have many shops that book their trips with us. They would not appreciate it if we directed their customers to another store. There are more dive shops in Key Largo than gas stations,” Hadriam laughed. He is an affable man that loves diving and enjoys interacting with people.

 “We ask ourselves: why should people dive here? How good a job do we do? We do a great job. Our air quality is tested every three months by a diagnostic lab. The benefit we have being associated with Holiday Divers is that we rotate our gear every year. All our equipment is new every year. We send our used equipment to Divers Direct where it is serviced and sold as used. Our rental gear is always new.” 

Explaining the key to any dive businesses success, Hadriam continued, “Everybody here loves their job. We introduce people to turtles. Our shop manager Andrea is an enthusiastic diver. A man wanted to take his son on a birthday dive. Andrea made it happen. When they returned the boy said it was his best birthday ever.”

Captain Tom Abend took us out to Molasses Reef. A large hammerhead shark had been sighted that morning. Captain Abend made no promises. He asked the divers whether they wanted to give it a try. There was unanimous agreement. Once overside dive instructor Alisia Carlson, known as Al, guided us below. A small Caribbean reef shark zipped past keeping respectable distance. Then, over a large reef outcropping, two seven foot Caribbean reef sharks swam toward a gigantic dark shape. The large hammerhead swam in toward the smaller sharks then veered away out of sight.

Alisia signaled for divers to descend onto sand and wait patiently. In a few moments the large hammerhead loomed before us, swam in an arc and was gone. Ocean Divers instructor Eliza Jones was on the surface snorkeling with her camera. Eliza had it on a long wand. She free dived down and was able to capture stunning video of the hammerhead that Andrea posted on Ocean Divers facebook page.

Molasses reef was resplendent with tropical fish. Adults and juveniles. Marine turtles seemed to want to pose for pictures. Divers with cameras found life abundant on the various reefs surrounding Molasses tower. There was physical damage to hard corals, however, nature will find tumbled and broken coral heads and ledges substrate for new growth in time. I found Hardiam Vega’s observation correct: fish life returned to Molasses Reef abundantly. 

Several reef dives confirmed healthy, vigorous coral reefs with abundant marine life. Lobsters seemed tame inside protection of the marine sanctuary, confidently parading for divers to see but not touch. 

Wreckage from ancient ships that struck the reef remain on the bottom creating substrate for sea fans and brightly colored sponges. Reefs offshore of Key Largo were resplendent, healthy, living ecosystems. What damage Hurricane Irma caused is part of a natural evolution that creates a barrier to fierce ocean events set in place eons ago.

Visitors to the Florida Keys require accommodations and food. To this end Bobby Stoky caters to tastes in convivial atmosphere at his restaurants. Bobby’s Sundowners is located in a beautiful setting, right on the bay, just a short walk north of the Marriott along US 1. US 1 is called Overseas Highway in the keys. As its name implies Sundowners is the place to go evenings to enjoy libations, good food and amazing sunsets.

Seating at Sundowners can be outside on their Bayfront patio or inside in air conditioned comfort. The inside dining area is surrounded by panoramic windows offering great views of the bay. Dining atmosphere is casual with wood tables, napkin wrapped utensils. Cocktails from the bar can be exotic drinks like the Hemingway made with 23 year old Zacapa rum, cane nectar and fresh lime juice. Cocktails run from $11-14. Sundowners wine list has many surprises from California Chandon brut sparkling wine at $14 for a split to Dom Perignon from France for $300 a bottle. A sampling of wines from their list includes Whitehaven, New Zealand sauvignon blanc $5, Argentinian merlot $41 a bottle, Seeker Central Valley Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon at $45 a bottle.

Sundowners menu has something for every taste and budget. Salads that become a meal themselves run from $15 to $24. Lobster bisque is $9 served in a large bowl and offers supreme taste with chunks of Florida lobster tail. There are oysters on the half shell at $25 per dozen and cooked oysters parmesan, fried or covered with crabmeat. Hot appetizers include cracked conch, calamari, coconut shrimp and jumbo lump crab cake. Appetizers run from $12 to $18.

In addition to specials the menu at Sundowners offers steak, ribs and chicken from the grill including a 22 ounce bone in rib eye steak that rivals any steak house in New York at $39. Snapper, shrimp, hogfish, mussels, mahi mahi, lobster tails, yellowtail and grouper run from $22 to $30. All seafood is fresh, prepared to taste, and comes from the grill savory and delicious.

While many restaurants and hotels were severely damaged in the keys by Hurricane Irma a famous landmark seafood house was unscathed. The Fish House located on the ocean side of Overseas Highway at MM 102.4, serves up fresh fish and shellfish as it has for many years. Fish House’s bar is Mecca to fishermen and boaters in the Key Largo area. The setting is casual, marine scenes and small ceiling decorative lights, paper place mats, paper napkins and stainless cutlery grace wood tables. There are captain’s chairs and wood banquettes.

Servers like Jose and Carolina have been waiting on tables at Fish House for fifteen years. Service is prompt, food comes to table hot and delicious without waiting even when the restaurant is crowded.

Fish House offers Barefoot wines from California at $6 a glass. Their raspberry margarita made with tequila, triple sec, sour mix and Chambord is frozen in a fancy cocktail stem glass at $7.50. Coconut martinis run $10.50. Bottled wine like Pouilly Fussee for example is $48.

 “The way it works is you pick a fish and the way you want it,” Carolina said as she presented the menu. Specialty preparations are listed that include Matecumbe where the catch is topped with fresh tomatoes, shallots, basil, capers, olive oil, lemon juice and is then oven baked. Fish pan sautéed is dusted with flour, dipped in egg wash and melted butter, lemon and sherry.

Appetizers at Fish House include coconut shrimp $15, shrimp in garlic butter $12 and crab cake $11. A bowl of their lobster bisque is $6, creamy with wonderful taste.

Main courses offer fish at market price. Mahi Mahi is $24, the shrimp and scallop plate served with mushrooms over rice with a touch of hot sauce is $27. Fish House offers baby back ribs alone or in combo with shrimp for $23. 

Leave room for homemade desserts at Fish House. In house made coconut ice cream is served in a coconut shell and is a delight as is their own key lime pie, made fresh daily by Chef Jose. Desserts are $6.25.

Shrimp lovers will relish Chef Carey Mraz’s fried shrimp. Twisted Shrimp, located at MM 87.7 ocean side, is a small restaurant where Chef Carey has perfected the art of cooking shrimp lightly breaded in rice oil so they are crunchy and delectable without oily taste. Chef Carey’s lobster bisque rivals the best restaurants in the south of France. His sides of sweet potato fries are a delight. Twisted Shrimp is one of those keys places that is discovered by word of mouth.

Chef Carey Mraz recently won first prize for his shrimp at Island Fest. “I cooked it there. We took our gumbo soup and for the main dish our shrimp. There were seven judges. We ran out by two o’clock. One judge came to me and said if we had more food we would have won the People’s Best.” Chef Carey has been open a little more than a year and can be justly proud of the accomplishment winning an award against major hotels and large restaurants competing at Island Fest. Twisted Shrimp is open every day except Tuesday from 11:30 AM to 9 PM.

A major environmental issue on the reefs in Florida’s keys after Hurricane Irma has been debris, ghost traps, lines and plastic. Mike Goldberg, owner of Key Dives located at MM 79 in Bud N’ Mary’s Marina, is participating with government authorities to help clean up the reefs. “We are going to meetings with officials. Essentially we will be doing what we have always done. Now with some help now from government we should be able to offer divers free trips to participate in reef clean up,” Mike said.

One of the ways Key Dives is helping to preserve reef life is to aggressively remove lion fish. Invasive species plague Florida’s land and underwater environment. Exotic snakes released in the everglades are preying on native species. Iguanas are everywhere. Lion fish have taken a toll on juvenile reef fish with their voracious appetites and no natural predators in the keys. Divers like Captain Jason Adams and Instructor Rafael Kubiak take pole spears below to help control lion fish populations.

Indigenous to the Indo-Pacific Oceans lion fish were unknown in Florida waters 25 years ago. Likely released by aquarists that found them eating all their tropical in aquarium settings, too expensive and beautiful to kill, these invasive fish were dumped into the Atlantic. Now their populations have grown enormously. While groupers, moray eels and nurse sharks will eat lion fish despite venomous spines, they are not used to them and have to be taught that the invasive species is food.

On dives with Key Dives instructors. well offshore and beyond Florida’s state territorial waters outside sanctuary areas, experiments found that nurse sharks would eat speared lion fish if they were shown how and given the opportunity. It is only through successful predation and vigilant harvesting of these invasive species that their population can be controlled to reverse a severe crisis in the keys.

 “The keys are back. We are open for business. Tell everyone,” Hadriam Vega proclaimed. Great diving, astounding food and fine accommodations await discovery. The Florida Keys still require restoration and repair where extensive damage from Hurricane Irma made a direct hit in places. Work is proceeding at a fast pace and complete restoration will be completed soon. Right now reefs beckon. Dive operations are in full swing. Reefs offer world class diving in magnificent surroundings. Once you visit and dive the Florida Keys it is quite likely you’ll imitate Edward G. Robinson as Rocco in the film Key Largo and want more.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: To obtain information, maps and brochures contact Key Largo Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-822-1088 www.keylargochamber.org and www.visitflorida.com. Marriott Key Largo Bay Beach Resort 305-453-0000, MM 104 at 103800 Overseas Highway, Key Largo, FL 33037 www.marriottkeylargo.com. Ocean Divers 305-451-1113 at 522 Caribbean Drive, Key Largo, FL 33037 www.oceandivers.com. Sundowners Restaurant MM 104, 305-451-4502, www.sundownersrestaurant.com. Fish House Restaurant MM 102.4, 305-451-4665 www.fishhouse.com. Key Dives 305-504-4600 www.keydives.com. Twisted Shrimp 305-453-6377, www.twistedshrimp.com. For an amazing educational experience visit the History of Diving Museum MM 83, 305-664-9737, www.divingmuseum.org.