Fire Cloud...
An irregular marking on the exterior of Native American pottery: usually resulting from burning fuel coming in direct contact with the vessel during firing

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Three Ways to Vomit Underwater

Pigeon Key, Florida

Mrs. Phred was sleeping on the couch when I woke up at 6 AM today. As I make coffee, she moves back to the bedroom. Yesterday the strap on one of my 25 year old black fins broke while snorkeling, so I replaced both straps. I throw the dive bag and weight belt in the Toyota and start hitting the dive shops at 8 AM. The story is the same everywhere. “It’s too rough to go out”.

The wind is 20 knots and the seas are seven to ten feet. I listen to one operator explain to another customer that he wants him to have a good experience. There is no experience as wonderfully memorable as grabbing a dive ladder that’s plunging up and down twelve feet and going up like a rocket on the up tick.

Besides, conditions like that induces nausea in 90% of the other divers and always gives me a chance to help them out by explaining the three known methods of vomiting underwater, two of which may lead to death. (Note 1) You can always tell when someone loses it in tropical waters because clouds of yellowtails start biting their cheeks.

After the fourth turndown, I regroup and ask Mrs. Phred to walk with me two miles out on the old “seven mile” bridge to Pigeon Key. On the walk we take pictures and see a woman pushing a baby carriage ahead of us. She turns around and we try to keep straight faces as we see a little dog in the carriage. I snap a photo surreptitiously.

Along the way we see hundreds of large black stingrays bottom-feeding, a large nurse shark and a sea turtle. Stingrays have furry skins that feels like very plush velvet. Nurse sharks are very docile and only bite if you find them sleeping and pull their tails.

A number of years back I was diving in the gulf about 60 feet down with my 16 year old son on a limestone ledge when we came upon a truly strange object. My mind instantly said “alien cocoon”. Then the object resolved into a 300 pound sleeping turtle. I grabbed his shell and he towed me out of the sight of my son very quickly. This is considered illegal harassment of turtles.

Pigeon Key is two miles south of Marathon Key. Henry Flagler ran his overseas railroad across the seven miles separating Marathon and the next key and used the small Pigeon Key in the middle of the gap to house up to 400 construction personnel. The existing structures on Pigeon Key were built around 1909. Pigeon Key was the Southern terminus for the rescue operations after the 1935 Labor Day hurricane. There are over 5,000 huge concrete pilings spanning the gap. Even the water to mix concrete had to be run down in wooden casks on railroad flatcars.

The seven mile railroad bridge reopened as a two-lane toll road in 1938. Tolls were discontinued in 1952 and the old “seven mile” bridge stopped carrying traffic in 1982 when the new bridge opened.

Note 1:
1. Throw up through your regulator. The downside of this is that big chunks may clog the regulator, making it unusable. Most divers now have a spare regulator, so this is not necessarily fatal.
2. Remove the regulator and throw up. This method is likely to lead to aspiration of water and death.
3. Remove the regulator and hit the purge button to create an air bubble in which to vomit. This is considered the best form.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

The Feral Chicken Controversy

Big Pine Key, Florida

This morning a key deer wandered past the RV. They are an endangered species, about the size of a large dog. This one was a six-point buck.

The RV park has the old time Keys ambiance I was hoping for… old trailers with strings of lobster trap floats and plastic palms as yard decorations

We went into Key West last night. You can count on seeing some odd things and people in Key West. We saw a lady pushing a white poodle in a baby carriage. Another in an electric car filled with stuffed flamingos. A drunken man with a missing front tooth invited us to go upstairs to see nude women. The sunset celebration on the pier had the traditional fire and glass eaters. Last night they were set up by the pier for a giant celebration of the Billfish Tournament.

Key West is known for its tolerance and its love and hate of feral chickens. They roam unhindered though the restaurants. We had some surprisingly bad margaritas and very good coconut shrimp. There were two roosters, several hens and half-dozen fluffy chicks eating scraps off the floor.

The reefs are not what they were in the 1960s when I began diving. They are suffering from a bleaching effect. I think it is caused by pollutants and rising water temperature. Add to that several decades of diving pressure from dive boat anchors and millions of divers trampling the delicate coral and the results are sad. Of course, if you were seeing these reefs for the first time, you might think that they were very lovely. I have a three tank dive on Looe Key lined up for the morning, perhaps a shipwreck…

Here are some chicken pictures.

Friday, 20 April 2007

Camp Flamingo

The Everglades – Florida

We are camped in a grassy campground on the Gulf of Mexico. The lights of the Keys are visible to the south. It is a 50 mile drive from the town of Homestead though the park to reach this remote campsite. Only about 10% of the campsites are occupied.

Here are a few pictures of salt water crocodiles and other things.

By August the campsites will be free as the unbelievable clouds of mosquitoes take over the park. I’ve come here more than once with my son in August. Once we awoke to a strange scrabbling sound. We found our tent completely engulfed by three-inch “palmetto bugs”. We call them palmetto bugs so as not to horrify tourists who may not be ready for the idea of flying roaches that large.

The park was hard hit by a double tap from Wilma and Katrina in 2005. The motel-like lodges are windowless and vacant. The restaurant and lounge is still closed. This year the marina and campgrounds reopened. The high point in the park is only three feet, so the 10 foot storm surge from Wilma was very damaging to the park structures here on the coast.

The snowstorms to the north linger late this year. My cousin, Danny, in upstate New York got thirteen inches of snow this week. The temperature here at the tip of Florida averages a high of 80 F in January and 90 F in August.

The Calusa Indians once occupied this area. They were tall people. Two female skeletons were measured at 6’3”. A male skeleton went 6’10’. The unusual height might have been caused by genetic drift or by a rich diet of shellfish. The Spanish exterminated the Calusa by 1750. The Seminoles from North Carolina drifted in to fill the void. The Seminoles never signed a peace treaty. Now they operate airboat rides along Tamiami Trail, big Casinos in the cities and sell tax free cigarettes. Anna Nicole Smith died recently in a Seminole Casino of undisclosed causes.

The area was first used in modern times by feather hunters, train robbers and rum runners.

We take a boat tour ten miles back into Coot Bay and Whitewater bay in the afternoon. I’ve been there in a canoe several times over the years. The bays have salt water crocodiles, alligators, manatees, dolphins, bull sharks and black tip sharks. We see a couple of large crocs. They are still endangered but their numbers are up to about 2,000 after falling to 200 in 1970. The manatee population is low but stable at around 3,000. A couple of bad years with low water temperatures, disease or red tide could kill them all off. They won’t breed in captivity.

At nightfall Mrs. Phred and I take a hike around a large pond a mile or so from the campground. As dark falls, white morning glories begin to bloom around the pond. Venus, red giant Aldebaran and the crescent moon are up in a strange triangle in the early evening. The light from Aldebaran is 65.1 light years distant. The light we see is vintage March, 1942. The fires we see were burning when McArthur bugged out on a PT boat from Corregidor after saying the famous words, “I’ll be back”.

At 2 AM the stars are bright and clear. The nearest city is Key West about 70 miles southwest across the Gulf. The lights of Marathon Key are visible from the campground. Tomorrow we will go look up our old friend Jimmy Buffet in Margaritaville.