Pie First
The Second Course is Observing Abundant Wildlife in Startling Shapes and Sizes




Marcia McGreevy Lewis


 
© Copyright 2021 by Marcia McGreevy Lewis


Photo of a manatee.

A determination to scout out the best Key lime pie in Florida morphed into a rewarding quest to observe wildlife I’d never encountered before. This unexpected experience became a double delight.
 
You know you’re in the Florida Keys when you drive from Fort Lauderdale to Key West, and the signs say: boats, boat rentals, boat lifts, boat works, boat trailers, boat storage. With an average temperature of 77 degrees, heed the signs. Find a boat, climb aboard and glide across the azure water of this alluring ecosystem.
 
Our sunshine-swathed drive features lofty palms that respond to the tropical breeze as their emerald fronds sweep the air clean. Magenta bougainvillea twines around archways and adorns trellises, and the water is as turquoise as Crater Lake is sapphire. Florida’s aqua water is crystal-clear, whether in shades of grey, green, white or almost black.
 
Goal
My traveling companion and I sniff the aromatic gardenias and admire the lavish yellow blooms of the trumpet tree, but we have a goal in traveling to the Florida Keys for ten days in February. It’s to discover the best key lime pie known to man. What diverts our quest is the discovery of abundant wildlife in startling shapes and sizes.
 
Skinks, ghostly-gray tiny lizards, attempt to disappear using their protective coloration, but we detect them gliding along pathways with their upright curly tails bobbing along behind them. Their appeal is in contrast to the behemoth iguanas that scurry around the grounds at their adopted home, the graveyard in Key West. Tarpons (fish which can reach almost 300 pounds) suck small fish that people dangle over the edge of the dock at Robbie’s in Islamorada. Mottled gray manatees the length of kayaks (though lacking a kayak’s sleek lines) visit the docks daily.
 
Reassessment
We expedite our pie sampling mission with pleasure while reassessing our goal. Key lime pie is little bit of heaven, though. Its primary ingredient is Key limes—both tart and sweet. Mix them with eggs and sweetened condensed milk, plunk all this into a crisp, buttery graham cracker crust and top it off with dense whipped cream. Scrumptious! After much luscious sampling, we crown Kermit's in Key West as the best purveyor of Key lime pie. Who else could it be when they freeze slices of their pie, put them on sticks and drench them in dark chocolate? Droves of customers stroll in and out the door, savoring each bite of this ice cream bar-like concoction. Now we can rip ourselves away from pie-sampling to give the wildlife the attention it deserves.
 
Islamorada
After lunch in sleepy Islamorada where the Crab Shack’s po’ sandwiches burst with shrimp, we head to Bud and Mary’s Marina. On the dock regal egrets, which are actually cottony-white herons, ignore onlookers as the birds search for entrails from yellowtail snapper that fishermen clean. Panting along right after the egrets are hefty grey pelicans with whopping, large feet. They have learned that there’s an easy meal at hand and don’t mind at all if they bump against our legs while foraging.
  

Sea Turtle

Egret

Skink

The shimmering silver tarpons that cluster near the dock at Robbie’s Marina can jump four feet. Their mouths suck up small fish that people dangle from the dock. It’s quite a sight to see them arch from the water and make loud popping sounds as they inhale their snacks. Up to 100 fish gather by the docks at all times of day and night.
 
I have a hard time diverting my attention from those colossal creatures, but we wander next to nearby Postcard Marina. I am enthralled by the gargantuan manatees that frolic at the marina’s dock near the Tiki Hut Bar. The manatees are right below the waterline so it is easy to see them maneuvering their submarine bodies into position to drink the fresh water that the ice machine expels.

Nature preserves
Before leaving Islamorada, we walk through the verdant trails at Green Turtle and Lime Tree nature preserves before traversing the 42 bridges that lead to Key West. Along the drive, bike trails, beach walks and citrus groves, with boxes at the ready for picking, dot the terrain. 

Key West
Key West, with 25,000 people, is the southernmost point in the United States. Five-toed cats engulf us when we visit Hemingway’s Italianate home. Years ago, Hemingway’s favorite bar, Sloppy Joe’s, moved to a new location, and Hemingway, in protest, absconded with one of its urinals. It now sits in the yard at his house, decorated with tiles, and is a watering trough for the descendants of his cats.
 
Second course
Now to the aquarium for alligators, Atlantic shore fish, jellyfishsharks and sea turtles. The touch tank there will reopen after COVID.  Then a walk through the magical environment at The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory filled with hundreds of beautiful winged creatures. The delight is when one lands on an observer. Afterwards we find a man walking his green sea turtle. Nobody lifts an eyebrow as they stroll by.
 
Roosters are underfoot as we enjoy outside dining. They’ve roamed the island since they arrived aboard ships from Cuba and the Caribbean islands. Many of these birds escaped their enclosures when cockfighting became illegal. Now they’re protected and prowl for handouts.
 
I wouldn’t normally hover at a graveyard, but the iguanas there are worth a dedicated hover. These green/gray lizards, called “guana gaitors” because of their size, change colors from morning to night. In the morning their scales are dark because the temperature is low and the body absorbs sunlight. As the temperature increases, they become paler to reflect the sun’s rays and deflect its heat. Males can reach almost 9 pounds. We saw these mesmerizing creatures lumber across gravestones, plow under them and fracture the concrete. Broken headstones have left the plots in disarray.
 
It astounded us to arrive in the Florida Keys with one objective in mind and then make a turnaround when we discovered how fascinating the animals are. The Keys are an immersion in blissful sunshine, dazzling flora, delectable cuisine, lively music and the most surprise pleasure—meandering among intriguing creatures.  

Where to find jumping tarpon - Robbie's Marina in Islamorada

Where to find manatees - Postcard Marina’s dock near the Tiki Hut Bar in Islamorada



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