- To the Keys
- Highway 1
- Big Pine Key
- Key West 1
- Key West 2
- Coral Castle
- Lake Okeechobee
- Vero Beach
Florida: Big Pine Key
Across the 7-mile bridge onto Big Pine Key, the speed limit is reduced and the roadside is lined with 8' fencing. This is an attempt to protect the herd of tiny Key Deer, the smallest sub-species of the Virginia white-tailed deer. An adult Key Deer is said to be about the size of a Great Dane. We didn't see any, but we went to the Key Deer Wildlife Refuge office just off the road at Mile Marker 30.5, got a map of the more accessible parts of the 2,500-acre Refuge, looked at the displays and visited the sites we could in a short afternoon.
There are two short hikes toward the east side of the Key which take you into Rimrock Pine and Pine/Hardwood Hammock areas, away from even a view of civilization (well, except for the paths and explanatory signs). A Hammock is a limestone (rimrock) area slightly elevated above the surrounding marsh and the two kinds of elevations (hammocks) are similar. (More hammock information from the University of Florida.) But very small differences in elevation and availability of fresh water make a big difference in the vegetation. The shorter of the hikes is wheelchair accessible, less than a quarter mile and ends at a platform overlooking a fresh-water marsh. There we saw deer tracks, but no deer.
We read conflicting accounts of the origin of flora and fauna in this area, which of course had none of its own when the sea level dropped several thousand years ago. But in general, most plants are thought to have drifted in from the Caribbean or been carried there by birds; most animals are thought to have come down from the mainland. Key deer in particular, are said to have evolved into such a small form to adapt to the harsher conditions of the Keys. Recent preservation efforts have brought the herds back from a low of about 50 up to 300. Still not enough, but getting there.
Big Pine and its sister key, No Name Key, are unique in the way the rainfall is dissolving the limestone, creating "solution holes" that hold fresh water. These solution holes also appear to be Mother Nature's attempt to keep the human population down, because if you stepped in one and broke your ankle out there, no one would care but the turkey vultures. (They're an interesting aspect of Florida, though. The University of Florida has some interesting information about Florida sink holes in general, beginning with the sentence "Florida has more sinkholes than any other state in the nation.")
We saw quite a few of both solution holes and vultures on the longer of the two hikes, a .7 mile loop through marshes and hammocks. Most of the vegetation was slash pine, thatch palm, sea grape, saw palmetto, poisonwood and various thin underbrush, very similar to rain forest edges in Belize. We also saw swallows and many unidentified canary-like birds, loads of butterflies and dragon flies and one fine box turtle (Sheila's call, after looking though our fliers, I thought it was a Gopher Tortoise). But then, after Internet research I conclude that Sheila was right. Here's our sighting. (And for inquiring minds, the difference between turtles and tortoises is basically that turtles can swim, hold their breath underwater and always live by water and tortoises live mostly in arid, sandy areas.)
I also learned that the "beards," those untidy masses of dead palm fronds that hang down from most palms have a critical niche in the ecology. I don't know what, habitat for scorpions, probably. I also learned that they make a *lot* of noise in the breeze and can make a slightly jumpy person pretty nervous out there in the middle of nature.
But we knew nothing of jumpy until we went to the last readily accessible site on that part of the Key, the Blue Hole. It wasn't very blue (not like the Blue Hole in Belize, or Crater Lake in Oregon), but it was a large hole. It's actually an old railway construction quarry with no outlet. So eventually the rain filled it in, the vegetation grew up and, as we learned when we stepped onto the viewing platform, critters moved in. There, about 4' away and just beyond the sign warning you not to put arms or feet through the all-too-flimsy wooden railing, was an 8' alligator. In the wild. Pretending like it was sleeping. But we weren't fooled. Fortunately there were several succulent teen-agers nearby, so we just backed carefully and slowly off the platform to safety, using them for cover. Oh, but Sheila, the Brave, took a picture first. Then it was back in the car and head out.
We know we missed a lot of nature -- Bahia Honda State Park, the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Lignumvitae Key State Botanical Site and the time needed to find obscure corners, but we had a great time anyway. Another place we didn't go that I was interested in was Dry Tortugas National Park. Las Tortugas (the turtles) keys were discovered and named by Ponce de Leon. They're now called "Dry" to warn all looking for refuge that there is no fresh water. They are 70 miles from Key West by ferry, the site of a never-finished mid-1800's Army fort, Fort Jefferson, and said to be very beautiful. But also, I think I wanted to go because every time I heard or saw the name, I recalled the "Torrr-tuuu-gaaa" rolling conspiratorially off Johnny Depp's (or actually Capt. Jack Sparrow's) adorable lips, describing the secret location of his ship (I think) in "Pirates of the Caribbean." Maybe next time.
Next, the civilized (?) charms of Key West, the city.