Snorkeling in the Keys and the Lessons Learned

Written by Lindsey Underwood


Captain Jack

As we stepped onto Captain Jack’s large pontoon boat to take us out to Looe Key, we should have paid more attention to the other passengers. However, we were all still in our mid-fifties (in our heads), so it made no impression that everyone on board except the captain was at least twenty years younger than we.

The captain, a soft-spoken, grey-haired gentleman, and his assistant Nick, a 22-year-old Johnny Depp look-alike, were friendly and excited that the ocean was much calmer today than it had been the previous few days. Also on board were three chatty oceanographers in their late 20s, two PhDs, and the other an ornithologist working on her Ph.D. in biological oceanography.


Most of the other twenty passengers were 25- to 40-year-old experienced snorkelers and divers worldwide. One lady wearing a wetsuit looked to be in her fifties and talked about her previous diving experiences. We assured them that we all had a snorkeling experience (a response that will amuse us forever). Nick was thrilled to hear we were from Amelia Island (“Oh wow, man, that’s so dope!”); however, he’s never been here, but he’s heard it’s excellent.

Snorkeling Site

Looe Key is a coral reef within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It lies about 5.5 miles south of Ramrod Key. This reef is within a Sanctuary Preservation Area and is populated with a vast array of marine life—grouper, sharks, grunts, parrots, barracuda, and rays. The reef has been federally protected since 1981 and is a popular snorkeling and diving destination. The trip out was a bit bumpy, but the day was beautiful, and Nick was entertaining. I don’t know what I was expecting when we arrived at our first location—obviously, there’s no dock five miles out there, just some big orange and white balls floating around that Nick hooked us up on.


Everyone except me seemed ready to jump into the Caribbean blue oblivion. Still, there were instructions about how to wear our emergency flotation devices and how to yell or signal if we needed help. While everyone else was jumping off a perfectly safe boat, I struggled with my new swim fins and my (adjective deleted) new mask, reminding myself that I had to breathe through my mouth. (I thought I probably should have tried on this adjective-deleted gear earlier, but why would anyone with two hours of snorkeling experience ten years ago need practice?)


Lindsey watches the horizon and sees no end to the misery.

Then, a 50-something diver suddenly came to the surface almost immediately after she had jumped into the water and screamed, “Help me! Help me!” Nick, our Johnny Depp look-alike, stripped off his shirt and dived in to save her. He truly is good at his job, a good thing to know since I thought I’d probably be next.


The other three members of our party were already in the not-so-calm (but calmer than the day before, remember?) ocean. I saw them all looking up as I prepared to jump off the boat, thinking, “I don’t have on a life jacket, or floaties, or even a noodle. I will now sink to the bottom and die.” Thankfully, I looked at Bruce bobbing beneath me, ready for the inevitable rescue, because he gave me a cut-throat signal and yelled, “Don’t jump.” As the boat rolled and bobbed on the “calmer-than-yesterday” water, I careened to the starboard side so that I wouldn’t hurl forth on the heads of my husband and friends. I kept my head on the rail for a minute or two, and when I looked up, Bruce was back on board.


“Too rough,” he explained. I thought he was trying to spare me the humiliation I was experiencing when behind him came Jim and, within a minute, Lee Ann.


Lee Ann watches the horizon as Nick watches over her.

“Way too rough!” was the common thread in their conversation while Lee Ann joined me, hanging over the rail. The waves were swamping the snorkels, and Jim had an entire head full of salt water which poured out of his nose the rest of the day at several intervals, creating a walking Caribbean Neti pot. The ocean was determined to beat up the older adults.


The tour moved on to another reef, and with our eyes on the horizon from the rail, we heard many passengers describe the wonderful ocean life they had observed. (Bruce and Jim were equipped with underwater cameras, which they will happily sell cheaply if you’re planning to dive or snorkel in the future. And I’ll throw in swim fins and a mask and snorkel—never used.)


Remember how many years it took Gilligan and friends to be rescued from their three-hour tour? The series lasted three years. That’s almost as long as we bobbed up and down on this 3-hour non-snorkel snorkeling trip. While Lee Ann and I stared at the horizon and listened to the crew discuss their lunches in excruciating detail, Nick gave us ginger ale, and the oceanographers advised us to take Dramamine the night BEFORE rather than the morning of a boat trip. (Note to self: Stay on dry land.)


As soon as the engine stopped and our feet hit solid ground, we were miraculously healed. We would survive; we would continue our adventures; we would even eat lunch. And in the following days, most of us would do some snorkeling.