Sunday, November 19, 2017
Travel

Explore underwater treasures at Sombrero Reef off Marathon in the Florida Keys

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The Florida Keys seem like a world away, but they’re not too far away when you’re already in Miami.

After departing from a cruise, my daughters and I wanted to keep the vacation going just a little bit longer. We headed south on U.S. 1, bound for Marathon.

Why Marathon?

Sombrero Reef.

I had snorkeled the reef, at the Sombrero Key lighthouse off Marathon, more than 20 years ago, before my girls were born. I was eager to see if the experience matched my memories. ("It was like swimming in an aquarium — only in Florida," I recalled.)

After settling into our hotel room, I went to the water sports tent out back to ask the people there about snorkeling excursions the next day. They told me they didn’t offer trips, then handed me the brochure for a company that did. I called and was quoted $50 a person, which seemed high. I was told the cost was due to the long boat ride to the reef (roughly 30 minutes).

A Google search led me to Spirit Snorkeling, based out of Captain Pip’s Marina & Hideaway at Mile Marker 47.5, just a short drive from our hotel. The 9 a.m. excursion the following day would cost $29.99 apiece, which included use of a mask, snorkel, inflatable vest and fins. Sold! (Also available: a 1 p.m. trip for $35.99 and a 5 p.m. "Sunset Celebration Snorkel" for $40.99 that includes Champagne, cheese and crackers.)

The woman who took my reservation over the phone asked that we get there early. When we did, we were surprised to see several dozen people already on the boat, applying sunscreen. The boat, named Spirit, holds about 50 people, and it must have been close to full.

After everyone got their gear and the captain briefed us, we were on our way. We hung a left out of the marina, went under Seven Mile Bridge and entered open water. As we got closer and closer, Sombrero Key lighthouse grew bigger and bigger. (The lighthouse, constructed in the 1850s, is more than 140 feet tall.)

Sombrero Reef is part of the Florida Reef System, one of the largest reef systems in the world, and it’s a popular spot, as evidenced by the number of boats tethered to mooring buoys (no anchors to prevent damage to the reef) and the number of snorkelers.

Based on some of the snorkeling excursions I’ve done in Belize and elsewhere, I half expected us to all have to hold on to a rope or stay together and follow the "leader" as we were herded around the reef, jockeying for space and avoiding fins to the face. I was pleasantly surprised. We had plenty of room, and latitude to explore, and were simply cautioned not to stray too close to the lighthouse. We got nearly two hours of snorkel time.

The reef did not disappoint. It was teeming with life, much as I had remembered it, with lots of coral and colorful fish, alone and in schools, big and small. A barracuda even made a guest appearance. Intermittent cloudiness and a mask that perpetually fogged up despite defogger were the only hindrances to an otherwise delightful snorkel.

My daughters were good sports and stayed in the water with me the entire time. When we finally called it a day and approached the boat ladder, we were enveloped by a swirl of sergeant majors and other fish. It was a memorable farewell to a place that lived up to my memories — a place that’s not too far away, and well worth the trip.

Unfortunately, just weeks later, Hurricane Irma hammered the Keys. Devastation was widespread, and rebuilding has taken time, but things are starting to get back to normal. Spirit Snorkeling resumed its excursions Oct. 20. Christine Shelburn, assistant resort manager at Captain Pip’s, which owns Spirit, said there was minor coral damage at Sombrero Reef, but NOAA is involved in recovery efforts. Visibility is about 10 feet, she said, and getting better every day.

Contact Dawn Cate at dcate@tampabay.com.

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