Many of you on FB know that this week marked a milestone birthday for me. I don’t necessarily handle any birthdays well, and I am self-aware enough to know this, and the Circle of 5 knows this, and so while they tried to figure out how to help me not crawl into my shell and hide (on the last milestone birthday, I hid for two speaks and spoke to no one but Murph, who was 23 months old), I tried to figure out how to die to prevent the inevitable day. I mean, I guess packing up and moving to Key West and figuring out the whole rooster conundrum wasn’t enough of a midlife crisis. Murph, who had been Coral Camp at Reef Relief to learn about Key West snorkeling and reefs and aquaculture a bunch of times, suggested we go with Sebago (he’s been out on all of the big boats down like Sebago, Fury, and Sunset), and given that they discount prices in August/September for everyone, and then they combine it with their local discount? And because I didn’t plan to return and was going to die, I decided to wear a two piece bathing suit for good measure.
There are a lot of companies that run water “adventures” on the island. Some are big corporate entities like Fury, and some are really small with just a couple of boats. Sebago is that right mix of a decent sized fleet of boats while still a locally-based, family-owned company. That’s one of the things you find down here; people who live here try to support others with businesses here. It’s tight. Given the choice, we really do try to buy local and support our fellow islanders. The only downside to going with them is their damn-near perfect safety record that significantly lessened the stated goal of dying before my birthday. Add to that they were just given another Certificate of Excellence by TripAdvisor? But you can’t have everything.
If you’ve never been out on a boat to snorkel or dive or do stuff like this, let me offer you some advice. First, don’t’ take time with your hair and makeup. It’s a windy, salty mess once the boat gets moving, and after you’re in the water? Fuggedaboutit. Think you’re not getting your hair wet? You’ve never been in the open ocean. Wear your swimsuit, bring a cover up or a towel (if you care to), and throw sunglasses and a high SPF sunscreen in a bag. Being out on the water is no joke, and even 30 minutes out there on a sunny day can leave you blistered and sore even if you’re already tanned (Who me? Burned? Even though I’m tanned? And wearing a 30 SPF?). If you have your own equipment, you can bring it along, and if you don’t, they’ll provide it. Wear flip flops or Crocs. They’re going to make you take your shoes off as soon as you’re aboard and said shoes will get wet with sea water. Buy a pair of dive socks; you can wear them in the water with your fins and on the boat, and you’ll need them if you’re planning to swim on any of the beaches because getting into the water is a trek across rocks and shells that will not be pretty without footwear.
Murph and I have these. I have the ones with pink hearts, and he has the camo. We’ve worn them everywhere from diving to beaches to kayaking, and they are sturdy, washable, breathable and comfortable. They are super-great (click on the photo to check them out).
I have friends who are insane and say things like “we’ll just rent a boat for the day and all go out and that way we can spend as much time as we want.” And I roll my eyes so far into the back of my head I can see my margarita-soaked cerebellum and say, “NOOOOO!” Why? Oh, so many reasons.
- If you don’t understand navigating around here, you’re going to hit shallow water and end up with a rocky, embarrassing sandbar adventure, a damaged boat you will have to pay to repair or, worst case, a Coast Guard Rescue no one wants to hear about but could make the national news.
- Unless you have built up the serious stamina for open ocean swimming (not defined as staying in the water all day in front of lifeguards riding a boogie board on the beach), let me explain that it is exhausting. Even in relatively shallow water near the reefs. It will wipe out the most fit of people who do not engage in open ocean swims.
- We take the coral and aquaculture on the reefs seriously here. You cannot drop an anchor into it and expect people to leave you alone. It’s precious, it’s dying, and you’ve got no business helping that process. Think the locals are friendly and all drunk? Fuck with our fish or coral. And honestly, you can kill a kid here and write a book, but you had better not mess with our fish out of season or without a license because FWC will throw your butt into jail.
- Those people on the adventure boats? Every single one of them can and will dive in and pull your ass out of trouble if you get trapped in a cross-current, stung by something stingy, do something stupid or are just too tired to make one more stroke. Also, if they see some form of dangerous sea life in the vicinity or hear on a radio that there is something you don’t want to meet in the wild like a big shark? They’re warning you and directing you. Yeah, there’s an actual lifeguard on board (and not the kind at the pool who never gets wet), along with a captain and a mate, at the very least, and they seem chill and cool and fun (and are), but while you are in the water, they are watching and counting and counting and watching, and they will dive in.
- You need to be careful about alcohol consumption and activity in the water. On a rental, you can drink way too much and make some bad, bad decisions. Drunk diving and drunk driving a boat are really bad ideas, and open container laws are not generally enforced here. You don’t want to be having a couple beers and jumping back in and having a few more and jumping back in and so on. At some point, you’re going to be in trouble, either in the water or coming back to the dock. Sunstroke and dehydration are issues, too. Don’t be stupid.
Rule out “rent a boat and do what we want” unless you have a most excellent reason not to.
In essence, you have to find the right package that works for you. Sebago had the right stuff for the trip we wanted, and we’re planning to go back and do some other things soon like the this. Sunday morning we chose to go snorkeling on the Marquesa, which is a big catamaran. Yes, it leaves early, but you also don’t get the worst of the sun or the worst of the weekend boat traffic and most people here are not drunk by 8:30AM. We’re lucky; we live here.
We wanted to go the weekend before, but it had been windy on Thursday and Friday, and we know that means that the sand is stirred up. The boats will still go out, but they won’t take you to the best places to dive. We have a lot of reefs here, and some are better than others. In clear water you can see some amazing things; if the water is cloudy because the sand is stirred up, you will still see fish, but not on the coolest reefs. All of the tour operators know this stuff; they talk to each other; they make decisions about where they’re going.
*Travel tip: If you are coming here and planning to dive or snorkel, call the day before you leave and ask about the water conditions and which days are going to be best. They will tell you what the weather has been doing and what day is best. Pay attention and make plans accordingly. There is nothing less fun than going out and searching desperately for a glimpse of something through a sandy fog. It is totally worth the phone call!!!!!
Once you’re aboard, the captain will explain some safety procedures and you’ll be off. Murph had already been out a few times and made fast friends with Captain John, who was a lot of fun. He showed him how to steer the boat and let him drive for a while, which made Murph want to add to his list of skills that already includes EMT and Lifeguard, Boat Captain and Navigator.
I may set him up with a LinkedIn profile. You can all recommend him for stuff. Captain John tried to convince me that I could and should buy a sailboat for us to live aboard, but he doesn’t know me as well as I do, and I’m pretty sure I could sink the thing in almost no time while we were moored. Though, taking the kiddo to school and me to work in a skiff does have some appeal. I always have a soft spot for people who are good to my kid, and they were really good with all three kids on this boat.
They got us outfitted (Murph and I had our own gear) and explained the safety rules. Now, it was a peaceful, totally clear, sunny day. There wasn’t even enough wind to put up the sails on the catamaran. And yet, when we jumped off the side of the boat (remember the goal here: avoid the birthday, try to die), you could immediately feel the current and the rolling waves.
This is why I am telling you to go out with Sebago since I can guarantee you that they know what they’re doing. Also, I was sure as hell glad that they were watching us, and I felt even better when the lifeguard dove in to swim “with” us and show us stuff. The whole time we were in the water, they were all counting heads (there were 14 of us) and pointing out things to see.
”I’ve only got 13. Who’s got 14? Who’s got 14?”
“I’ve got 14.” “I’ve got 14.”
“Look down right now. There’s a school of fish below.”
“There’s a sea turtle right in front of you!”
I hate diving fins, so it was harder swimming against the current, and I swim every goddamned day in pools or at the beach. So does Murph. We are good swimmers. But nothing prepares for you open ocean swimming but open ocean swimming. It can be exhausting. Even if there are not breakers, there are currents pushing rolling waves and the salt makes the water heavier and harder to move. Boat wakes can send you back from whence you came. With your face in the water seeing the amazing fish and coral and plants, you can look up and find that you’ve drifted pretty far and are facing a long swim back to your boat.
That’s the actual color of the water – no filters – and if you look closely, you can see what Murph’s looking at right below him. It’s that amazing.
We had a blast. I got to swim with a baby sea turtle who came so close to me that we almost bumped noses. That baby was pretty damned big, too. I’ve seen bigger ones, but they usually aren’t so curious about humans in their environment and don’t get close. I saw amazing fish that you’d only see in aquariums. Big ones. Tropical ones. The brightest blues and yellows and oranges! We saw a barracuda but stayed back. Dolphins were breaching in the distance. And ocean hermits crabs were peeking out from beneath the sponges on the bottom. No sharks, which disappointed the kiddo and increased the likelihood that I was going to survive for the birthday.
At a point, I’d had it. I was exhausted. Swimming against the current to stay over the reef where the fish live takes a toll. Swimming in heavily salty water, which we have down here, saps your strength. We had about 70 minutes of time in the water. I probably spent about 50 or 55? Murph was back by 60. And you know what? By the time they needed to go, only one person was left in the water and had to be called back. Everyone else had come back on his or her own.
*Travel tip: I know you want to come down and do all the things, and they have combined tours that will take you snorkeling and kayaking and jet-skiing and parasailing all in one day. They’re a lot of fun. But trust me when I say that the water here really sucks energy from you, even when you are used to it. The sun on that water is hot, bright and also sucks the energy from you. These activities require strength, stamina, and attention (read: you cannot be drinking lots of alcohol and do them – the captain will flag you). Plan accordingly and maybe break them into two half days, especially if this is a family trip.
And again, they counted and re-counted and visually checked everyone to make sure no one had been injured or stung by a jellyfish or was otherwise in distress.
On the way back, they serve beer and wine and soda and water, and you can buy mixed drinks, and it was more relaxed. The sun and sea will do that to you. Everyone thinks that the vibe in Key West is so chill and laid back because we’re all drunk 75% of the time. Not so much. We’re all out on the water all the time, and it’s hard to feel stress when you’re looking at that and breathing clean salt air and splashing in the ocean. They continued to point out the sights, talked about Sunset Key and the restaurant there, and explained how to tell one cruise ship from another.
All in all, it was great for both me and 10.92. No one died, which was great for their safety record but brought me one step closer to the hellish and dreaded birthday. Not dead and four hours closer to the birthday of doom.
So we decided to go parasailing.
It might have been the beer. Yeah, too much Landshark and the impending birthday. Not a good combo.
Again, we went with Sebago because the first experience was so great. Also, I liked Sebago because they have huge, colorful parachutes, and I thought they were much prettier than the boring white ones the other boats had. Did I mention the beer? Plus, great safety record and prices during these dog days when tourism is light and locals can actually afford to enjoy some of the fun stuff this place has to offer. That was a smaller boat and a two man crew.
We boarded on time, and left our shoes on the doc. Note: this is not the time to wear your super-cute expensive sandals. Throw on some flip flops or Crocs because you’re leaving them there and coming back wet.
This is fast and fun. They gave us life jackets and harnesses and as soon as we were all strapped in, the boat headed out away from the docks. Everything was fine until we were sitting on the back of the boat attached to the parachute and Murph changed his mind. I mean, lost his mind. I could insert the video of him screaming at me here, but I won’t.
He demanded to be let out immediately. Shrieking and sobbing followed. Clearly, he thought that I was trying to kill him and not me and rather than get into that whole debate with a child on the edge of a full blown panic attack, I told the captain to take us up. He explained quietly that if I wanted us to come down, all I needed to do was to cross my legs, and then we were flying. Murph screamed as we started to rise. And then he screamed some more. Some seagulls looked over at him and flew away in fear. I told him to open his eyes. He refused. He told me to make them take us down. I said nope, not until he opened his eyes.
And he did. And we were like 200 feet in the air, flying. Once he realized we weren’t falling, and even if we did, we’d splash into deep water and were wearing life jackets, he relaxed. And then he started to really enjoy himself. Things in Key West aren’t built tall for lots of reasons, and the view was spectacular. The first dip into the water caught us by surprise, and Murph got a little panicky. The second was fun. As soon as we were down, he wanted to do it again. The rest is history. And again, I found no success but much joy in my attempts to die. Plus we got lots of great photos taken by one of the crew with a great camera and the other family with mine.
Murph is feeling badass about the whole thing and wants to do it again. Like now. I’m feeling pretty badass myself.
By the time we got home, my shoulders and legs were aching from all of the heavy water swimming, and before we go out again, I’m gonna spend some time in the pool with the swim coach here figuring out the fucking fins. I dunno why other people have zero problems, but they make me feel like I’m drowning. I have to get that right if we’re going to continue to do this fun stuff.
Sunday was a pretty awesome day here as they go. We rarely venture out to do the touristy kind of stuff, but the discounts for locals make it pretty affordable fun, especially at this time of year. We’re learning, too, that we need to tell folks we live here because prices change dramatically. And we’re starting to be recognized out and about as well. Also nice.
I’d highly recommend Sebago, and so would a lot of other locals who do things like this. They’ve got a solid reputation. Their crew is fun, sober, and on top of everything. It’s a hard balance to deal mostly with tourists who want to be wild and like to drink and help them do things that aren’t inherently dangerous but can turn that way fast. They found the place where they were entertaining and funny and made sure we all had a great time but were still making sure we all returned in one piece and not on one of the medevac planes.
Then there was the skydiving up in Sugarloaf, which also didn’t kill me (more on that later). And now I’m 50. But I’m rocking it. I think. Maybe. Some days? Kind of?
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If you’d like, and if you can, and oh please, especially this week, you can make a donation (literally every penny counts right now and is appreciated – this paradise is insanely expensive) to The Kraken Continuation Fund to help us keep The Kraken going!