FL - Florida Keys - 2004/03/08 - Looe Key - 20.5 miles

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Kayak day trip to Looe Key for snorkeling. A calm day after days of windy conditions allows us to paddle 5 miles offshore to snorkel on the reef. Cloudy water conditions make for less than wonderful time on the reef, but the paddle out and back was good.

Looe Key is not a key. At one time it may have been but now a sandy bottom only gets within a few feet of the surface. However, it is a protected section of the Florida Keys reef system. With numerous anchoring buoys scattered among the reef spines, the area provides good snorkeling opportunities among elkhorn corral, gorgonians, and typical reef fish such as yellow grunt, parrot fish and surgeon fish.

Located 5 miles offshore of Big Pine Key, we needed a calm day to cross the open water to the exposed location on the edge of the deep channel between the Keys and Cuba. South of the reef, the bottom plunges to 700 feet. It is the channel of the Florida Current as the North Atlantic gyre circulates out of the Gulf of Mexico. Flowing north from here, it forms the Gulf Stream, pushing its warm waters along the southern half of the United States seaboard and on to England and Scandinavia. Dissipated in the broad North Atlantic, its waters drift south and then east under the stress of the winds to reform the northbound current once more.

So far on our trip, the winds had been strong, frequently exceeding 20 knots. Last night however the winds had diminished under 5 knots and the prediction for today was 5 to 10 knots. The sea had laid down overnight. It looked as if today would be our opportunity to get out to the reef.

We were staying at Bahia Honda State park on Bahia Honda key, just east of Big Pine key. If we left from there, our round trip distance would be 25 miles. That would be a bit too much if we wanted to snorkel for an hour or two at the key. So we looked for a launch point closer to Looe Key. From any point we would be looking at a 15 mile round trip, but we settled on leaving from the end of the road at Coupon Bight on Big Pine Key. That would give us about an 18 to 19 mile round trip day.

There was a big turn-around at the end of the road that gave us plenty of room to park off the side of the road. A dirt two track wandered off into the mangroves for another 100 yards or so. At the end of the clearing, we found access to the water through a pile of rotting turtle grass. The water was shallow here even at high tide. We carefully picked our way through the shore debris and began our paddle to the south south west to Looe Key.

Just offshore there were several people enjoying a snorkel from a rental boat over a patch reef of about 5 to 6 feet deep. We avoided their area marked by dive flags out of courtesy. Our boats were no threat to them had we actually run over them.

The wind was light as predicted and we had a slightly favorable current as we pointed our bows to the open ocean. The water was a bright turquoise under the scattered clouds. The windy conditions of the previous week had roiled the white sand of the shallow waters to create the brilliant color in the water, but it would reduce our visibility underwater when we went in snorkeling unless the currents brought the clear water from the deep ocean onto the reef. We would have to take our chances.

On the 9 mile paddle out to the key, I amused myself by picking up hunks of Sargasso weed, shaking them over my skirt covering the cockpit. Various types of small fish, shrimp and crabs would fall onto the rubber skirt, flopping about in a panic. I got lucky on the very first clump with one of the cleverly camouflaged Sargasso fish falling out. The fish is exactly the color and pattern of the weed itself with fleshy spikes all over its body imitating the leaves and bulbs of its floating home. I returned the weed and its occupants to the water before the air and warm sun could do them any damage.

We saw brief glimpses of sea turtles as they surfaced for a breath in the gentle roll of the small 1 foot waves. Flying fish took off in front of our kayaks and sped across the top of the water, their tail providing the propulsion while their wings provided the lift. One confused tiny fish landed against my chest. I returned him to the water after recording the beautiful purple blue color of this unusual fish.

In under three hours we reached the legally protected area of Looe Key. The key was fairly easy to find, even without the GPS location. Many tourist boats come out from both the park and marinas on Big Pine and moor at the reef, disgorging 30 to 40 snorkelers each. Several such boats were here today. There were also 15 to 20 private small boats with several people each moored to the buoys. The small armada located at the key makes it hard to miss. There is also a large day beacon on the east side of the park marking the reef. It provided a resting spot for the cormorants and frigate birds working the reef and shallow water. This area is the northern most range of the large soaring frigate birds.

I pulled up to buoy number 7 and tied my bow painter to the large float at the one inch ring. The others tied on to me so we would only occupy one mooring. The little kayaks looked ridiculous attached to such a massive mooring. I pulled out my paddle float, blew it up and slipped it onto my paddle. While I had practiced getting back in my kayak with it many times, I had never tried to exit my kayak using it. Of course I could have just rolled out, but then I would have had to deal with all the water that would be in the boat. I though that if I just did a paddle float self rescue in reverse, I should be able to get in the water without upsetting the kayak.

It worked. I turned in my kayak, placed my weight on the paddle float and extracted one leg from the cockpit onto the paddle shaft. Slipping the other leg out of the cockpit, I went gently into the water. The water was pleasant at about 75 degrees Fahrenheit. It as quite cloudy however and there was a current of about 0.5 knots flowing west along the reef.

The coral reef was aligned from the shallow water out toward the deep water, roughly North South. The tops were about 3 to 5 feet deep with 15 to 20 feet of water in between the ridges. There were sea fans and some elkhorn corral and a few fish about. Most of the reef was covered with small brain corral. The water appeared much more murky when one was in it. I worried that the pictures I was taking would not come out well. I could not see the images in the LCD screen because of the light and could rarely see the composition of the subject. The fish were used to having people around but even so were not willing to get very close. Considering the conditions, I though the photographic results were quite good.

Turquise world

The paddle back was uneventful. The wind was calm, but there were a few tall thunderclouds massing over the warm Florida Current that swept inland at various intervals. We could see some rain and virga falling beneath them. They never reached us and we paddled back under partly cloudy skies.

By the time we returned to our launch site, it was low tide. The water line, which was right at the beach when we launched, was now several hundred yards from shore. The soft bottom was covered with corrals, fans, small conch and turtle grass. We decided that one of us, me, would walk over and get the cars while the others paddled to the east end of the island where there is a private launch ramp. I got through the muck which was a serious struggle, while the others towed my kayak. I got to the car and trailer, checked with the owners for permission to use their ramp, which they graciously permitted and then waited 45 minutes for the others to get there. The extra mileage made the days paddling a 23 mile day. Everyone was very tired by the end. We returned to Bahia Honda, thankful for the hot showers. Then it was off to a restaurant for a great fish dinner topped off with, of ocurse, Key Lime pie.

Arrival at Bahia Honda and circumnavigation

Day trip to Snipe Key

Rest day playing tourist on Islamorada and Bahia Honda Keys

Day trip to Content Keys

Day trip to Looe Key

1/2 Day trip at Bahia Honda

Day trip to Johnston Key

Day trip to Coupon Bight




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