Captain Matthew “Matt” Bellinger grew up in Sandy Springs, Georgia, studied marine science at the University of Tampa, traveled as a divemaster after college and clearly remembers the “aha!” moment that prompted his move to the Florida Keys.
“It was during a dive trip visit to the original Mrs. Mac’s over conch fritters, fresh mahi-mahi and iced tea with lime,” Matt recalled. “I said, ‘I’m going to come to the Keys to live.’”
At age 27, Matt bought Ocean Quest Dive Center in Islamorada. He operated it until 1998, when he sold it to staff.
Today his company Bamboo Charters is known for family fishing charters out of World Wide Sportsman in Islamorada. The company specializes in family trips and fun day adventures as well as backcountry, tarpon and shark fishing excursions — and one targeting redfish, snook and trout.
Matt, who describes himself as “240 pounds of mama’s boy,” grew up in an outdoors-loving family of “water people” with four siblings at least 20 years older. He earned his dive certification in high school as a birthday gift from his parents.
He named Bamboo Charters as an “ode to his mother” after the bamboo forests of his home state. In the Keys, though, Matt is known for conducting onboard education about preservation and conservation of Florida Bay, its “sea grass prairies” and the delicate ecosystems of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
His fleet of three 25-foot Contender Bay Boats and a Parker 25 Center Console can comfortably accommodate families of two adults and four children.
The deep-voiced Matt is also known for his daily radio fishing reports on Sun103.1 and Thunder Country 100.3, two Keys FM stations.
He and wife Ana, an American Airlines flight attendant, live in Islamorada.
Keys Voices: When did you first come to the Florida Keys and why?
Matt Bellinger: I first came to the Keys Thanksgiving weekend 1981. I came to complete my dive certification as an open water diver.
KV: What aspects of the Keys environment or way of life matter most to you?
MB: The wild side of the Florida Keys. The hardwood hammocks, down to mangrove shorelines then continuing out to the reefs, along with the wildlife that inhabit this area because they’re all reliant on each other.
KV: Who or what inspired you to become passionate about respecting and protecting the Keys’ natural world?
MB: My parents and two high school science teachers fueled my wonder of the outside world. My father always stressed “Harvest only what you will eat that day and minimize any negative impact on the environment around you.”
KV: How does that passion influence your work or profession?
MB: My love and passion for the marine environment motivate me to educate my clients and imbue them, hopefully, with the same desire to protect this environment.
KV: What are some of the ways, personally or through your work, that you connect with and/or help protect the local environment and unique lifestyle?
MB: I take the approach on my boat that part of my job is to educate, inform and inspire my clients to learn and care more about this unique marine environment here in the Keys — as well as hopefully letting others know what a unique and fragile place this really is.
KV: What keeps you energized, challenged and focused on your path?
MB: Over the years, I’ve come to know individual dolphins and manatees. When I see “Croptop the Dolphin” or “Big Momma the Manatee,” it reinforces the need I feel to motivate people to become involved with and to care for this environment.
KV: What message do you want your actions and example to communicate to people you encounter?
MB: That people should try to minimize their negative impact on the environment around them.
KV: What’s your favorite natural or eco-friendly activity in the Keys?
MB: Snorkeling a mangrove shoreline or reef. On land I like to walk the trails at local state parks in Monroe County.
KV: What do you hope your positive environmental actions will accomplish?
MB: At the end of the day, I hope to motivate my clients to be inspired to learn more and care more about the environment here in the Keys and back home. Clients are seeking experiences together; more and more are also seeking education. We all have stewardship within us.