John Mirabella, owner of the Castaway restaurant in Marathon, could well be called the “Lionfish King” of the Florida Keys. The affable natural storyteller is known as a pioneering lionfish hunter, recognized for spearheading efforts to remove the invasive non-native species from Keys waters — and for serving the flavorful fish in numerous ways.
We do things differently in the Florida Keys. Maybe it’s because the island chain attracts individualists — fans of the eccentric. But whatever the reason, our activities and celebrations tend to have an offbeat twist that’s pure “Keys.” And nothing illustrates it better than the way we recently commemorated Groundhog Day and Valentine’s Day.
Brian Vest, founder-president of the Conch Republic Marine Army, a nonprofit organization created to restore Florida Keys marine habitats, has taken more than 4,000 volunteers to the Keys backcountry. Nearly every Saturday, groups of up to 10 volunteers commit to a five-hour experience to clear debris washed up on remote, uninhabited islands.
Danilo Alayon is a fifth-generation “Conch” born and raised in Key West, an avid diver, self-taught artist and proud grandson of the designer of Key West’s world-renowned Southernmost Point monument. Danilo has embraced a unique form of artistry: he converts old, nicked and rusty scuba tanks into sustainable and luminously colorful works.
Captain Matthew “Matt” Bellinger grew up in Sandy Springs, Georgia, studied marine science at the University of Tampa and traveled as a divemaster after college. Today, his company, Bamboo Charters, specializes in family fishing trips — while educating, informing and inspiring clients to learn and care about the Florida Keys’ unique marine environment.
Attention, watersports enthusiasts: boating, fishing and nautical merchandise galore will be available at the 19th annual Big Pine & Lower Keys Nautical Expo, an eclectic market set for Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 14-15. But that’s far from the only attraction in the area — other must-see spots include the Blue Hole and Grimal Grove.
Summerland Key resident Dave Vaughan, founder of the Plant a Million Corals Foundation, is known worldwide for his “Eureka mistake” that led to a revolutionary coral fragmentation technique allowing the rapid growth of coral. His technique is proving to be a vital tool in restoring and protecting the Florida Keys’ living coral barrier reef.
Fifteen young rescued sea turtles were recently released in Gulf Stream waters off Key West by a dedicated duo from the Florida Keys-based Turtle Hospital — and they were assisted in this worthy endeavor by members of a powerboat racing team who were on the island to compete in the sport’s world championship.
Caitlin “Caiti” Currie, who captains Key Largo water excursions for Pirates Cove Watersports and school groups out of MarineLab at Key Largo Undersea Park, is passionate about keeping the Florida Keys’ aquamarine waters clean. Through Pirates Cove, located at Reefhouse Resort & Marina, she enjoys captaining and participating in Dive Against Debris trips.
Florida Keys residents, and others who love the island chain, are guided by a code of conduct designed to protect the region’s amazing natural environment. Its core is the 10 Keymandments — a lighthearted yet informative set of recommendations for enjoying meaningful, memorable experiences while respecting and helping to preserve the Keys’ treasured eco-realm.