We do things differently in the Florida Keys. Maybe it’s because the island chain attracts individualists, fans of the quirky and eccentric, or maybe it stems from being attitudinally far from the mainstream realm we call “the real world.” 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.
Six more weeks of winter in the Florida Keys? No problem, because in the subtropical islands, most “winter” days can be spend lazing on a sunny beach. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)
For most Groundhog Day enthusiasts, it’s all about the (naturally) groundhog — specifically a chubby, furry creature dubbed Punxsutawney Phil. Each year on Feb. 2, awaited by thousands of eager spectators, Phil comes out of his Pennsylvania burrow to see (or fail to see) his shadow. If he sees it, according to long-held lore, northern U.S. residents can expect six more weeks of winter weather.
But in the Keys, instead of relying on a groundhog’s weather predictions, we turn to … a conch, otherwise known as a marine mollusk or “sea snail.” And this past Feb. 2, a conch living in a fluted, pink-lined shell appeared to confirm Punxsutawney Phil’s forecast.
The “mollusk meteorologist” emerged from its shell at Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters in Marathon, a community in the Middle Keys, and apparently saw its shadow in the waters of its touch-tank home. At any rate, it quickly retreated and flipped the heavy shell over its body.
Of course, six more weeks of winter isn’t a hardship in the subtropical Florida Keys — because “winter” temperatures average 77 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 67 degrees Fahrenheit at night. (Those statistics come from Chip Kasper, the lead forecaster at the Florida Keys National Weather Service office in Key West, who didn’t comment on the prediction by his conch counterpart.)
A conch, by the way, is far more than just a weather prognosticator in the Keys. The meat of the hardy mollusk is the prime ingredient in conch chowder and conch fritters, two of the island chain’s signature dishes. Natives proudly proclaim their own hardy nature by calling themselves “conchs,” and their home is nicknamed the Conch Republic.
Moving on to Valentine’s Day, most people celebrate with their romantic partner and exchange cards or gifts to show their love. But in the Keys this past Feb. 14, we celebrated with … turtles.
Bette Zirkelbach, left, and Richie Moretti, right, of Marathon’s Turtle Hospital, release “Port” and “Starboard,” two juvenile green sea turtles, together on Valentine’s Day off a Key West beach. (Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)
Two juvenile green sea turtles, to be exact. Dubbed “Port” and “Starboard,” the duo was rescued together in November 2022 in Lower Keys waters and treated at the Turtle Hospital in Marathon.
After their rescue, both turtles were diagnosed with fibropapillomatosis — a debilitating tumor-causing disease that affects sea turtle species around the world. The Turtle Hospital staff is expert at fighting the disease, and employed techniques including tumor removal surgeries, broad-spectrum antibiotics, fluids and vitamins.
So by early February, “Port” and “Starboard” were deemed healthy and ready to be released back to the ocean. Since they had been rescued together, the Turtle Hospital’s world-class manager, Bette Zirkelbach, decided they should be released together.
Are the two turtles a couple? No one knows. Even experts can’t tell the sex of a turtle until it reaches maturity, and “Port” and “Starboard” are still juveniles. But that didn’t seem to matter to the several hundred people who gathered in Key West on Valentine’s Day to observe their release.
Assembled on Higgs Beach beside the Atlantic Ocean, they watched as “Port” and “Starboard” were carefully carried from the Turtle Hospital’s “ambulance” to the water’s edge — and then broke out in applause as the pair swam away together to spend the sweethearts’ holiday in their saltwater home.
Yes, we do things differently in the Florida Keys. Some might say the traditional ways of marking Groundhog Day and Valentine’s Day are better, and we respect their opinion. But here in the Keys, our offbeat approach suits us just fine.