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Kelly McKinnon: Steward of Historic Pigeon Key

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This Green Scene story spotlights an environmentally focused attraction, event, person or place that enriches the Florida Keys

Kelly McKinnon, executive director of the Pigeon Key Foundation, is setting his sights on full restoration of Pigeon Key, a tiny historic island that lies beneath the Middle Florida Keys’ Old Seven Mile Bridge. 

The personable, fast-talking 40-year-old has lived the island life — literally — on Pigeon Key for 14 years. Currently he’s one of only four full-time island residents.

McKinnon, who studied marine science at colleges in Key West and Fort Myers, Florida, first landed on the island as the foundation’s education director after a professortold him about the job.

He considers himself very fortunate to live in the tranquil place where nighttime activities include fishing, snorkeling and kayaking. 

The 5-acre Pigeon Key was a camp for laborers building the 1900s-era Florida Keys Over-sea Railroad, conceived by Henry Flagler to connect the Keys with the Florida mainland. Today it has a museum showcasing the railroad’s fascinating history and quaint yellow residential cottages.

In fall 2017, Pigeon Key sustained damage from Hurricane Irma, which took out about 65 percent of the island’s protective mangroves and other vegetation.

Though Pigeon Key is now reachable only by ferry, the Old Seven Mile Bridge — closed for restoration for three years — is to reopen to pedestrians and visitors for recreational activities and trolley service to the island by March 2022.

McKinnon’s goals include ensuring that the island “is in tiptop shape when the bridge reopens. We’re building Pigeon Key into the cultural attraction that it can be. The island will again be one of Monroe County’s most popular tourist attractions.”

Keys Traveler: When did you first come to the Florida Keys and why?

Kelly McKinnon:With my father, as a kid on a fishing trip. We passed by Pigeon Key a couple of times. I caught a real nice African pompano aboard the Time Out sportfishing boat docked in Key West’s Historic Seaport. I certainly had no idea how a single fishing trip could change the trajectory of my life.

KT:What aspects of the Keys environment or way of life matter most to you? 

KM:We get to live and work in such a wild environment. Much of my day and what I accomplish are often dictated by weather, tides and geography. I also very much enjoy our small-town atmosphere and being able to reach out to a community of friends who are always willing to pitch in and help each other out.

KT:Who or what inspired you to become passionate about respecting and protecting the Keys’ natural world? 

KM:My father, an avid fisherman who taught me and my three brothers to appreciate the outdoor world, played the biggest role. He always had us on a boat or in the woods.

KT:How does that passion influence your work or profession?

KM:Each day I’m fortunate enough to be in a position to make a difference in the physical environment where I live. I’m also able to teach and, hopefully, inspire others to do the same through programs available at Pigeon Key.

KT: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?  

KM:Pigeon Key’s marine science center is the biggest way we connect with and help our environment. Our overnight marine science programs, inspiring the next generation, reach nearly 5,000 student days per year. We’ve also made significant improvements to our local environment through capital projects and partnerships. For over 100 years, Pigeon Key ran on some sort of combustion engine, primarily diesel. We took the island solar in 2013, reducing our carbon footprint and the need to burn diesel by nearly 90 percent. This is what is setting us up to install a grid-tie power line in the next few months to eliminate the need for diesel burn. We’re also teaming up with West Palm Beach–based MANG to plant over 1,000 new mangroves on Pigeon Key to help preserve its shoreline and improve water quality throughout the Keys. Also, Pigeon Key Foundation has a partnership with Bonefish Tarpon & Trust, allowing us to trap fish larvae to determine bonefish spawning patterns. And Valdosta University students work with us to study ways of growing natural coral faster with manipulated substrates within the water. 

KT:What keeps you energized, challenged and focused on your path?

KM:Pigeon Key’s education programs and historic tours allow me to see firsthand the difference our staff makes in the lives of students and visitors. Kids who show up from all backgrounds and locations —and who often at first refuse to swim out of fear —are usually the same students we can’t get back on the boat at the reef due to their excitement. They often ask how they can become interns or pursue a life of conservation. It’s amazing to see that transformation and excitement.

KT: What do you hope your positive environmental actions will accomplish?

KM:Through projects like mangrove restoration, we see shoreline protection and  improvement in our local waters. I hope we can inspire the next generation to discover new and innovative ways to preserve our environment.

KT:What message do you want your actions and example to communicate to people you encounter?

KM:Be nice to each other.

KT:What’s your favorite natural or eco-friendly activity in the Keys? 

KM:There’s no question my favorite is still offshore fishing. There’s just something about being out there, no land in sight, humming along when that reel starts to scream. All your senses heighten. It feels very primitive to me and I’ve yet to find another feeling that compares.

McKinnon floating off of Pigeon Key, now reachable only by ferry from Marathon.

McKinnon floating off of Pigeon Key, now reachable only by ferry from Marathon.

McKinnon and a visiting childhood friend on the the Old Seven Mile Bridge, set to reopen to pedestrians and visitors for recreational activities and trolley service to the island by March 2022.

McKinnon and a visiting childhood friend on the the Old Seven Mile Bridge, set to reopen to pedestrians and visitors for recreational activities and trolley service to the island by March 2022.

Kelly sailing with girlfriend Ananda Williams.

Kelly sailing with girlfriend Ananda Williams.

McKinnon, with a rescued sea turtle, is committed to conservation and studied marine science at colleges in Key West and Fort Myers, Florida.

McKinnon, with a rescued sea turtle, is committed to conservation and studied marine science at colleges in Key West and Fort Myers, Florida.

The 5-acre Pigeon Key, accessible by ferry (and pet friendly) was a camp for laborers building the 1900s-era Florida Keys Over-sea Railroad, conceived by Henry Flagler.

The 5-acre Pigeon Key, accessible by ferry (and pet friendly) was a camp for laborers building the 1900s-era Florida Keys Over-sea Railroad, conceived by Henry Flagler.

This article was updated on November 20, 2020 at 12:12 PM
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