KEY LARGO -- For Key Largo resident and boat captain Rob Mitchell, like several Florida Keys "transplants," winters up north and winter sports didn't hold an appeal anymore. A Canadian native, the former filmmaker and fashion photographer quite literally sailed himself into a new career as a professional dive instructor after yearning for more sunshine, sea air and saltwater.
"I had a studio in Toronto and had worked as a fashion photographer for many years," said Mitchell. "I lived for the summer months where I'd spend most of my free time diving, teaching sailing and working on Toronto Harbor tour boats."
After Mitchell's parents moved to South Florida, he spent vacation time there. Finally he closed his Toronto business, sold nearly everything, packed his few remaining belongings into a 27-foot sailboat and sailed to Fort Lauderdale.
During a photo assignment back north in Vermont, Mitchell met his now-wife, Lynn. Later the couple relocated further south to Miami to embark together on a 43-foot sailboat and a life of charters, yacht deliveries and sailing vacations.
"We always loved sailing to Key Largo for long weekends. We'd anchor off the Caribbean Club and spend the days exploring the waterways by dinghy," Mitchell recounted. "Key Largo just seemed like the place we were happiest — island living, yet close to mainland necessities."
The couple's two big German Shepherds also loved the Keys, so the family moved again.
In 2008 Rob, a certified scuba diver since 1973 and a captain since 1990, paired his skills with Lynn's accounting expertise. Together they found Keys Diver, then a simple snorkel business, and discovered it was for sale.
"It offered us everything we wanted," said Mitchell.
Within a year he moved Keys Diver into the dive business, bought a second boat and — after earning his instructor rating — even taught his wife, who was perfectly content as a snorkeler, how to dive.
"She's now an avid advanced diver, diving nearly every weekend," said Mitchell. "Her first wreck dive was the Vandenberg in Key West shortly after it was sunk.
"The Keys are a great introduction to wreck diving," he added.
Today, the 65-year-old Mitchell relishes the diving tourism business. He also takes protecting the Florida Keys personally, making it his mission to share ways divers can help protect the oceans for generations to come.
Mitchell admits it's hard to determine where his business stops and sport and recreation begin. The couple bought a 27-foot World Cat intended for their own pleasure, but soon began running it for "six-pack" dive and snorkel trips for families.
"When we do get away, we've been exploring our musical interests with trips to Nashville, Memphis and the Mississippi Delta," said Mitchell. "I've always played guitar and plan to make that my passion should retirement ever come."
But it's the island lifestyle and atmosphere that Mitchell loves so much.
"I've had it with the big cities and can never see myself living in one again. Here, you feel like you are a part of the community," he said.
Trying to make a difference in that community, Mitchell became a board member of the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce and joined the Upper Keys Business Group and Upper Keys Rotary Club. Perhaps most important to him is holding a seat on the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary's Advisory Council and working closely with Key Largo's Coral Restoration Foundation.
"Working so closely with (CRF founder) Ken Nedimyer, in both groups, has taught me so much about our reefs, restoration and protecting our ecosystem," Mitchell said.
Keys Diver was one of the first dive shops in the Keys to become a member of Blue Star, an elite group of dive and snorkel charter operators who partner with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to help educate and reduce the impact of divers and snorkelers on the Keys' coral reef system.
"We're proud to teach all of our crew and staff about our fragile reefs and have them pass that on to our snorkelers and divers," he said. "People that come here see how passionate we are about our reefs, and leave much more fulfilled if they can learn something. They want to see this new world, but they also want to know how they can help it and better understand it."
Mitchell personally drives a boat for Keys Diver, regularly taking coral restoration dive volunteers out to work in CRF's nursery and transplant corals to the reefs.
"The adventure stays with them forever and they have a hands-on part in helping our reefs," explained Mitchell. "It's a great feeling to see this. They have become better informed and are proud to carry this appreciation of nature over into their own world.
Mitchell relishes the diving tourism business, making it his mission to share ways divers can help protect the oceans for generations to come.
A shot caught of Rob as he's shooting his own pictures at Molasses Reef during a "day off."
Ever the photographer, Rob shot this pic of wife Lynn, now an avid wreck diver herself, at the Duane off Key Largo.
Mitchell said, that if retirement should ever come, he plans to make playing guitar his passion.