Camping with My Brother in the Florida Keys

I recently realized that I wrote this post but never actually published it to the blog.  While we’re now in the middle of winter, let’s take a break from the cold and read about this trip to the Florida Keys.  If you remember back to my last family post, I was thinking about taking a camping trip with my Brother Brad, and as you see in this post it all came together and we headed down there at the end of September.  I’m happy to say the camping trip did happen and we had a fantastic time! This was a great way to reconnect with my brother after years of growing apart.

He scheduled the trip during the week of his birthday, and at one point during the trip he mentioned that it was the best birthday since he went skydiving over 15 years ago. I’m so happy that my family and I could be a part of making his birthday memorable.

We camped on Bahia Honda, which is a state park in the Florida Keys. My family and I headed down on a Saturday afternoon and stayed the night in a hotel in Miami before continuing on to the keys. Faith loves hotel stays and it was nice to have a night in a “civilized” style before heading out for four days of tent camping.

Day 1 – Arriving in the Keys

On Sunday we took our time getting up. As per the usual when we stay in a hotel, Faith and I got up and went down to enjoy the free breakfast while Dream slept in. Faith enjoys the experience of choosing from a buffet of breakfast items. After Faith and I finished eating we made a plate to bring back to Dream. After breakfasts and showers we got back on the road and headed towards the keys.

Driving in the keys makes for a rather leisurely drive. Much of the two lane road has 45 mph speed limits, and the slow speed is a nice transition into the more relaxed pace of vacation mode. Around lunch time we called my brother, Brad, to see where he was. He was still about three hours away, so we decided to head into the park and do a little swimming and snorkeling before he arrived. We stopped at the park entrance and asked if we could check in. The park ranger said it was a little early but said we could come in and enjoy the park until it was time to check in. I expected them to charge us an entrance fee since we arrived before our camping began, but was pleasantly surprised that they just waved us through.

Bahia Honda has one of the nicest beaches in the Keys, so we quickly changed into our bathing suits and headed for the water. The water temp was oh-so-nice. We were able to wade right in without the usual hesitation to get used to the water. We donned our snorkeling gear and swam around the grassy areas looking for things to see. We saw a number of small fish, sea urchins, and crabs. The snorkeling at Bahia Honda isn’t spectacular when compared to the nearby reefs, but we always enjoy searching out the little creatures living amongst the sea grass.

We snorkeled, swam, and lounged in the water for several hours and then headed back to the ranger station to check in to our campsite. After a short wait in line we were checked in and heading to our camp site. Our site was a nice tree covered spot and was just several yards/meters from the beach. A small trail led down to the beach, and our daughter Faith quickly ran down to check it out. As Faith and Dream explored, I pulled out a camping chair and waited for Brad to arrive. I ended up dozing off in the chair and was soon awakened as Brad called my name.

When he arrived we set up camp and discussed the plans for the week. Brad had reserved a boat rental before the trip. He called the rental guy to let him know we had arrived and to schedule the drop off. While he was getting settled in, my family and I headed into town to get some groceries for the week. I picked up sandwich supplies for lunches, some burgers to grill, and enough drinking water and snacks to last us the week. After I got back I was hoping to fire up the grill, but the boat rental guy called and said he was on his way. Brad and I drove over to the boat ramps and got the quick lesson on boating in the Keys.

Boats sure are easier now with the GPS technology. I remember boating as a kid, and we always used the pole-in-the-water method of figuring out how deep the water is. Now it’s all marked on a color coded chart in the GPS, and verified by the built in sonar. One of the nice things about renting a boat is all the local charts and hot-spots are already loaded in the GPS. (That plus the fact that you don’t have a boat payment and you don’t have to maintain it.)

The boat rental guy sure did like to talk. After what seemed like hours, we finally got the boat in the water and secured to the dock for the night. It was dark by the time we got the grill fired up, but the extra hunger probably made the burgers taste even better. Heck, even without the extra hunger, camping burgers always taste great.

While we were sitting around the grill (no campfires allowed here, so we sat by the light of the charcoal smoldering in the grill) Faith wandered around the camp exploring the area at night. At one point she came running back and said “You have to see this!” We followed her down the trail that led to the beach and she pointed at the sky. Being far outside of the city lights we were treated to a beautiful scene of stars twinkling in the night sky. I had almost forgotten how many stars there are out there, and on this night the skies were clear and we could see them in all their glory. This was Faith’s first time seeing the stars like this and it gave me chills to imagine how exciting it must be to take in this site for the first time.

Day Two – Looe Key Reef

Day two arrived a little too early after a hot and humid night in a tent. I scrambled up some eggs and bacon for breakfast and then we made our way to the boat. I dropped Brad and Faith off at the dock and drove around to the parking lot.  We spent some time exploring the area by boat. Brad wanted to catch some lobster, so we headed to a spot on the map that had a big picture of a lobster. We arrived at a spot between a couple of islands and snorkeled around. I saw a few fish, but not much else. Brad snorkeled up to one of the islands and found a few lobster around the mangroves, but none big enough to keep.

After our failed lobstering we decided to go out to the reef. We punched Looe Key Reef into the GPS and Brad pointed the boat in that direction. It took maybe 30 or 45 minutes to get there. Once there we circled around to the ocean side of the reef and found a mooring buoy to tie off to. 

For some reason I got volunteered to be the first one in the water. There were fish everywhere around the boat, so maybe I was the designated shark bait, just in case… I jumped in and when I turned back towards the boat I saw this:

 

Not a shark, luckily. It was a huge Goliath Grouper. I yelled back to the boat that there was a fish as big as the boat under there. Brad thought surely I had lost it, but it was confirmed to be a very big fish when he saw it for himself. Not quite as big as the boat, but a good three feet (one meter) long and plenty plump. The big fish spent the afternoon chilling out in the shade under the boat while we snorkeled the reef.

The reef and the sea life it contained were absolutely beautiful. We saw countless numbers of brightly colored fish and many types of coral. It’s hard to adequately explain how pretty the undersea life is around a coral reef. Even pictures and movies don’t do it justice; it’s one of those things that you really have to see for yourself.

Faith and I snorkeled together while she held on to a floaty cushion from the boat. It’s the open ocean, and while we don’t tether her to a life jacket, we do like to have something her to grab onto. She was swimming and diving like a little mermaid. On the way back we encountered a small wall of jellyfish that we had to navigate around to get back to the boat. These jellyfish weren’t dangerous, but would leave a sting if you got to close. Faith was pretty scared of them, so I helped her swim around them and get back to the boat.

And if wasn’t hard enough to pull Faith around the jellyfish, Dream started getting seasick while she was snorkeling and I had to pull her too. That’s me pulling my two girls through the water while trying to dodge jellyfish. It was a workout for sure. We made it back to the boat in one piece and said our goodbyes to our big friendly Grouper.

One last stop before the day was over. Brad wanted to look for lobster along some of the old bridges. He had scuba gear, so he dove for lobster while Faith swam a little and I relaxed in the boat. He came up with two lobster that were big enough to keep. The current was really strong so we decided to return the next day at slack tide (between tides).

After returning to dry land we didn’t feel much like cooking dinner, so we headed to Marathon to search for a place to eat. We stopped at one place but it seemed a little fancy and pricy for four people that had been boating and camping. Luckily this place was attached to a hotel and the girl at the hotel front desk was able to offer some other suggestions. We ended up at Sunset Grill. They had a live band playing and we had a great dinner. It was a great way to end a fun filled day.

Day Three – Fishing and Lobstering

Day three of camping began after another hot night in the tent. I might mention that we did have a fan in the tent and it did a fairly adequate job of blowing the hot air around, but didn’t do much to make it cooler. Brad deemed this day to be fishing day. Dream needed to do some school work and doesn’t like to fish, so this worked out well as she was able to head into town in search of Wi-Fi while Brad, Faith, and I went fishing. In truth, I don’t care much for fishing either, but I wasn’t going to leave Brad to fish by himself and Faith was actually excited about it.

We boated out to an island covered in mangroves. Brad had bought some frozen shrimp for bait and we commenced with the fishing. Faith decided baiting the hook wasn’t something she cared to experience, so I did the fatherly thing and baited the hook for her. She threw out the line, and it came back without the bait. I rebaited the hook and she threw it out again.  This cycle of baiting the hook and reeling it back empty repeated a number of times, but not just to Faith, I was equally adept at feeding fish by fishhook while leaving them safe and unharmed in the sea.

Brad on the other hand was reeling in fish after fish. Most were too small to keep, but he did end up with a couple Mangrove Snapper that were big enough to keep. He was more skilled at getting his line very close to the Mangroves, right where all the fish were hiding. I was more skilled at getting the line in the Mangroves where the birds were hiding.

I finally hooked a fish and let Faith real it in. Then, not long after that, Faith hooked her first fish and reeled it in. Her first official catch all by herself. She was really proud of catching that fish all by herself. Brad removed it from the hook (have I mentioned that I don’t like to touch the slimy fish?) It was too small to keep so he offered it to Faith to throw back. She grabbed it and if flopped out of her hands and back into the boat. She’s a trooper, she reached right down there and scooped it back up and tossed it in the water.

After fishing Faith was ready to do some swimming. Actually, during fishing Faith was ready to do some swimming, but we were in water that was too shallow for swimming and the bottom was really mucky. So we wrapped up fishing and headed out to some slightly deeper water. I was hoping to lounge on the boat and watch Faith swim, but she wouldn’t have it. It had to be both of us. The current was strong with the tide going out, so we threw some ropes over the side of the boat and held the ropes while we snorkeled around. There wasn’t much to see, but Faith enjoyed the swim.

While we were swimming and snorkeling Brad decided to do a little more fishing. He hooked something that put up a bit more of a fight than the snapper we had been catching. I was a bit surprised when he pulled in a baby hammerhead shark. We decided that was enough snorkeling for a while.

About this time the tide was nearing slack, so we headed back to the bridge fro some lobstering. Brad dove for lobster while Faith napped on the boat. I was the designated boat driver while he dove, and after he was in, I moved the boat down to where he expected to resurface. He ended up coming up right near the boat. He did very well and caught his limit on Lobster.

Day three ended with another trip to Sunset Grill. This was Brads birthday so we celebrated with Hurricanes served in a small bucket. They limit you to two of these, but one was enough for us to be feeling pretty good. This was the night when Brad said this was the best birthday he’s had in a long time. It’s pretty awesome to be part of that.

Day Four – Sombrero Reef

Day four began after a cooler night in the tent. It rained overnight and that brought the temperature down to a more comfortable level. We were out of bacon and I didn’t feel like cooking so we opted for granola bars. The day began with Brad heading out to refill his scuba tanks. While he was doing that, the rest of us showered and then headed up to the park store. I bought an upgraded snorkel for Faith, one that would close when she dove underwater.

When Brad got back we set our sights on Sombrero Reef. The notable thing about Sombrero Reef is the 142 foot lighthouse in the middle of the ocean that marks this very shallow reef. Brad was first in this time in his full scuba gear.

 

We had picked up some Dramamine for Dream while we were in town the night before. Unfortunately we completely forgot about it in the excitement of the morning. Dream decided to hang out on the boat while the rest of us snorkeled. Faith and I jumped in and started making our way towards the lighthouse. 

I had read online that there were a lot of fish that liked to hang out in the shadow of the lighthouse. It was a long swim from the boat to the lighthouse, and we ended up having to dodge jellyfish the entire swim. I’d be swimming along, pulling Faith with me, and I’d feel a little tap-tap. I’d look up and Faith would point at a jellyfish. Faith had her eyes peeled for jellyfish and let me know when she saw one that she didn’t think I noticed. Dream told me later that Faith said “Daddy didn’t see any jellyfish, I had to show him all of them.”

The diving around the lighthouse was a little disappointing. Due to the shallow water (probably about two or three feet near the lighthouse) there wasn’t much coral. There was also a lot of debris; I’m not sure if it’s from the building of the lighthouse or if other stuff happened to wash up there. It looked like it was construction debris, but I don’t really know. And, contrary to what I had read, there weren’t many fish around it.

Even so, it was an interesting swim and we did see some parrot fish and a school of needlefish. On the swim back we saw a two Portuguese Man of War (the bad jellyfish) and we steered plenty clear of them and their long tentacles.

While we were on the epic snorkel swim to the lighthouse, Brad managed to find the rest of the reef and all the fish. We moved the boat over a couple of buoys to a better spot in the reef. Brad and I did more snorkeling and diving while Faith and Dream lounged on the boat.

 

We headed back in about 2:00 so that we could have the boat ready to be picked up at 5:00. Faith had to be back in time for cheer practice the next day so we decided to pack up and head home a day early. Normally we wouldn’t worry about missing cheer practice for a family adventure, but they were prepping for competition and she had already missed two practices due to our trip.

We drove straight through on the way back and got home around midnight.  Brad stayed another night and went fishing from one of the local piers the next day.  

It was a great trip and we all had a blast.  I’m looking forward to more future adventures and we’re going to plan on finding more we can do with Brad.  I was really happy to have that time to reconnect with my brother and get to know him again.  

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