2010-07-29 / Outdoors

Cabbage Key, a journey into paradise

Our little outboard was purring like a kitten as Nancy and I headed over to Cabbage Key. The quiet, clear, still water allowed us to see the bottom and marine life as if we were watching a big flat screen TV. There were patches of turtle grass and many fish and rays lazily swimming in the 90-degree water. A large sea turtle swam by slowly, as if flying, above the grass bed.

Loggerhead turtles nest during this time of year. The female turtle crawls up onto the beaches here in Southwest Florida, digs a hole and deposits up to 100 eggs, the size of ping-pong balls.

She covers the eggs with sand and swims back out to sea. After two months in the sun-warmed sand, the eggs hatch, and young turtles scramble toward the gulf. This is when they are the most vulnerable, as they make their way to open water. Only about 10 percent of the eggs laid will make it to become mature adult turtles, who can live to be 60 years old. There are five sea turtle species here in Florida: green, leatherback, hawksbill, loggerhead and Kemp’s Ridley. The loggerhead we are observing is on the threatened species list. The other four species are on the endangered list.

Sea turtle Sea turtle We beach our inflatable on the island as we see the famed water tower with an osprey nest on top. Climbing the stairs to this quaint old Florida restaurant is like stepping back in time. Originally called Palmetto Key the island was owned in the 1930s by mystery novel writer Mary Roberts Rhinehart. Prior to that, the Calusa Indians had used this island, as well as many others, as a burial ground. Since the water table would not allow underground burials, the departed were buried under mounds of shells. Several of their earthy possessions were buried with them to use in their next life.

Cabbage Key is one of these burial mounds and is actually the highest point in this part of Florida, 38 feet above sea level. Accessible only by boat or seaplane, the restaurant and bar, as well as the inn and rental cottages are today run by Ken Wells, son of Rob and Phyllis Wells. I have been coming here since 1979, before electricity was run to the island. Power was supplied at that time by large generators. On occasion, I would help cart 55-gallon drums of diesel fuel up the hill to keep the tanks full. Those were the good old days. Cabbage Key place hasn’t changed much. There are still thousands of dollar bills taped to the walls and ceiling with the donors’ names and homeports. The tradition was started by local fisherman who wanted to be sure they had money for a drink next time they stopped in. The legend also has it that Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise” was written about this very island. He used to visit and has provided some acoustic tunes way back in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Nancy and I settle into the dark, nonair conditioned bar. The darkness and the breeze through the open doors makes it feel cooler. An ice-cold can of beer makes it feel even better. Rob stops by for a chat about fishing and the economy. Mostly about fishing, though. It’s amazing that there are always great spots to find fish. Knowledgeable fisherman always can find fish; you just have to know where to look. Watching the satellite television, there is talk about the newlydeveloped tropical storm southeast of the Bahamas. We will have to watch that one. Departing the marina, it is almost dark, but the sky is pink and purple and gold. The thunderstorms are numerous but localized and predictable in their movements. We zigzag back toward Bird Key around the exposed oyster beds. The tide is low. Up ahead, the big shrimp boat has anchored closer to Punta Blanco and there’s activity on deck. Perhaps the crew is ready to head offshore for a night of fishing.

A great day, cool breeze and we are looking forward to a good dinner of fresh bay scallops, some wine and a good night’s sleep aboard the sailboat.

Until next time, fair winds and calm seas. ¦

— The adventures of C apt. Kirk are based on r eal activities and tr avels over the past 50 years. All accounts and characters are non-fictional and legal, except for when they’re not. The times, rules and regulations have changed, so, dear r eaders, always check curr ent laws regarding fishing and harvesting in the open water.

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