A Day on the Water with Captain Victoria

Excerpts from David Kemp's article appearing in Solares Hill
July 29, 1993

We are on our way to go out on the water with Capt. Victoria, one of Key West's premier back-country guides.

There is the business of the greetings and introductions, the stashing of the dry gear in the coolers (even though we're still sort of in America, nobody brought beer). We slip the lines, drift away from the dock, and hang for a moment in that most delightful of times in boating: the idling out, puttering out through the boats, gliding lightly over the water. "Oh that magic feeling, nowhere to go. . ."

But only for a moment. Capt. Victoria is not a time-waster, and she puts it on plane as soon as we clear the docks. Round the corner, and we're hustling along a long jetty, passing by the anchor-outs, and that most poignant of marine sights, boats half sunk: another dream run out of cash.

We don't go far, just across the pond, to nose into a channel cutting into a small key, with mangrove arching over us. We drift into the dark shade. "Look over the side," she says, which, of course, had yet to occur to us greenies. What we see is a million jillion glass minnows, darting individual members of clouds which move in unison. In an instant, we see the almost-beginning of that long, intricate eco-chain that leads to the superstars of the show, the dolphins and reef fish.

I didn't know there are 3 kinds of mangrove. If you look closely, you can see salt crystals on the roots or leaves, the results of their low-tech desalination plant. It always takes us a while to catch up with Mother Nature. One type of mangrove propagates by sending out little pods which contain a complete tree, searching for a resting place, which would seem how outer space is going to come into us, in little pods drifting across the sea of space, inside of which are complete little guys.

Capt. Victoria knows a lot about this world, but, no pedantic blabber-mouth, she knows when to stop and move on. A quick right, up on the plane, through the cut, we're in the ocean. Away from the sable brush, back into the palette knife world.

Lulled by the bumps, liking the speed, I go a little blurry. Some birds are circling in the distance, I'm sort of aware of them, but we're going to a secret coral patch. Capt. Victoria, though, cuts in their direction; hmmm?

And suddenly, there we are, like in church: Straight into a pod of dolphin, leisurely but steadily breakfasting on a school of tiny, white, flashing bait fish. The bait fish, unlike the dolphin, are in a big hurry. I am thunderstruck. Capt. Victoria does the obvious; cuts the engine and puts Vivaldi on the tape deck. Huh? yeah, that's her standard pod-greeting drill, though she notes that it is not the pod she has been visiting for the last 18 years, so maybe they don't like Vivaldi. Well, maybe they don't, but I'm guessing they don't care much for Guns n' Roses, for sure.

So there we are, engine cut, bobbing in the gentle chop, Vivaldi drifting out over the sea, and the dolphins circling, circling, breaking the surface, you can almost see them grinning over breakfast. Capt. Victoria cuts the tape, and the sound of their breathing takes over, as they break the surface, a kind of a sound like you might make upon surfacing and exhaling--if you were a small horse.

My "companion," as sweeties are called in restaurant reviews, slips on fins and mask and drops over the side, not to see the dolphins, but to hear their constant conversations, pinging away, as chatty as morning coffee break. They're probably talking about the Vivaldi. I can't figure out which to do, join her and hear the show, or stay on top and watch, which is what I eventually settle on. I can't deny myself the vision of their circling, circling.

The birds are frigate birds. I'm instantly enchanted; frigates are such storied birds; instantly, I'm on a life raft, a thousand miles offshore, slowly baking, and the birds overhead, wheeling, circling. How'd they get this close to shore? They're beautiful, black, split-tailed, gliding with scarcely a beat of wings. They can't get into the water; they have to catch the fish that jump. They fight with one another. Two birds directly overhead quarrel over a catch, which falls back into the sea, a little philosophy lesson preaching the benefits of cooperation.

We watch, watch, watch; breakfast is going on for a long time, must be time for coffee and papers. Soon, there's nothing to do but leave for one of Capt. Victoria's secret reefs. Far, far off the beaten path, we're the only ones at this particular patch. We drop over the side, and in a few strokes, we are over the most beautiful reef patch I've ever seen. The colors are vibrant, electric. There is little of the depressing bleaching which is increasingly seen in the usual spots. Victoria dives with us, and hands me an uninhabited conch to take home.

We take a little stroll on a tiny island, getting warmed up again while Victoria does some trash collecting. Hurricane Andrew is still depositing calling cards. Walking through waist-deep water on sandy boulevards through the sea grass, we tow some thrash bags to the boat.

And then suddenly it's time, time to speed back to the little slice of green visible in the background.

More dolphins! And this pod is that of Capt. Victoria's old friends; they all have names. Imagine what you would be like if you had visited the same group of animals in the wild for 18 years. Again, Capt. Victoria does the obvious (huh?), sticks a piece of orange PVC pipe into the water, and chats with them. She believes that all dolphins are linked by a universal consciousness, and recent studies do reveal that they in fact pass information up and down the coast. For myself, I believe they do that by talking, but I would believe that, wouldn't I, sitting here as I am, "talking" to you.

This is our third trip with Capt. Victoria. We "found" her accidentally, leafing through the yellow Pages, looking for something different from the standard trip to the reef. First-timers to the Keys are well-advised to take the standard trip first, to get their bearings and to form a background against which to appreciate where Capt. Victoria can take you.

Like into the "back country," which is in the Gulf of Florida to the north and west of Key West. Pulling into the deep shade of the mangrove cove, bobbing in the water, munching on our lunch stuff, and quietly chatting about Capt. Victoria's trip to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, until an ibis flashing through the deep shadow hushes us. We peer through the jungle trying to spot it. We glide back out of the cove; the other folks with us want to try a bit of fishing. This produces the spectacle of a barracuda exploding out of the water, trying for the hook, and fortunately missing it. Puttering past an island for sale (now, there's a dream for you! Only several million required.), we see a permit, a most wondrous fish made entirely of mirror glass, making a 2,000 mph dash from its hole to the sheltering grass. We stop at an island, stroll along a deserted, baking beach that fools you for a moment: you think you're starring in a travel commercial.

But that was then, today is today, and after Victoria finishes talking to her old friends in the pod, we must start on our journey to the Bad Thing, the Miami airport. Wait a minute, we're not there yet. We have to dash back to the docks, a shower at the dockside, the wonderful drive back up the Keys. Yet, all of this still leads to the Bad Thing, but maybe the Bad Thing is the good thing, because it makes you want to get out, and "out" means Home, and you always have to go home someday.
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