- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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Mother lodes of weirdness awaited us down the coast, including an appointment to make another dive and watch a grown man put a dead fish in his mouth and let a grown moray eel swim out and cat it.
Along the way we saw a place where you can insert your head into the mouth of a huge painted shark and have a picture taken that looks as though the shark is actually eating you] That was almost as good as the open-mouthed giant stuffed alligator we found that can be positioned next to a friend's head or rump and then photographed for a small fee. Hilarious!
However, the only thing better than a phonied-up photo of human devourment is the real thing. This is where Captain Slate comes in. Captain Slate has been accredited by the Coast Guard to run dive charters, and even his face is seaworthy. It has been battered not by the moray eel he feeds from his mouth but by the barracudas he nourishes in the same fashion. Barracudas have the approximate visual acuity of Irving R. Levine without spectacles, and some of them have mistaken Captain Slate's nose for an expired fish. Three times a fast-charging barracuda named Psycho has slammed into Captain Slate's mask hard enough to blacken his eye and wobble his brain.
Unfortunately, Captain Slate, a Key Largo city councilman and secretary of the local Chamber of Commerce, was bogged down in meetings that day—Councilman Slate, we could hear you better if you took the ballyhoo out of your mouth—and so, for $37 apiece, we were sent out on a boat with a man named Harry, supposedly one of only two other men in the world who can feed eels and barracudas with their teeth. As proof, Harry has a nice scar on his face and a huge one from his wrist to the tip of a digit, a memory from the time Shredder, the moray eel, decided to have the finger food.
After a three-mile trip out to the reefs of the underwater John Pennecamp State Park, we jumped in with Harry and made haste for the wreck of the freighter City of Washington, where Harry found two hideous green eyes gleaming out at us. A moray eel would make an excellent stunt double for whatever creature next plans to come ripping out of Sigourney Weaver's chest. Harry knew her. It was Melba.
Melba was a lovely participant. She ate hungrily from Harry's hands and curled up around Harry's neck like a Siamese cat. Then a barracuda came by but was either not hungry or thought Harry was a piece of colorful driftwood, because he refused to eat. Harry never did do the mouth trick. We nearly drowned trying to pantomime the trick so that Harry would do it for the camera, but Harry just looked at us as if we had a case of sea ticks. I don't think Harry will ever make the city council. He didn't even stick with Captain Slate. Harry, the councilman told me recently, "moved farther south to lead a less stressful life."
Off we slunk, farther toward Key West, and great glorious gobs of tackiness made themselves available to us. Outside a truly tacky gift shop was that 30-foot plastic lobster, which immediately vaulted into our front-runner position. All the lobster lacked was an accompanying giant cup of drawn butter. There also was the Naughty and Nice Gag Shop, the blind crocodile at the Theater of the Sea, the Great Grunt Rodeo (a fishing tournament) and the annual underwater music festival. I liked (glub) it. It had a (glub) good (glub) beat and (glub) was easy (glub) to (glub) dance to.
It had been a fabulously tasteless day. a day that could be topped only by a one-night stay at what might be America's only trailer-park hotel, the Blue Lagoon Resort (MM 99.5). Whoever named the Blue Lagoon a "resort" must be the same person who named the Hardee's Golf "Classic." Nonetheless, where else, for $25, could you spend the night in a hideously ugly trailer with a view of the beach? Nowhere is right. The hilarious writer Joy Williams is a Blue Lagoon fanatic. "Fantasize that you arc in a fifties movie," she writes in The Florida Keys. "You are on the lam. You are attempting to escape from something terrible. You sit on the green plaid bedspread and listen to your breathing. No one will ever find you here." No one is right. The Blue Lagoon was sold out.
Instead we got marooned at the Moorings in Islamorada (MM 82), a place that just doesn't have the true Keys feel. No I'M WITH STUPID T-shirts. No plastic pink flamingos. The only thing the Moorings has (starting at $115 a night) is tasteful cottages sprinkled on 17 acres of pristine beach from which—this is true—every strand of seaweed is raked twice weekly. Everything is done with understatement, style and class. We left at first light.
Actually that was good, because we wanted to beat the crowds to the Bat Tower (about MM 17). Honestly, what self-respecting tackiness freak would skip it? A 35-foot tower erected in 1929 for the express purpose of luring bats to the area to eat mosquitoes! The mosquitoes, it seems, were driving the fishermen nuts at R.C. Perky's fishing camp and gambling emporium on Sugarloaf Key. Then Perky read about a man in San Antonio who was selling plans for bat towers, brown-shingled edifices that were supposed to bring in thousands of friendly bats to dine on every mosquito in the county.