Friday, January 23, 2009

Gone Sponging

The prospect of pitting my wits against those of a fish has never filled me with unalloyed delight. I cannot help but feel that I let people down when they discover that I dislike fishing and yet I live in the Fabulous Florida Keys. Fishing is on the same order of need as breathing for lots of people, and to think of me living here and unwilling to fish is a crime of a high order of magnitude. All I can say in my defense is that I have tried fishing and found the business disagreeable.

Even if, like me, one doesn't enjoy the process of hooking an innocent fish and jerking it out of it's world. it is possible to share the delight in the environment in which this hunt takes place.Cycling back home from a trip to the house insurance agent's office on Big Pine Key I was struck by the very physical beauty of the afternoon. Granted it's colder than the proverbial witches' appendage nevertheless the frigid winter afternoon was bathed in perfect sunlight yesterday, and I was glad of an excuse to stop pedaling and warm up, on the bridge between Big Pine and Little Torch Keys. The place was looking delightful and rustic:There are craft anchored between the islands in waters just a few feet deep, and several of them are permanent homes, rather unseaworthy they appear too. Its an odd fact of life afloat that would be boaters who like to live on their boats are frequently not travelers and the practice of living aboard descends into a state of immobility that could be the cause of envy in the average well anchored suburban home. They may be boats but they move less than a house on stilts nearby might move from year's end to year's end. Not so the fishing fleet, those are the boats that are constantly carving wakes across the placid waters of the channels. and they aren't alone in their pursuits:It was probably more than a week ago that I noticed a strong smell of fish emanating from a bridge over which I was cycling and when I looked over the parapet I saw a wizened old Conch sorting sponges in his boat. His presence was marked by a white van frequently parked along side the highway at that spot where apparently he keeps his skiff. Indeed one day I saw the Marine Patrol, known these days as Fish and Wildlife checking up on the van. He must have passed muster. In any event I spotted someone who may have been him hunting in the waters off Big Pine:It used to be that sponge fishing was a big industry in the Keys until the sponges started to die off. Indeed Greek spongers were encouraged to emigrate to Florida to set up the industry and their descendants operate a few boats and a great many Hellenic restaurants in the white washed town of Tarpon Springs, north of Tampa. In the 21st century it comes as a bit of a surprise to me that there are still sponge fishers operating in the Keys. I've seen them from time to time poking around in the near shore waters but they retain an otherwordly, almost Biblical appearance, patiently stabbing the waters with their hooked poles:He stood on the bow of his skiff for a while, poised like a bird of prey waiting for a victim to drift under his boat: I stood next to my bicycle for a while snapping pictures and then he gathered himself up, sorted some sponges in the boat and apparently decided he needed more to complete the day:There was something completely enviable about his situation, sitting on the water with nothing very urgent to do, while cars rushed past me in their headlong busyness on the Highway.As he puttered away I wondered if I had seen the last of him for the afternoon, but he reappeared under the highway bridge heading north:And then he settled down to drift silently some more up the Big Pine Channel, hunting for more sponges and stabbing the waters from time to time as he went:I was getting chilled as I stood and I starting earnestly peddling the four miles home, but pretty soon I had to stop and pull the camera out again. It is not an unusual sight to see in the islands but it is a sight worth recording a few times:Later I fired up the Bonneville and rode into Key West to meet my wife for dinner and a delightful performance of Willy Wonka at the key West High School. Temperatures were back below sixty degrees (15C) but the clarity of the skies gave the sunset a peculiar intensity:I overheard a couple of Conch parents stepping out of the auditorium after the Chocolate Factory performance and one was telling the other that never has it been so consistently cold in the Keys which I declare to be an exaggeration. On the other hand, I do wish, rather ardently, our modest air conditioning unit had reverse cycle heating. And that desire doesn't manifest itself very often at all.