Night Snorkeling in the Florida Keys

In the summer of 2002 I spent 10 days as an adult leader on a Boy Scout out-island trip in the Florida Keys. Shortly after returning I wrote the following account of a specific experience I had along the way.

At the time this picture was taken I had just spent 5 days on a tropical island about 35 miles from Key West, Florida (Big Munson Island), I had showered only once (right before this picture) in the last week, and had lived in a caustic saltwater environment for several days straight. My eye had been blackened after being smashed and then sown up on a picnic table by lantern light.

Here's what happened.

It all started with night snorkeling, which as it sounds is scary as can be, in kayaks, no lights for miles except for the island campfires we left minutes before, keep in mind we're about 6 miles out from the coast of the keys.


At this point I'm scared. We swim in a coral reef about two miles from the island in the pitch black of night with  heavy around-the-neck underwater flashlights. As we do this I can only see what's exactly in front of me in the water... fish, etc are two feet from me when they come into view... we're all worried about sharks but a few of the guys are really experienced and say we are fine.

I was looking out for sharks the entire time... we saw a few fish that were large enough to be scary by themselves... but they were moving quickly so I'd turn my head and only see a fin... even more scary.

So we get back into the kayaks (they were actually called Polynesian War Canoes, they hold 8 guys in each) and row in unison back into the out-water docks which are about 1/4 mile out from the shore. It's gets so shallow in the low-water that we have to moor here and wade into the shore. The bottom is just MUCK, and walking more than 10 feet in 30 seconds is really good. Each step gets glued to the ocean floor and you have to pry it up for over 500 steps in a row... a very tiring ordeal each time.

So we've just seen all kinds of underwater life... yet the surface of the water is silent. As we pull into the floating docks, a few guys are on the docks nearby... they have just caught a shark. They're intentionally fishing for sharks by gutting the fish they just caught and tossing them in bloody pieces into the water beside the docks... IE: the docks we have to tie up to, GET OUT NEXT TO, and walk into the shore from.

The second we arrive they have a shark on the line... and this shark is battling and eventually bites through the STEEL leader line and gets away. So right as we get in, we have 1 angry shark with a hook and line in its mouth, and a whole ocean's worth of sharks that smell the blood already floating around the docks.

I say 'already' in the water because at this exact moment I begin to add more. We begin practically running in the goo to get back to shore, the entire wade from the docks is about waist-deep in the water. I jump out of the boat into the water with the rest of the frightened crew.

By a horrible stroke of luck, on my way out of the boat I drop straight down into the water... this part was planned. Although, my flashlight, weighing about 10 pounds, drops instead... into the boat.

By chance, the flashlight happens to be held by a short lanyard around my neck, thus as I continue to fall the flashlight comes whipping back up with my entire weight pulling it as I fall from above the water. At the exact time the flashlight exits the boat going up, my face is falling past the same location heading down. That's where they meet.

I was pretty stunned at first, and I fell to the bottom, a bit over my head at this point. As I come back to the top I see the guys quickly swimming away from me and no one looking back.

I initially move as fast as I can in their direction. The first guy I catch I stop and ask him to check my face, I thought it might be bleeding from the collision. At this point my light was not working and I was in too much of a daze to take my hand way to examine what happened.

By the look on his face I immediately realized what had happened. He practically jumped out of his skin trying to swim away from me, and by the light of my two brothers' flashlights - who were nice enough to stay and help me - I realized that I was not only bleeding, blood was literally running down the side of my head and chest and pouring into the water.

Basically it was the longest 15 minute walk of my life. We made it to shore safely although I was expecting the entire time to lose the back of my leg because there was no way I could protect it being that it was behind me and under water.

A small flap of skin below my right eye could be lifted to expose the bone beneath. One of the other adult leaders was a doctor and he said I needed stitches pronto or I was going to have a nasty scar and due to the proximity might get an infected eye. We spoke to the emergency communications contact on the island and decided that it was serious enough to warrant a boat or helicopter rescue if we didn't feel comfortable dealing with it there.

So under lantern light my friend Doctor Savell put in three stitches to close the wound as I layed on the picnic table in our dining tent... less than 15 feet from waves breaking on the shore.