Thursday, March 22, 2012
Like New Yorkers who never visit the Empire State Building, we here in the Keys seldom visit treasures in our own back yard. Theater of the Sea is one of those treasures, and it is steeped in local history.
The park was originally a rock quarry excavated for Henry Flagler’s railroad in the early 1900s. Now, 12 million gallons of seawater are pumped in daily to supply 3 acres of saltwater lagoons.
Host to more than 100,000 visitors each year, Theater of the Sea was established in 1946 by the P.F. McKenney family, and the park is one of the oldest marine mammal facilities in the world. The family still owns and operates the park.
Very different from mega-parks like SeaWorld, Theater of the Sea offers an intimate setting for up-close looks at the animals. The tour of the park is set up as an ongoing loop that runs three consecutive times throughout the day. The first one starts at 9:30 a.m. and the last one begins at 2:30 p.m. Each tour takes 21⁄2 hours, and visitors can join the tour at any point.
Just walking onto the grounds of the park is like walking into a tropical garden. Orchids, bromeliads, night-blooming jasmine and hibiscus blend with coconut palms, traveling palms, royal poinciana, gumbo limbo, mangroves and bamboo.
“It takes a lot of work to keep up the grounds,” said Maureen Lamarra, director of marketing, who has been with the park for eight years. “Mr. McKenney has a vision of keeping this place a beautiful, tranquil spot that anyone can come and enjoy anytime.”
The loop begins with a walk through the mangroves on a floating bridge over the dolphin lagoon. This is the first opportunity to see the dolphins in between shows.
“We’re the largest natural holding area for dolphins in the world,” Lamarra said. “We want them to live just like they would if they were out in the wild.”
After an explanation of the types of mangroves, the tour winds through a series of exhibits with different animals, including tropical fish, sport and game fish, nurse sharks, turtles, rays, owls and reptiles. The park works closely with the Wild Bird Center in Tavernier and the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. Many of these animals are no longer able to live in the wild.
“A lot of what we do here during the tours is teaching people how we’ve got to preserve these animals,” Lamarra said. “ They’re all important and very beautiful, and they all serve a purpose.”
The parrot show is the first stop on the tour. Created three years ago, it is the newest addition to the park. They have 28 birds, 15 of which are rescues from people who could no longer keep them in their homes. They have several different breeds, and the trainer talks about the characteristics of each. The trainer explains that parrots have the intelligence of a 2-year-old, and then begins a demonstration of their wits. The audience is actively involved with questions and answers, and children participate in some of the tricks.
“I have several objectives with the show,” said Julie Hallagan, who has been the director of the parrot department for four years. “I want to make sure that I get my conservation message out there. These birds are the most endangered birds on the planet. I discuss the physiology of the birds, and I want to educate people about the challenges of having them in the home. We do all of this through the entertainment.”
When the birds aren’t performing in the show, they stay in two outdoor areas. Each one has its own perch and jungle gym in an open area that’s separated from the public by only a rope. They are not caged in or tied down. “They enjoy the human interaction,” said Hallagan. “Most of them have their friends that they choose. They’re very flock-oriented.”
After the parrots, visitors are treated to the dolphin show. There are usually three dolphins performing: Twister, Sherman and Eclipse. Twister, 12, and Sherman, 9, were born at the park, while Eclipse was rescued from a beaching as a baby eight years ago.
The trainers go through a series of basic skills with the dolphins.
Then the music begins, and the dolphins begin the most dynamic part of the show. With lightning speed, they move back and forth across the lagoon. They swim backwards out of the water on their tails and do flips in coordination with one another. Jumping high in the air, they fly through a hoop held by the trainer on top of a tall platform.
Then one of the trainers joins the dolphins in the water for a choreographed routine.
At the end of the show, several members of the audience are selected to come down and interact with the dolphins. Participants get to touch them and feel their skin and lean down to get a kiss.
During this show, the crew teaches the audience about dolphin behavior as well as the dangers they face in the wild. They provide a wallet-sized hand out describing the types of seafood a person should purchase in order to support a healthy marine environment.
“We want visitors to enjoy themselves and be fascinated by the animals, but also we want them to learn about ways that they can make a difference,” said curator Beverley Osborne, who has been with the park 18 years.
Moving on to the sea lion arena, the trainer leads one of four adult sea lions through a series of interactive exchanges, while explaining how they differ from seals. The sea lion plays Frisbee and slips down a large slide that empties into the lagoon. As part of the show, the trainer illustrates how the animals are taught to do various behaviors, and then has the sea lion do a series of those behaviors.
There is also an audience participation segment of this show where volunteers can come down and get a hug or a kiss. Guests will soon be able to enjoy the newest member of the sea lion family, Tucker, who is 11⁄2 years old and just beginning his training.
Finally, guests are offered one last close look at the dolphins on the bottomless boat ride. The boat cruises across the lagoon, while the dolphins play along side and in the center of the boat, inches away from each person.
On the back of the property there is a small beach stocked with colorful parrotfish. There is no charge to swim with these fish, which are even friendlier when offered some food. There is snorkel gear available for getting down under the water for a closer look.
“This is great for little kids,” Lamarra said. “A lot of locals bring their kids here every day. They don’t have to worry about where they are. It’s a nice, confined area, and they can occupy themselves.”
In the lagoon next to that is the stingray swim, which is stocked with 13 generations of rays of all sizes. Dozens of the ethereal creatures float majestically through the water, and they have been domesticated to take food from the hands of visitors. For a fee, participants are taught how to swim with them, how to pet them and how to hand feed them.
Other interactive programs include swim with the dolphins, swim with the sea lion, meet the dolphin, meet the sea lion and wade with the dolphin. All of these programs require reservations and additional fees.
“These animals are like my family, and I just want to make sure that they get the best care possible,” Osborne said. “I enjoy sharing my life with them. I think it’s important that people understand that we put the animal’s health and well-being over all other interests and that we respect every animal as an individual.”
Friday, March 16, 2012
Irving Eyster helped preserve history of Indian Key
Irving Eyster’s interest in archaeology started when he was growing up in Indiana. He and his grandfather would go looking for old mill remains or houses that had long been abandoned.
“Kids would go out and play ball on Saturdays, and that didn’t interest me,” Eyster said. “My grandfather would tell me about the people who had lived in these places and what they had done. It was just like being introduced to these people.”
Eyster has been an archaeologist and historian in the Florida Keys for more than 60 years. He taught archaeology at Florida International University and University of Miami, anthropology at Miami-Dade Community College and was a Dade County archaeologist for two years.
Eyster was on the Upper Keys Historical Preservation board for 16 years and is the current president of the Matecumbe Historical Trust. His books include: Indian Key, Handbook of South Florida Archaeology, Islamorada and More, and Dr. Jeremiah Reade Explores Florida in 1882-1883.
Eyster and his wife, Jeane, first settled in Key West in 1947, and he remembers a town that was much different than it is today.
“It was more like the West Indies,” he said. “Some of the palm trees had grown out over the street. They didn’t want to cut them, so they put a big red dot on them. If it was too low, you’d drive around.”
In 1952, Eyster proclaimed that Key West was too crowded, and they moved up to Lower Matecumbe where they were the eighth family to build in the area. At that time, it was more like a private island with very little traffic coming through on U.S. 1.
“One morning, these guys on the seven-mile bridge set a tent up,” he said. “I stopped and said, aren’t you guys afraid of being hit? He said there’s only one car that comes through here at night, and that’s the one taking things to the commissary in Key West. You’re the first one who’s been through here in 24 hours.”
Over the years, Eyster has done excavations all the way from Ocean Reef to Key West, but he has spent a great deal of time researching Indian Key and ensuring its preservation.
“I’ve lived in the Keys 61 years, and I’ve been researching Indian Key for over 70,” Eyster said. “My grandfather stayed there in 1882, and he was telling me about the things in Florida that he visited. Indian Key was his favorite. He told me about the Indians and all the things that went with it. I was very worked up over it when we came here. That was one of the first things that I looked for.”
Eyster excavated Indian Key several times starting in the late ’50s when he was invited out by the owners of the island who recognized that people were starting to steal artifacts from the site.
“It was mostly a family affair,” Eyster said. “We found tools and things from the house — hardware, doorknobs and locks and that kind of thing. Almost all the china and glass was broken by the Indians when they raided the place. We found hundreds of pieces of those. What they didn’t take with them, they broke. My daughter found a whole bottle. It was the only one we found that whole dig.”
In 1965, Hurricane Betsy uncovered a lot of sand on the island, and Eyster’s dig at that time produced more interesting artifacts.
“The Perrine house was built up over the water, and I have bowls of stuff that they actually used,” he said. “I found the sole of some guy’s shoe. I wonder if that wasn’t Dr. Perrine’s or maybe young Henry’s.”
In the early ’50s, Eyster thought that he was going to be able to buy Indian Key. On a trip to Key West, he saw that it was advertised for sale for $28,000. When he went to Miami to sign the papers, the agent told him that it had been sold by one of the owners without his knowledge.
“I was real disgusted,” Eyster said. “He told me that if I wanted to fight it, I could beat it. I said to hell with it, and I’ve regretted it ever since.”
In 1976, he wrote his first book about Indian Key to go along with the first Indian Key Festival, which he helped establish. They expected a few hundred people, but it turned into a two-day affair with more than 2,000 people in attendance.
Eyster only had three weeks to write that first book, which he said he wrote from memory. He is now working on a new one, which is growing to be more than 250 pages.
The Perrine descendants, who live up the East Coast, have been helping, as well as people in New York who knew the Perrine and the Housman families. They have sent him photos, legal documents and items of historical significance.
“I knew a lot about Indian Key then, but I didn’t have all the facts,” Eyster said. “That’s what I’m trying to do now.”
In addition to his work on Indian Key, Eyster has been collecting artifacts, memorabilia, documents, maps, and pictures about the history of the Keys for all of these years. In 1995, he helped form the Matecumbe Historical Trust, which has a vision of starting a museum that will focus on the history, anthropology and archaeology of the Keys.
Eyster’s daughter, Barbara Edgar, is a board member for the trust. She said what makes Eyster’s collection so special is the relationships that he has formed over the years with the descendants of the early settlers.
“With him these things aren’t just hearsay,” she said. “He knew the people that lived here, and these people knew that he’s trying to preserve the past for future generations.
At this point, plans have been drawn up for the building, but the organization is still soliciting donations in order to buy the land. Edgar said that they will be applying for grant money but that she anticipated that most of the funds for the museum would have to come from the private sector.
“My dad’s been doing this for over 60 years, and this collection is tremendous,” she said. “He’s wanted to build this for years. We’ve got plans to make this place a first-class museum that people will be proud of.”
Tips from the pros on buying seafood
One of the benefits of living in the Keys is access to fresh seafood year round. To ensure you get the best of the catch, use your eyes, nose and hands when picking out your dinner.
Your local fish market is the best bet for finding that day’s catch. They deal with the local fisherman on a daily basis, and sometimes they even get deliveries twice a day.
George Eigner, the owner of Fish Tales Market and Eatery in Marathon, said that they usually have five to ten different types of fish on display depending on the season.
“I can tell you exactly when that fish was caught compared to the grocery store where they would have no idea how fresh that fish was,” he said. “It could come from all over Florida.”
Go shopping with the knowledge of what seafood is in season, and don’t be afraid to ask questions of the staff. If you aren’t happy with what you see on display, ask if they have anything fresher in the back.
“If you don’t like the look of the color, the person behind the counter should tell you right away if they have something better looking,” Eigner said. “There’s always one fish that I’ll recommend over the other.”
Brett Gregory, who has been the seafood manager at the Fish House Restaurant and Seafood Market in Key Largo for 24 years, said that fresh seafood should not have a fishy or foul smell. Instead, it should smell like the ocean. He noted that you should also watch out for a freezer or ammonia smell
With filleted fish, check to make sure that the piece has a nice clear color with no blemishes and bright red blood lines. The older the fish gets, the lines will turn brown, and the meat will have a slimy feel.
When looking at a whole fish, you should look for clear rounded eyes that are not sunken in or cloudy. The gills should be bright red and not a brownish color. The skin should be free from slime and blemishes and have scales that adhere tightly. Both filleted and whole fish should be firm and spring back to the touch.
For shrimp, make sure that they are translucent with no black lines or legs. They should also feel firm to the touch. “Key West shrimp are one of a kind,” Eigner said. “They are probably the best shrimp. It has its own sweet flavor.”
With lobster, it’s best to get them alive when they are in season. Just like whole fish, you should look to see that the eyes are clear and crisp looking. Also, see if the antennae are broken. This could be an indication that the lobster was roughly handled. If you are buying the tails already wrung, the meat should be firm and not spongy. You don’t want to see the meat separating or bulging from the shell. There should be no black lines on the meat or black discoloration where the tail was wrung from the body. When looking at crab, Gregory said that the smell was the greatest indicator of freshness. “Crab can go bad overnight, and you can really tell when it does.”
Although oysters and clams are not from Keys’ waters, Gregory said that they are still quite good and available fresh. He said that he prefers the oysters from Northern Florida because he thinks that they taste saltier and cleaner.
“Shellfish should be completely closed,” he said. “If it’s open, you shouldn’t even attempt to eat it. They should sound solid if you tap on them, not hollow. When you open them up they should smell like the ocean because they hold the water inside.” He added that the colder months are the best months for eating oysters. They spawn in the warmer months and have less meat. In the colder months, they fatten back up.
Since scallops usually come from the northern east coast, Gregory said that 90% of the time they are frozen. It’s hard to tell if they are really fresh, unless you get them live in the shell like oysters.
The same goes for conch. Since it is illegal to harvest conch in US waters, it almost always comes frozen from the Caribbean. When buying, make sure that the color is solid white and not gray. Try to get meat that has never been thawed.
Keep in mind how much seafood you will actually be using right away. Eigner recommended using fresh seafood within two days. The colder you keep your catch, the longer it will last, so store seafood in the coldest part of your refrigerator. Think about bringing a cooler with you to the market to transport your purchases home.
Gregory said he felt fortunate to live in the Keys and have such ready access to fresh seafood.
“It’s like growing your own vegetables,” he said. “If you’re getting it right out of the ocean here, you know what you’re eating. If you get it from someplace else, you don’t know what chemicals are on it or how old it is. Living here it’s going to be untouched, unadulterated.”
Saturday, March 10, 2012
Former Kaiyo chef opens new Islamorada bistro
Ledwith's Chef Michael's promises great food and atmosphere
Chef Michael Ledwith in the kitchen of his new restaurant with the peppered tuna tataki appetizer.(Photo by Claudia Miller)
The culinary rumor mill went into high gear last September when the sign in front of Chanticleer Restaurant in Islamorada was hand-painted, "Gone Fishin'." Owner chef Jean-Charles Berruet had, indeed, retired to enjoy his other passion, fishing, and turned the space over to local chef Michael Ledwith.
A series of humorous hand-painted signs followed with names like Sally's Seashell Supper Club and Aesop's Table, which kept people guessing for months. In January, Ledwith put up his final sign and opened Chef Michael's Restaurant, an American bistro with French flair.
"We were just having some fun with it," Ledwith said. "We decided to make the sign a guerilla marketing ad and changed it every couple of days. We talked about what would be funny and slapped it up there. I painted them myself."
A long-time fixture on the Islamorada dining scene, Ledwith left is five-year stint as executive chef at Kayio about a year ago to pursue his catering company, Hungry Heron of the Keys, with his fiancé, Mary Carrol. The initial business plan did not include opening a restaurant. Instead, they were using Berruet's kitchen facilities for storage and prep for the catering business.
"It fell into our lap," he said. "We had a good relationship with Jean-Charles. He was ready to retire, and I needed a bigger kitchen. Once the word got out that we were here, it was a constant barrage of people asking when we were going to open the restaurant."
The interior of the 40-seat eatery is decorated in a cream and chocolate palette. Works from local artists dot the walls, like swordfish and heron paintings from local artist Pasta Pantaleo. The warm lighting created by candles glowing under beaded shades and melted glass light fixtures over the curved bar creates an inviting atmosphere. A side porch offers al fresco dining.
"It's small, but I like the size," Ledwith said. "It's very personal and intimate. Mary and I can cruise around the dining room and talk to the guests, and it's not overwhelming"
Ledwith devotes much of the menu to the local seafood. He does eight different fish preparations with the type of fish changing daily according to what's fresh and local.
"They are good, simple, classic preparations," he said. "We usually know the source of our fish, the name of the captain and the way it was caught."
One of his signature dishes is the Pontchartrain - the catch of day lightly blackened with crawfish, shrimp and blue crab in a piquant Creole cream.
Also featured on the menu are starters like conch and rock shrimp fritters, peppered tuna tataki and salads topped with their homemade hazelnut vinaigrette.
Other entrees like filet mignon, braised lamb shank, chicken saltimbocca and linguini pomodoro, round out the offerings. Ledwith noted that his bone-in prime rib, available on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday is extremely popular. Entrees range in price from $17 for pasta to $34 for filet mignon.
Ledwith said that business has been brisk with a mix of locals, winter residents and tourists. "It's been steady. Things are going very well."
Chef Michael's Restaurant is located at mile marker 81.6 O/S in Islamorada. Open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Call 305-664-0640 for more information or reservations.