Grecian Rocks - Snorkelers enjoy the corals at Grecian Rocks in the late 1980s. The female model is Barbara Doernbach, Stephen Frink’s late wife; the male model is Mike White, the second Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary superintendent.

“Bodies in the sand, tropical drink melting in your hand,

We’ll be falling in love to the rhythm of a steel drum band,

Down in Kokomo.”

Released in 1988, this Beach Boys classic was stuck in my head long before I moved to the Florida Keys to restore the reef. It’s not unlikely that Carl Wilson and Mike Love had spent a sunny afternoon or two enjoying our little slice of paradise, and some local tall tales claim that the fictional Kokomo really is a place in the Keys. (You can tell me, is it really the old Holiday Isle bar, now the Postcard Inn?) 

A photo of the USS Duane on the first day she was open to diving, the day after Thanksgiving 1987. STEPHEN FRINK/Contributed

Legendary tiki bar or not, our island chain and its turquoise waters have been captivating people for decades. Legendary diver and photographer Jerry Greenberg brought the Keys to the main stage with the first color underwater cover for National Geographic. As interest grew, so did traffic to our waters. Protecting our marine resources became, and remains, paramount to the continued bounty of our oceans and the lives they sustain (wild and human). 

Greenberg again galvanized interest in our waters in 1990 when he returned to National Geographic with an expose about the decline of the reef. Rumor has it that this magazine made its way to Washington, D.C., where it influenced national politicians to designate the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary that same year to coordinate and amplify conservation efforts. On Nov. 16, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary turned the big 3-0

A photo of Stephen Frink’s late wife Barbara Doernbach celebrating the 20th anniversary of the sinking of the Christ of the Abyss Statue in 1965. STEPHEN FRINK/Contributed

That’s three decades of wonder, of fun, of lives spent by the sea. It’s also 30 years of watching our corals decline and our fish stocks fluctuate. To be sure, it is a challenging road ahead ‒ to restore the reef and bring back what once was. It will take calculated coordination and trust on all sides. 

While far from perfect, the sanctuary does aim to tie us all together for the good of our shared treasure: these waters. So, on this milestone birthday, I asked friend Stephen Frink, who’s been taking pictures of our waters since the 1970s, to help me reminisce about all that has happened in 30 years. These are some of his favorite moments in our sanctuary’s history. Hopefully, with our collective help, we’ll have a new collection of images in the next decade to showcase how far we’ve come in restoring this glory.

Stephen Frink swimming in what would become the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. © Jerry Greenberg/Contributed

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Tiff Duong is a self-made mermaid who loves all things cheesy (romantic and dairy) and thrives in the 3 am hour. She believes in leaving it all on the field and has never met a (mis)adventure she didn't love.