Scores of boats tied up to mooring buoys as divers and snorkelers explored remarkably clear waters off the Upper Keys on Memorial Day weekend. Hundreds of vessels took to sandbars off Whale Harbor and Port Antigua in Islamorada to enjoy pristine conditions.
Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation patrol boats closely watched for no-wake violators, drunk boaters and other infractions. In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 13-8 boat containing four crew members — and the Coast Guard Station Islamorada’s newest commander — were also out providing a vital water safety mission.
While they don’t issue tickets, auxiliary crew members within Flotilla 13-8 spent the day on May 29 educating boaters on diver flags while in the water, no spearfishing in sanctuary preservation areas (SPA) and the correct way to tie up to a mooring buoy.
With a mission briefing by coxswain David Gross, four crew members hopped onto his 30-foot “Copa Cat” from his Venetian Shores dock. Heading north, the education effort got underway quickly as a boat entered the Snake Creek channel at a high rate of speed.
“This is a no-wake zone,” crew member Jim Doran said as the boater passed by.
The education didn’t stop from there as the patrol arrived at Hens & Chickens and Molasses reefs in Key Largo. Crew members were quick to spot several boats without a “diver down” flag, which Florida law requires to caution nearby boaters. One dive operator was also seen without a flag.
One group of visitors enjoying a snorkel in a rental boat at Molasses didn’t have a dive flag. Instead of forcing them back in the boat and back on land to retrieve one, Gross gave them his dive flag so they could enjoy their day.
“I have a lot of memories with this flag,” Gross told the female snorkeler. “Go on and enjoy this beautiful day.”
Crew members Richard Natole and Doran were also busy teaching a number of boaters how to properly tie up to a mooring buoy.
“That’s what we’re here for,” Doran said.
Crew members saw and addressed a man spearfishing within the boundaries of Conch Reef SPA and a group of people illegally hanging out on a platform at Alligator Reef Light. Two snorkelers who were far from their boat were told to attach a diver flag to them so they could be spotted.
On the bayside, crew members checked out a new swim zone, vessel exclusion area 300 feet out from the mean high water line off White Marlin and Port Antigua Beach in Islamorada. During their brief stop, they saw no issues or confrontations.
In total, crew members aboard the auxiliary boat possessed more than 50 years of local experience navigating the Upper Keys waters. It’s why Coast Guard Station Islamorada’s newest commander, Matt James, hopped on board for the day. James previously served at stations in Chicago and Philadelphia before getting the recent call to be the No. 1 in charge at the Islamorada station.
“For a large part, active duty crews here are transients. There’s a few folks who are fortunate to do a couple tours in the Keys or in the same area of responsibility, but we cycle through every two to three years,” he said. “With the auxiliary guys, they can show me the cuts and where to go and not go so I can teach my crews that come after me.”
The Coast Guard station in Islamorada has roughly 30 active members of the Coast Guard. With one crew operating 24/7 and an expansive area to cover, James said it helps to have the ability to multiply the force with the auxiliary patrol during busy weekends like Memorial Day.