Marathon and Monroe County officials, together with the staff of Isla Bella, CRMA and the Marathon Chamber of Commerce, prepare to cut the ribbon and officially christen CRMA’s new 33-foot cleanup vessel.

“Making dirty friends in trashy places” is the motto that drives the Conch Republic Marine Army (CRMA), a nonprofit organization aimed at cleanup and restoration of the Florida Keys marine habitats. It’s clear that CRMA is passionate about its mission and isn’t afraid to tackle even the messiest of challenges to protect the precious marine ecosystems of the Keys. 

So far, with more than 4,500 volunteers helping on coastal excursions, CRMA has been able to remove 227 tons of debris from the shorelines surrounding the islands. For the last five years, groups of eight to 10 volunteers commit to the sometimes muddy and stinky experiences on a Carolina skiff to clear debris washed up on remote, uninhabited islands in the Lower Keys. 

Captain Brian Vest, CRMA’s founder and president, has a passion for cleaning up the Keys. After moving to the islands in 2017 and experiencing the wrath of hurricane Irma, Vest created an army of people who came together to restore what Irma took away and to make everyone’s lives better. 

“This is a lifestyle choice and a calling,” said Vest. “Every day we consider what we can do to make a difference. It’s too easy to look the other way, but I’m on a mission. All the critters of the ocean, birds and mammals call that habitat home. It’s our job to give it back to them. We do not back down, nor do we quit. When we see neighbors who need assistance, we help. Unconditionally. When we see a need, we volunteer.” 

And so the “marine army” was created. Vest and his band of volunteers have led private groups made up of restaurant and bar staff, real estate firms, national youth organizations and resort members on cleanup trips around the islands. 

Vest’s next mission is to partner with Marathon’s Isla Bella Beach Resort and its staff to bring CRMA’s cleanup efforts to visitors and tourists alike. On Feb. 7, the new 33-foot K3 Henrikson skiff, equipped with a brand new Yamaha engine and fully outfitted for Middle Keys cleanup runs, was christened in front of community members and officials from throughout Marathon and Monroe County at the Knight’s Key resort. In addition to donating a portion of its drink sales and an additional $20,000 contribution last year, the newest addition to CRMA’s fleet was made possible by another whopping $85,000 donation from Isla Bella.  

The vessel will serve multiple purposes, such as supporting marine research, facilitating clean-up initiatives, or aiding in the monitoring and protection of local ecosystems. There are also future plans to accommodate student groups and collaboration efforts with local schools and Marathon residents eager to join and make a difference. 

The collaboration between Isla Bella Beach Resort and CRMA demonstrates a strong commitment to both environmental conservation and community support by showcasing a dedication to sustainability and preservation of the Florida Keys’ natural beauty. The investment in the K3 skiff further solidifies Isla Bella’s role as a key partner in ongoing conservation efforts. 

“My goal is to empower CRMA to sustain its crucial work by establishing a post in the marina at Isla Bella while creating meaningful experiences for our hotel guests,” said Isla Bella general manager Justin Nels. 

In a region as vulnerable to environmental threats as the Keys, individuals like Nels play a crucial role in raising awareness, mobilizing communities and implementing practical solutions. 

“Isla Bella’s collaboration with CRMA reflects a shared vision for a sustainable future where community involvement and environmental conservation go hand in hand,” the resort stated in a press release.

Guests and visitors to the resort are welcome to join in on the complimentary excursions, learning about marine life such as turtles, stingrays, manatees and endangered birds as they travel into mangrove ecosystems to remove trash. This education reinforces the connections between human actions and the health of these ecosystems. Each adventure then continues to a sandbar, where guests have the chance to rinse off and delve deeper into the rich history and biodiversity of the Florida Keys. Upon return, the trash collected on each trip is weighed and documented to add to CRMA’s totals. 

Operating twice per week on Wednesdays and Saturdays, with two sessions available from 9:30 a.m. to noon and 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m., the boat provides flexibility for guests to engage in hands-on conservation work during their stay at the resort. By booking a spot on the cleanup vessel, guests have the unique opportunity to directly assist staff members in removing debris from the surrounding waters, actively contributing to the preservation of the delicate marine ecosystem.

“Partnering with Isla Bella is a fantastic opportunity for CRMA,” said Vest. “Their support connects us to a wider audience in Marathon and beyond. After Hurricane Irma we’ve worked tirelessly to remove trash from the Florida Keys, and Isla Bella’s collaboration allows us to expand our reach and continue cleaning and preserving our fragile ecosystems.” 

For more information about CRMA and Isla Bella Beach Resort, visit and

Photos by ALEX RICKERT/Keys Weekly

Jen Alexander
Jen Alexander is a teacher and volleyball coach at Sugarloaf School. She is a lover of travel, adventure, action, home improvement and family. A self-proclaimed "master of none," she is a doer of all and partaker of anything fun and exciting.