Longtime resident and much-loved Key West character, Capt. Joe Weatherby, 62, passed away in a care facility in Miami on Tuesday, Feb. 13, after a medically challenging period following a stroke last year. During this period numerous dear friends exerted maximum efforts to support his recovery and celebrate his contributions to his community. He was attended to at the end by his dear friend, Jennifer Badry. Joe touched countless lives and strongly shaped the formative years of the young people who surrounded him — Kevin, John, Ricky and Kaiya — along with his sister Elizabeth, at the time of his passing, just at sunset. 

Born in Pitman, New Jersey, Joe moved to the South Jersey Shore in his early teens, where his family ran Weatherby’s Wharf in Avalon. He graduated from Wildwood Catholic High School in 1980 before attending the University of Delaware, where many lifelong friendships began. It was during a spring break with his college friends that he first came to Key West, which Joe immediately recognized as home. 

Don and Margaret Weatherby, his parents, are previously deceased. He is survived by his brother Marty (Akiyo), nephew Kaiya, niece Nami; sister Elizabeth, nieces Natalie and Bee; brother Mike (Patti), and nephews Kevin and Sean. 

Joe was driven by his love of the sea and his connection with people. In Key West he spent his time scuba diving, sailing and shucking oysters at the Half Shell Raw Bar. He was involved in a diving business, bartending, commercial salmon-fishing in Alaska, and spent some time teaching English in Japan with his brother Marty in the early ’90s.

Later, back in Key West, Joe captained dive boats, which led to what became a lifelong dedication to preserving coral reefs. He conceived the “Sink the Vandenberg” project, insisting on the importance of artificial reefs to help both the environment and the local economy. 

After 13 years of persistence, and the cooperation of many in the community, the Vandenberg, a 510-foot former military ship, was sunk at last on May 27, 2009, seven miles off Key West. This garnered national and international attention, and as a premier dive site, was recognized by the Key West Chamber of Commerce with the chamber’s Piece of the Rock award.

Along with Captains George and Carla Bellenger, Joe helped conceive and develop the Key West/Havana Challenge, in which competitors sailed across the Florida Straits to compete with the elite sailors of Cuba at the Hemingway International Yacht Club in Havana. Like the artificial reef projects, these events were preceded by “unofficial test runs” that also required daring, endurance and tenacity.

Joe served for many years as a volunteer on the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s advisory council. He presented many exhibitions at Diving Equipment & Marketing Association conventions and other events to promote the benefits of artificial reefs and marine preservation. He also ran his own company, Artificial Reefs International, which sank ships in Belize, Vancouver and Florida. To further publicize the Vandenberg artificial reef, and to help wounded veterans, Joe organized the Reef Wreck Races, using diving sleds, or underwater scooters, in the competition that included underwater races around the wreck. 

Joe held other contests at the wreck that challenged divers to find hidden rum and other “treasures” on the artificial reef. Capt. Joe was overwhelmed by the honor of an Emmy Award that was granted to videographers and producers who captured the sinking of the USS Mohawk in Lee County, Florida in 2013. Another Emmy was awarded for the sinking of the Brause Girls International Reef off Martin County, Florida in 2019. Joe proudly self-identified as a “shipwrecker.” 

His witty, generous personality and talent for bringing diverse people together for good causes, while having fun doing it, earned him deep friendships locally and all over the world. So many people have expressed a fraternal feeling and love for him, and he constantly demonstrated that the affection was mutual. 

Capt. Joe is deeply mourned and sorely missed. Our loss and his absence will be felt for all time by his family and countless friends. A celebration of Joe’s life is being planned for a later date and details will be shared when finalized.