Gabe Matthias places a 140-pound zinc anode at the base of Alligator Reef Lighthouse. The anodes are used to create stability. CONTRIBUTED

As 400-plus swimmers prepare to take the plunge for the annual 8-mile swim to and from Alligator Reef Lighthouse, progress continues to be made on the multimillion dollar project to restore this local treasure.

“Last week we put zinc anodes on the lighthouse,” said Captain Rob Dixon. Dixon, along with artist Larry “Lighthouse” Herlth, continues leading the charge to rehabilitate the nearly 150-year-old structure.

In total, volunteers placed eight anodes, weighing 140 pounds each, on the lighthouse to provide stability.

“They clamp around the lighthouse and there’s a wire that comes out of them into the structure itself in eight places and any kind of electrolysis, instead of corroding the lighthouse structure itself, will eat away at the sacrificial zinc,” explained Dixon.  “So it will eat away at that aluminum zinc before the lighthouse will corrode,” he added.

“It definitely buys us some more time and that’s important,” said Herlth.

In September 2021, the U.S. Department of Interior granted the non-profit Friends of the Pool Inc. ownership of the lighthouse with the agreement that it will be restored and made accessible to the public. Restoration is estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $6 million.

So far, between grants and donations, about half a million dollars has been raised.

“Some people say you’ve had it for a year-and-a-half and we thought we would see more accomplished by now, but it took us almost a year to just get the engineering study completed,” said Dixon.

The study suggested a three-pronged approach to restoring the lighthouse: create stability, make structural repairs and then work on the cosmetic issues. The estimated timeline to finish the project is five to six years.

“Next step, we want to create easy access for us because right now it’s very difficult to get up there,” said Dixon, adding that they also want to prevent people from climbing and jumping off the compromised structure.

“We’re trying to ask people to be a part of the solution and not the problem,” said Dixon.

Over 10 years ago, Dixon and Herlth set out to bring awareness to the state of the decaying lighthouse and Swim for Alligator Lighthouse was born.

“It all started with Larry swimming out there in 2012 to see if we can get the government to change their mind about funding these lighthouses, and that’s how it all started in 2012,” recalled Dixon, who is the only swimmer to make the solo 8-mile swim every year since the official event started in 2013. Many swimmers complete the 8 miles as part of a relay team. It’s one of the toughest open water swims around.

“Red Bull ranks it the seventh most challenging in the world,” added Herlth.

Between the swimmers and their families, the yearly event brings thousands to the Keys during the slowest part of the tourist season.

“People spend thousands of dollars to come here and do this swim. It’s really a good shot in the arm for Islamorada, Key Largo, the Keys economy in general,” said Dixon.

The swim typically raises $20,000 to fund local scholarships for high school swimmers. 

Money left over goes to the Save Alligator Lighthouse nonprofit.

A heart attack suffered five years ago will keep Herlth on shore during the swim, but he will be helping on land and selling copper replicas of the lighthouse.

“It’s not about my art, it’s about saving this lighthouse,” said Herlth.

Another reason Herlth and Dixon have fought so hard for Alligator Reef Lighthouse is that the area under the structure is home to hundreds of species of fish and coral.

“It’s very important to the ecosystem out there,” said Herlth.

As for Dixon, he’s looking forward to another swim around the historic lighthouse.

“I’m really grateful that my body is still allowing me to do this at 62 years old. If I can swim this 8-mile swim and my body lets me do it, then I should be grateful for every stroke that I take and every jellyfish that stings me,” said Dixon with a laugh.

Swim for Alligator Lighthouse takes place on Saturday, Sept. 9. Swimmers will start and finish at Amara Cay Resort in Islamorada. Swimmers must be at least 15 years old to participate. For more on this event, visit swimalligatorlight.com.

If you would like to make a donation to help restore the lighthouse, visit savealligatorlighthouse.org.

Kellie Butler Farrell is a journalist who calls Islamorada home. Kellie spent two decades in television news and also taught journalism at Barry University in Miami and Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, UAE. She loves being outside, whether spending time on the water or zipping down the Old Highway on her electric bike, Kellie is always soaking up the island lifestyle. Kellie and her husband own an electric bike rental company, Keys Ebikes.