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No swell? No problem. Dirtbag Darling's Aquatic Explorer Guide to the Florida Keys

Posted by Rhea Cortado on

Dirtbag Darling jumps into Florida waters. 

Surfers worth their salty swell maps know that glassy peaks don't normally break upon the shores of the Florida Keys island chain. Don't let that stop you from crossing the Overseas Highway and expanding your watercraft repertoire in clear ocean bliss.

Our friend, Johnie Gall of the blog Dirtbag Darling recently took a trip to the Florida Keys and shared her favorite outdoor activities that are so fun that you won't be missing your surfboard. 

Swampland in Florida. All photos courtesy of Johnie Gall.

By Johnie Gall of Dirtbag Darling 

Let’s face it: surfers don’t flock to the Florida Keys because, well, chances are perfect peelers won’t be waiting for you off the southernmost tip of the state. What you do go for is seafood so fresh it still smells like the salt water you plucked it from. You go to slip under the surface and swim with pods of dolphin and fish that dwarf VW vans. You go to reset your watch to island time without the trip through customs—and isn’t that worth the drive?

Here are my top picks for what to do in the Florida Keys:

Fresh catch!

Bait your own hook

Never say no to a chance to go fishing. It’s a great place to learn about the regulations that have been put in place to protect sea life and prevent overfishing. And there’s nothing quite like pulling your dinner straight from the sea, learning how to fillet a fish, and recycling the leftovers when you leave dock the next day.

Dive in

Charter a boat for the day to one of the many protected reefs off the coast of the Keys. Looe Key Marine Sanctuary is home to Angelfish, Moray eel, Barracuda, Sergeant Major, and a few species of shark and ray. Stay under the surface long enough and you can find cuttlefish, sea turtles, and even dolphins. During one trip, I grabbed the ladder to the boat and started to hoist myself up when I saw a Goliath grouper staring back at me from the bottom of the boat—this fish was probably 400 pounds and the same width as our vessel!

Johnie explores underwater wearing the Hermosa. 

Stand Up Paddle Out

Sunset paddles are an incredible way to cruise the coastline and watch sharks start to feed near the reefs or maybe—if you’re lucky—a manatee (they’re nicknamed the “Sea Cow”). If the water is calm enough, rent a SUP board for the day from Paddle! The Florida Keys—they deliver for free between mile markers 80 and 100. You can also opt for the Eco-Tour from Key Largo—it’s interesting to hear about the history of the Florida Bay as you paddle along.

Catch Some Wind

One of my favorite things to do in the Keys is windsurf—it’s a full body workout that will leave you with sore muscles you didn’t even know you had. Lifting the heavy sail and keeping your balance while trying to tilt the sail to catch the wind takes practice, but with a good instructor, you’ll be able to carve through the water during your first lesson. The crystal-clear water and warm temperatures are ideal for learning, too. Rent a set-up from Smathers Beach Club.

Under the sea. If there are ever waves, they definitely surf 'em better than you.

Log time on dry land

In the early morning, go for a hike at the National Key Deer Refuge (key deer are dog-sized whitetails, an endangered species that don’t like anywhere else in the world) and Blue Hole. Key Largo plays host to the historic steamboat, the African Queen—if you’re a fan of Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, you’ll recognize it.

Immerse yourself in the culture

Drive to Key West and experience what I think is the quintessential Keys experience: watching the street performers at the Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square Dock. It’s one of the few places I’ve been where hundreds of people gather just to watch the sun go down—but there’s plenty of reasons to get there before the ombre sunset: sip coconut water from a freshly cracked nut, try deep-fried conch fritters and catch a show from Dominique the Cat Man, who has trained his cats to walk on tightropes and jump through fire. Seriously, don’t leave without watching his eccentric performance (“Go back to your seat…stay where you arreeeee!”). 

Take a stroll through the trees. 

Cultivate creativity

Key West is teaming with creativity and is home of some of the world’s best art galleries (don’t leave without a visit to the Wyland Gallery) and surf shops teeming with brands you’ve never heard of (we love Fury Surf Shack). It’s also the creative camp of people like Jimmy Buffett—this is the true home of Margaritaville!—and even Ernest Hemingway. See if the heat and the sunshine spark something in you, too. 

And if you can…go surf!

Hurricane season can bring impressive swells to Florida, so by all means, enjoy them! 

Don't forget to get in some R&R! Johnie wears the Hermosa. 

For more insider tips on traveling to the Florida Keys, check out artist Letty Nowak's Guide to Florida Keys. 

To shop the Hermosa in Limestone suit that Johnie is wearing, go here

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