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Big Pine Key Boating & Marinas in the Lower Keys
The best rule of thumb for boating in the Lower Keys is, if you don't know the waters, don't venture out on your own. The best teacher is experience, and the second best is a lot of local advice, but a lot of both is what you really need.
Although there are quite a few places in the Lower Keys where you can rent a boat, it is advisable that you get as much information as you can about the waters surrounding this area before you venture out. Even when you go offshore on the Atlantic side of these islands, the biggest threat is shallow water and coral heads. The reef line is well marked and, unless you visit there too early or stay out too late, you will find quite a few boats moored at the reef. Looe Key Marine Sanctuary is well marked and has mooring buoys, as does the patch reef right offshore of Big Pine. The bigger shoals are well marked, but do not have mooring buoys. A current chart is always your best bet to show you where the shallows are. Of course the channels are well marked on this side of the Overseas Highway .
When you are in more landlocked areas of America and you hear the term "backcountry" you may think of a long road to the middle of nowhere. In the lower Florida Keys, the term backcountry refers to the area on the north side of the Overseas Highway. This is a vast expanse of uninhabited coral and mangrove islands, fields of sea grass in shallow water, and tidal channels that go around and through these formations. Because these areas are uninhabited, they are breeding grounds and refuges for a wide variety of endangered and precious wildlife.
To a newcomer, navigation through the backcountry can be very difficult. Tidal channels are not well marked and depths are difficult to determine for the inexperienced visitor. Because this is such a wide-open area in many places, there is a tendency to run at high speeds. This could be disastrous as it is very easy to be mistaken about depths and run aground. Because this is a National Marine Sanctuary, there can be fines levied if you are caught in this predicament. To avoid doing harm to this delicate and beautiful environment, try to keep your boat in the deep tidal channels, avoid taking shortcuts, and proceed at a cautious speed. It is much easier to back off a flat you have glided onto than it is after you have run hard aground.
There is a chant that locals use that can be helpful when trying to determine whether or not it is safe to wander into a specific area: Brown, brown, run aground; yellow, yellow will ground a fellow; green, green go between; Blue, blue come on through!
Flats boats built especially for navigation in very shallow waters, or lightweight flat-bottomed kayaks are the safest bet for exploring this beautiful and exotic area of the Lower Keys. But, when the waters on the Atlantic side are too rough for comfortable boating, a ride into the backcountry can be an extremely enjoyable experience.
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