Category Archives: Florida Keys

I followed a dream on a leap of faith and landed myself working with sea turtles in the Florida Keys. Time flew by on this chain of islands where friends become family, misfits become superstars, and opportunities become reality.

Hurricanes, Hugs & Humor

The first two weeks of October, I was on the road A LOT, offering my heart and receiving so much heart in return.

When Hurricane Irma hit the Keys, I struggled from afar for half a dozen reasons, part of which involved immense empathy and understanding for my Keys island family, having lived through a CAT 4 storm myself.

As the days ticked by, I found myself becoming increasingly more anxious to step foot in my old stomping grounds. I was antsy out of excitement, nerves, and fear.

Without consciously planning it this way, the timing of my trip proved to be quite serendipitous. I boarded a red eye on September 30, the two-year anniversary of the day a tropical storm was brewing in the Caribbean that might hit the remote Bahamian island I was living on. I landed on October 1, two years to the day I woke up to a CAT 4 historic hurricane on top of me.

But the second I walked out of Miami International Airport and into the arms of my Bahamian island parents who drove from Naples just to see me, my anxiety melted away. My island parents hug like no other–strong, sturdy, genuine. Their embrace needs no words to tell how they feel about you, about life, because their assuring physical touch says it all.

They drove me down to Florida City after a quick jaunt at Cracker Barrel (a restaurant I haven’t seen or visited in years–Amurrica!). I then waited excitedly in a Starbucks to reunite with my friend Kris who left the Keys nearly five years ago. I was SO excited that, in sending a flurry of texts and phone calls sharing my whereabouts and ETA to Keys folk, my palpable joy started putting smiles on faces of the coffee shop’s caffeine-infused customers.

I expected to hold back tears as we entered Key Largo, creeping south toward Marathon in the Middle Keys. Memorable and iconic local hot spots were strewn about; towering piles of debris lined the roads. But mostly, I had a smile on my face, because I knew I was about to see my island family.

In the short week that I spent in the Keys, I had limited time to help: ripping off moldy, sodden baseboards, tearing down dry wall, and digging through sand. My friends are exhausted; cleaning up the aftermath of a hurricane is a daunting task. Many of my friends are now homeless and/or jobless.

But they still have so much love to give.

I spent the evenings attempting to organize gatherings–relief from the hurricane relief. I knew one week wasn’t much time for me to make a dent in the clean-up and construction, but aside from putting my set-building skills to use, I also have my joy, love, and comedy to offer.

Before my trip to the Keys, I was struggling to process it all. I called one of my closest friends who knows the long version of what I’ve been dealing with the past couple years. He asked me to recall the first time I laughed after Hurricane Joaquin.

I really, really had to think about that. Due to my isolated situation following the storm, it was two weeks before I could get out into the community. I had no one to talk to about the fear I’d experienced or the apocalyptic aftermath that kept me awake and inappetent. Two isolated weeks following a traumatic experience is like two years.

But I thought hard, and then I started laughing. I remembered someone lending me some gasoline so I could drive the truck down south and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to distribute to the now homeless, alongside the hot dogs my friends cooked. (Read more about the incredible perspective I gained from this trip south here.)

Bahamians like their meat, and they don’t eat PBJs. (It’s largely an American thing.) I made somewhere between 50 to 100 PBJs… but I had to practically beg the locals to take the sandwiches from me once we ran out of hot dogs. I remember laughing at my efforts to help and seeing how people can still be opinionated in the hardest of times. It reminded me that no matter what life throws at us, we’re still human.

Even if I am covered in sweat and dirt and my muscles are sore, I am still me. Even if my heart is broken and I can’t imagine tomorrow, I am still me. I will always have the gift of crazy, uninhibited, Energizer-Bunny energy, and I tried my hardest to share that with my island family then and now.

Another aspect of my healing process that was missing post-Joaquin was human contact. Studies show that supportive physical touch–a simple hug–actually results in incredible physiological changes within the body, including decreasing stress.

I hugged often and I hugged hard when I was in the Keys, because I’m a hugger, and I know how much I’ve missed and needed that in my life. My Keys friends are huggers, too, and they have a way of making me feel more loved than I’ve ever felt before.

Mother Nature can turn lives upside down in an instant, but she cannot destroy our human nature, that indelible mortal connection. Laughter and physical touch bring joy and hope that have a healing power all their own.

The Keys will recover just like Long Island, Bahamas recovered, and it happens with love, joy, and a little bit of laughter.

To anyone experiencing hardship: hug & laugh, more & often.

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Dear Florida Keys

Dear Florida Keys,

You were the fourth place to which I moved, not knowing a single soul, and in a few short weeks, you had me hooked. I tried to leave you once, but I wasn’t ready yet. You held tight to me for three years–the longest my nomadic self has ever stayed in one spot. You are the hardest home to which I’ve ever had to say goodbye.

You are where I had my first real, paid, adult, career-oriented job, where I dove head first into the reptile world working with sea turtles. You provided the foundation for me to accomplish my childhood dream of becoming a published author. (Hurray for books on turtles!) (Shout out to the Turtle Hospital.)

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You are where I committed to acting and realized, hey, maybe I want to and can do this professional acting thing for reals. (Shout out to Marathon Community Theater.)

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You are where I realized I don’t have to just carry parasites (ahem); I can be fascinated by them through a microscope, too! (Shout out to Marathon Veterinary Hospital.)

You are where I entered the sports arena again after a doctor-ordered moratorium on flying balls and contact sports. Our team may have lost 98% of our softball games, but my head still works! (Shout out to City of Marathon Parks and Recreation.)

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You are where I realized we can have more than one soulmate in life, and that soulmate doesn’t have to be your significant other; they can be your bestest friend. (Shout out to my Panini at Marathon Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center.)

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You are where I saw up close the beauty and success of restorative justice and second chances, two things I have always believed very strongly in. (Shout out to Monroe County Sheriff’s Animal Farm.)

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You are where I learned about marine mammals and joined a family of humans dedicated to their flippered and finned family members. (Shout out to the Dolphin Research Center.)

You are where I camped on the beach for the first time, where I had my first adventure on a remote island. (Shout out to Dry Tortugas National Park.)

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You are where I choreographed and performed my first solo dance routine.

You are where I ran my first race since being diagnosed with Lyme disease.

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You are where I rented my first apartment and lived alone for the first time–in what my sister called a “cute little shed.” You are where I discovered that karaoke needs to be a part of my weekly routine. You are where I made my first key lime pie (it was vegan by the way and super delicious).

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You are where I once fell in love and experienced how a woman deserves to be treated. You are where I held my favorite little four-legged furball as he took his last breath. You are where my faith was challenged. You are where I accidentally played tug-of-war underwater with an octopus, where I lived through my first tropical storm, where I went parasailing, where I experienced how valuable your girlfriends are, where singing Oldies on a boat at the top of my lungs became one of my favorite pastimes.

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You are where I swam in a mermaid fin, where I rowed in the Dragonboat races, where I became skilled in beach volleyball, where I learned to stop and watch every sunset possible, where I had too many adventurous trips to the hospital, where I kayaked through mangroves and SCUBA dived in the day and night, where I almost had my first on-stage/on-screen kiss, where I spent every evening for 3 months with 14 men and somehow always fit in.

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You are where I learned that friendship doesn’t come with an age requirement.

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You are where I discovered that having the same blood running through your veins isn’t a prerequisite for being family.

You are where I have never felt more loved and never loved so much.

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You are where I realized we only have so much time in this life, yet so much to see and do. You are where I realized I needed to never stop exploring this great big world.

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You are where I committed every day not just to existing, but to really, truly, whole-heartedly living.

I needed to leave you for so many reasons, but a part of me stayed. And I’m okay with that, I want that. Because when you love something–especially as hard as I love in my life–you let it keep a little piece of your heart. That doesn’t make your heart any smaller. In fact, in some crazy defiance of science and intellect, it somehow makes your heart bigger.

So keep my heart, Florida Keys, because no matter where I am, you make it beat from afar.

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If you’d like to help the Florida Keys–my forever home–rebuild after Hurricane Irma, consider donating to one of the organizations linked in the post. Please note that the islands are still without electricity and may be for weeks. Consider marking a date on your calendar a month from now to return to this post and make a donation.

Many of my friends–my island family–lost their homes and businesses. If you’d like to help them out, send me an email at smvenzel@gmail.com with the subject line HURRICANE IRMA RELIEF.

And lastly, you can also help the Keys (or one of the other Caribbean tourist destinations affected by Irma) by booking a vacation (just maybe not during hurricane season?). The local economy is driven by tourism. The structures will be rebuilt, but when you visit the Keys, you’re not just visiting a pretty, historic island chain. You’re meeting the locals who make these islands paradise, and they need you to come now more than ever. 

Is This the Apocalypse? Then Here’s a Glimpse of Hope

I am writing to offer some hope. In the immensity of the disasters happening right now–we’ve got wildfires raging out west, hurricanes and flooding around the globe, an earthquake in Mexico–it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that this is–it must be–the apocalypse. It is easy to give in, give up, lose hope.

My heart right now is breaking. I can’t stop pacing my apartment, I can’t focus at work, I can’t sleep through the night. Strangely, the only place I have wanted to be in the past 48 hours is in Long Island, Bahamas with my island family, threading the eye of the hurricane and riding the spherical needle to its next destination, predictably to its mainland fall in my forever home in the Florida Keys. How helpless we are left to feel when we willingly wish ourselves to be in harm’s way for the sake of leaning on each other.

But that is what we must do–support each other. In the imminent devastation that Irma will leave wherever she goes, we must hold onto the silver linings. Sifting through the aftermath of Hurricane Joaquin, I choked back vomit and tears more times than I can count. And while, admittedly, even from far away Irma has shaken my subconscious into unwelcome flashbacks of my own experience flirting with the dangers of Mother Nature, that is not what I remember most from my island life.

Landscapes, homes, hearts, and minds are not impermeable to devastation, but they are resilient in the wake of it. Trees regrow; buildings are rebuilt; our spirits heal. When life makes us take a step back, we pick up, we rebuild and somehow, sometime, we get back to normal. We have to, because there is no other option.

I remember vividly the strength of the storm I endured in October 2015, but I reflect fondly on a strength far greater than Joaquin. I am humbled by the community that arose from the rubble like a phoenix from the ashes, the neighbors who opened their doors, the locals who distributed home-cooked meals to the now homeless.

What makes these places paradise more than their beautiful scenery is their beautiful people. It wasn’t the turquoise blue waters that I had a hard time saying goodbye to; it was the friends who became my family that made it so difficult to leave.

So, to all of my beloved friends and strangers who have to endure Irma in one way or another, I offer you this morsel of hope: devastation does not mean destruction. Find hope in knowing that whatever happens, together you can and you will rebuild. We did it with Joaquin and we’ll do it with Irma. You, the community, are what make a place home.

I love you all from the bottom of my heart. #longislandstrong #keysstrong

Beach Essentials: How to Make the Most Out of Your Sandy Relaxation

When I lived the island life, I quickly developed a habit of grabbing the same beach necessities every time I headed to the water.

While the coast of Washington doesn’t see me snorkeling like I did in the Bahamas and Florida Keys, I still pack my beach sack with the same things, excluding snorkel gear.

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Here’s a list of beach essentials that I recommend you carry to make the most of your shoreline adventure:

 1. Travel games

I refuse to go to the beach without Bananagrams and a deck of cards. Even if I’m going solo. Sometimes it’s too windy for cards, so keep that in mind before playing Solitaire or Rummy. And sometimes sea gulls will swoop in and steal the letter tiles for Bananagrams, particularly the coveted vowels. Here’s proof.

 2. Water

It is of course important to stay hydrated while soaking up the sun, but I also never go anywhere without a water bottle. Drinking fountains are just too far away from my beach towel anyway.

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 3. Headphones

I always bring music with me. If it’s a crowded beach, I am most likely going to be plugging in the tunes. If I’m traveling, I play music from my outdated iPod (read: songs from 2000–expect lots of High School Musical).

However, if the sound of nature overpowers the tourists, I forego the headphones. Puget Sound surprised me last summer with a delightfully vocal group of seals and sea lions!

 4. Blanket

In addition to the obvious beach towel, I usually bring along a comfy dedicated beach blanket. My blanket of choice has morphed between various styles over the years as they become soiled with seaweed and saltwater.

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 5. Camera

The best moments in life can’t be relived in a photograph, but nature constantly has beauty to behold. When I lived in Long Island, Bahamas, I kicked myself every time I got to the sea turtle cove and the camera was either forgotten or uncharged. Now I make sure I’ve got a means of snapping a picture if the opportunity presents itself.

 6.Waterproof shoes

Many of my beach adventures turn into hikes along old coral beds, which can’t be done in flip flops. I had to retire my last pair of Scuba booties, but any sort of waterproof shoes will do. (We called them aqua shoes in Ohio, but I’ve been told that is not a universal term. WHAT DO PEOPLE CALL THEM!?) Keens are also great! I wore out my pair in Florida–they’re not made for saltwater.

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7. Other games

In addition to handheld games, I like to be active with other games on the beach. (I loooooooooooove games.) Growing up spending the summers on Lake Erie, my sisters and I played a minimum of two board games a day. Game pieces actually got lost in the sand and were recovered in future years during sandcastle building, hole digging and people-burying.

In case you’re feeling a 90s throwback, the beach board games of my youth included:

  • Pizza Party
  • Mall Madness
  • Sorry!
  • Guess Who
  • Ready, Set, Spaghetti!
  • Hi-Ho-Cheerio
  • Clue
  • Scrabble
  • Memory
  • Chutes and Ladders
  • Candy Land

In my 20s (ohmygodImalmost30), I tend to bring a volleyball and cornhole to the beach if I can.

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 8. Beach snacks

Snacks at the beach get their own term–“beach snacks”–because they tend to be bite-sized foods that we gravitate toward time and again when packing up for the sand. In my Ohio years, we always had Oreos at the beach. We’d freeze them and then let them melt in the sun. (Fun fact: Oreos are vegan.) Chips ‘n salsa was also a must and usually some fruit, veggie and cracker trays thrown in there. Frozen grapes are great!

Nowadays, I tend to bring fruit and trail mix as well as a sandwich. Check out my healthy, allergy-free recipes for some ideas! It is zero fun having to leave the beach because you’re hungry. Prepare ahead of time to prevent this!

 9. Book

Don’t ever go to the beach without a book. Just don’t do it.

Once, I made the mistake of bringing a book I’d read a few months before. I have regretted it every day since.

Kindles are great; just make sure they’re fully charged!

Sometimes, I also bring my animal identification books (birds, shells, etc.) because once a zoologist, always a zoologist.

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 10. Beach cover-up

To protect my skin from the sun but avoid overheating, I have a nifty, flowy, breathable button-up I bring. I apologize that I don’t know what material it is made out of, because this fashion piece is dynamite. If someone could help me out, that’d be fantastic.

 11. Sunglasses

Make sure you have good UV sunglasses, and don’t trade fashion for protection. With good research, I promise you can have both. If you have giant white scleras like myself, take extra caution to protect those eyeballs or you’ll get UV damage like I did! 😦

 12. Notebook and pen

Not only does this come in handy for keeping score in card games, but it’s also a necessity if you’re a writer like myself. When that muse hits you, it starts spewing like a jar of marbles. Be prepared to snag those good ideas before they roll too far.

13. Jar for seashells

To be honest, I usually forget this one, but I am a sucker for beachcombing. I’m always collecting shells, seaglass and rocks on the beaches with which to make little seashell creatures. The beach finds end up going in my teeny backpack (which I much prefer to a tote bag) or in whatever container I have leftover from my lunch.

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14. Miscellaneous

I’m limited in how many arms I have, and sometimes I get to the beach on my bike. But when I can carry more items, I’ve also brought or enjoyed the following:

  • Hammock (you’ll need trees for this one)
  • Chair
  • Metal detector (my friend had an underwater one and we found a whole penny!)

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Note: This post was inspired by Tripping.com’s Florida Vacation Rentals. If you’re heading to Florida this spring or summer, be sure to visit some of my favorite coastal towns heading south:

  • Anna Maria Island
  • Sarasota
  • Boca Grande
  • Florida Keys (all of em!!!!)

What are your beach essentials? Florida and Bahamas friends, I want to hear from you especially! 🙂 

**Please do your part to protect the environment and avoid taking plastic bags to the beach. They blow away in an instant and are mistaken for jellyfish by sea turtles and other animals!**

All photos ©Stacey Venzel, Creative Commons license.

 

Animals & Inmates Help Each Other in the Florida Keys

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“Moe” the sloth is an education ambassador, frequenting community events and schools to help teach about animals. (Note: I am not an inmate.)

One of my favorite places on the planet is a little farm situated under the Monroe County jail just outside Key West, Florida. Every single animal at the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Animal Farm is there for the long haul, having been abandoned by their owners or confiscated due to illegal trafficking or abuse cases. The critters include rescued exotics, livestock and native animals.

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“Kramer” the emu is aptly named for a curly lock of feathers atop his iridescent head that resembles the Seinfeld character.

But what warms my heart even more about this place is the restorative justice being employed. Inmates exhibiting good behavior during their sentence term are candidates for animal caretakers. The program offers them the opportunity to perform meaningful community service that reciprocally helps them as much as it helps the creatures they’re attending to. It melts my soul to see a stocky, tattooed guy in an orange jumpsuit doting over a llama or an emu, and to listen to the inmates educating the public about the animals during the two Sundays a month that the farm is open to visitors.

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“Chanel” is a de-scented ex-pet skunk. Skunks use their scent glands as a defense mechanism and so for this reason, along with Chanel’s reliance upon humans for food and safety, she would not survive if released into the wild. And, yes, she needs to go on a diet.

While working in the veterinary field in the Florida Keys, I had the unique opportunity to assist with the animal care at the facility. Farmer Jeanne runs the center, and about once a month, she calls for a vet check-up at the zoo. Some of the vet visits are less than routine, involving hoof trimming, shearing, vaccinations or surgery.

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Baby alligators need loving, too!

One of the rescued llamas was in line for getting his coat sheared during my visit with the vet. For the animal’s safety–llamas are so crazy with restraint they’ll hurt themselves–we sedated him. I switched back and forth with another vet assistant to monitor the breathing and heart rate while the patient was under sedation. And got some llama cuddling in while I had the opportunity!

llama shearing

If you find yourself in the Keys on the second or fourth Sunday of the month, be sure to make a visit to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Animal Farm in Stock Island, just before Key West. It’s great for kids, couples and singles. Something truly wonderful is happening here; it gives me hope in all kinds of second chances.

 

Why You Should Care About Global Warming

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Recreational activities such as offshore fishing and snorkeling at coral reefs is projected to be affected by global warming. Photo taken at Sombrero Reef in Florida Keys by S. Venzel.

A lot of people have their heads in the sand when it comes to global warming. Either they are vastly uneducated about the current and impending weather trends or they simply choose to brush related discussions under the rug. In Florida, government officials are actually–“unofficially”–prevented from talking about it at the risk of losing their jobs.

Unfortunately, politics have greatly misconstrued the science behind climate change due to the hush-hush of recorded and projected patterns by government employees. Governor Rick Scott of Florida has been interviewed denying the existence of rising sea levels and warming temperatures, no doubt influenced by his leadership position over a region that would be (and already is being) affected by climate change. In a laughable yet true and unsettling MSNBC video news report, this “no talk” policy was not only exposed but also held up in the Senate during a meeting covering the topic of… wait for it… climate change. Pay special attention to minutes 1:50-2:30 of the video for footage from this Senate hearing. You’ll find yourself chuckling, but then you’ll realize a scary truth behind politics–cover-ups and lies are all too real in our government.

So, if you’ve had your head in the sand and would like to learn a little more about why you should care about global warming, check out my article for The Super Fins on that very issue. If you’re a coffee drinker, you’ll definitely want to read the article.

Key West Lighted Boat Parade

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Even though tropical climates are lacking in the wintry crest-fallen snow that makes it feel like Christmas, they make up for it in other ways. In the Florida Keys, towns throw together community lighted boat parades. The Key West celebration is such an attraction for locals and tourists that you better arrive hours before the parade to snag a decent viewing spot on the dock.

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The parades are actually a competition with local judges deciding which decked-out boat takes home the holiday prize.

These festivities are akin to your hometown street parade with local businesses, police officers and high school bands strutting about in Santa hats and holiday wear. But on the water, expect sailboats, yachts and dinghies to pass through the harbor all lighted up blaring Christmas music, perhaps with a live band aboard. The Coast Guard boats and local dive shops never fail to participate, and many Average Joes jump in to join the fun—though in the Florida Keys, your Average Joe is a bit atypical to the American norm.

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Some boats line the bow with Christmas trees and blow up snowmen. Even life-size Frozen characters and an inflatable large alligator in a santa hat made appearances this year.

So if you find yourself south this Christmas, check out the local happenings. They make for a unique and memorable holiday season.