Key West – As the reef approaches, there's no other boat in sight.
We're gliding southwest through Key West's calm waters to a spot six miles offshore known as Man Rock, which isn't marked on nautical charts.
The ship's guide points to the circular reef line that he calls a "halo," easily distinguishable because of the ocean's clarity.
We jump into the water, and another world unfolds in yellow and red coral canyons with purple seafans swaying in the mellow current. Schools of yellowtail snapper, blue tang and rainbow parrotfish dart through the water. An 8-foot-long nurse shark snoozes underneath a coral ledge. Large, spiny lobsters peek out from a coral head.
This is not your average Key West boat trip. This is the Island Adventure, a 4.5-hour afternoon tour organized by Fury Water Adventures. It's designed to mimic the way a local might spend his day off, which could include snorkeling at the reef, exploring the mangroves by kayak and relaxing in the shallow waters of a sandbar with a cooler full of cold ones.
It's the only eco-excursion in Key West that explores the United States' only living coral reef and the Gulf of Mexico's backcountry in the same tour, all aboard the intimate setting of a 43-foot-long catamaran. (A partial list of other Key West boating options can be found at the end of this story.)
"We go to a lot of points along the reef that don't have mooring balls," says Capt. Jeremy Obine, noting the relatively small size and shallow draft of the vessel. "It's basically the captain's knowledge of a lot of cool reefs, places where locals go to spearfish and lobster. We see a lot more diversity and really healthy coral because the places we go, we might be the only ones there the entire week."
Back on board, our group of 10 swaps stories about our discoveries at Man Rock while journeying to our next destination 13 miles west in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Every day, it's different," says Obine, 35, a conch (a native-born Key West resident) and a day sail captain of 15 years. "You never know what you're going to see."
Sightings might include dolphins, sea turtles, stingrays and tarpon. In the shallow flats of the backcountry this summer, some passengers caught rare glimpses of flamingos and bald eagles.
The boat anchors near Woman Key and the crew launches kayaks into the water. The ship's eco guide, Scott Schmidt, paddles ahead, leading us to a mangrove island a few hundred yards from the catamaran.
In the dappled shade of the mangroves, we float in our kayaks while Schmidt explains how the salt-tolerant trees survive. Water gently laps against the roots, while small, black crabs crawl along the twisting branches. Schmidt points out the "sacrificial leaf" – a yellowed leaf found in nearly every cluster – where the mangrove pumps salt that wasn't initially filtered out through its roots.
We then paddle to a nearby sandbar to while away the afternoon, relaxing in warm, ankle-deep water. We spot conch shells, sponges and sea biscuits, and Schmidt demonstrates how to see the cell structure in a blade of turtle grass by holding it up to sunlight.
Obine calls everyone back to the boat, but no one wants to leave. One marvel remains, though. The cruise back to the Key West harbor is timed perfectly with the setting sun, which sinks into the Gulf, framed perfectly by a pair of mangrove islands.
If You Go
Fury Water Adventures' Island Adventure departs two times daily around 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. (3:30 p.m. during the summer). The 4.5-hour trip includes lunch, snacks, beer, wine, soda and water. The cost is $89 for adults and $70 for children (children under 5 are free). Gear and equipment are provided. For more information or to place a reservation, visit furycat.com or call 877-994-8899 for reservations.
Other Unique Boating Adventures in Key West
Snorkel and kayak Key West's mangrove islands and shallow backcountry on a full-day or half-day sail with Danger Charters. Their schooners also offer a popular Wind & Wine sunset sail where guests sample fine wines from around the world while the sun sets.
Schooner Western Union
Key West's historic flagship, the Schooner Western Union, was built in Key West in 1939, originally designed to lay cables between the Keys and Cuba. At 130 feet overall and with 5,200 square feet of sail area, a sunset sail aboard this Maritime Museum is like stepping back into history.
Schooner America 2.0
Modeled after the original Schooner America, which won the first America's Cup in 1851, Schooner America 2.0 boasts an eco-friendly, lightweight design, making her one of the fastest sailing vessels in Key West. Day sails and sunset sails are available, as well as private charters.
Seventy miles west off Key West is the historic Fort Jefferson and Dry Tortugas National Park. Voyage aboard the fast cat Yankee Freedom for an all-day trip to explore this Civil War fort in the the Gulf of Mexico. You'll have the opportunity to tour the fort and snorkel the reef surrounding it.
Sebago Key West
The all-day package includes snorkeling at the reef, parasailing and jet-skiing, as well as lunch.
On the Do It All Adventure with Sunset Watersports, guests have the opportunity to participate in 11 different water activities, including snorkeling, jet skiing, kayaking, banana boating and windsurfing.
Shayne Benowitz is a crew member and the social media manager for Fury Water Adventures. Follow her on Twitter @ShayneBenowitz.