A Boat Captain’s Guide to Key West with Samantha Zeher

Captain Samantha Zeher, of eco-tourism operator, KeyZ Charters
Captain Samantha Zeher, of eco-tourism operator, KeyZ Charters | © Captain Samantha Zeher, KeyZ Charters
Photo of Alicia Miller
20 September 2021

Our seafaring insider has the skinny on where to spot local marine life, meet sea turtles and snorkel around the coral reefs in Florida’s island chain.

The Florida Keys – a subtropical chain of palm-studded islands hanging off mainland America’s southern coast – is a haven for sea life, diving and lazy beach days. Based on Islamorada, boat captain Sam Zeher knows the highlights of these sun-drenched isles, especially when it comes to life on the water. Here she shares her favorite wildlife hangouts, seafood spots and eco-minded hotels to help you unlock the Keys…

The Turtle Hospital

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Rehabilitating sea turtle smiles at visitors to the Turtle Hospital, a small non-profit organization dedicated to the rehabilitation of endangered sea
Rehabilitating sea turtle smiles at visitors to the Turtle Hospital, a small non-profit organization dedicated to the rehabilitation of endangered sea | © Sandra Foyt / Alamy Stock Photo
“If you’re a wildlife fan then the Turtle Hospital on Marathon is a must. It’s what it sounds like: a rescue and rehabilitation center for sea turtles, and a visit will give you an up-close-and-personal experience with these friendly marine creatures. You’ll learn why turtles are injured here in the Keys and, crucially, how we can help to save them.”

The Hungry Tarpon

Restaurant, American, $$$
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Mutton snapper, cooked for lunch. Part of "Cook Your Catch" at the Hungry Tarpon Restaurant at Robbie's on Islamorada.
Hungry Tarpon Restaurant at Robbie's on Islamorada. | © Yvette Cardozo / Alamy Stock Photo
“Come to The Hungry Tarpon for breakfast with a show. While you sit and eat, you can gaze out over the dock and watch people feeding tarpon: massive fish that weigh up to about 100lbs [45kg]. I am a simple breakfast person normally – I just have fruit – but this place is known for its Trailer Trash Bloody Mary, with shrimp, celery and olives. Afterwards, buy a bucket of bait to feed the tarpon yourself. They’ll jump up to eat it straight out of your hand. Don’t worry, they don’t have teeth, so they won’t bite.”

KeyZ Charters

Sports Center
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Sail boat at sunset
Sail boat at sunset, Islamorada | © Jamie Gray / Alamy Stock Photo
“I run private eco-tours, snorkeling trips and sunset cruises on my boat – everything is customisable, so you can choose what you’d like to do. I started running them because I love being able to show visitors where I live, how beautiful it is and all the unique wildlife that we have here – and, to be honest, because being ‘captain’ sounded like a fun job. You’ll spot dolphins, manatees, turtles, crocodiles, sharks, stingrays and more, led by guides with a background in marine biology or environmental science. Besides the animals, people tell me the thing they love most is the chance to slow down for the day.”

Bahia Honda State Park

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Bahia Honda State Park - Calusa Beach, Florida Keys - tropical coast with paradise beaches - USA
Bahia Honda State Park - Calusa Beach | © Simon Dannhauer / Alamy Stock Photo
“This is a fun, family-friendly spot to enjoy the beach and learn a little bit of local history – especially about a man named Henry Flagler, who built a train into the Florida Keys. It’s a great spot for snorkeling – you’ll see parrot fish, angel fish, brightly colored wrasse, snappers, barracudas and coral, all off the shoreline. Try to get here early to avoid the crowds, or consider camping on site: being a state park, there are facilities. That way, you can get up early for a morning kayak, too.”

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  • Chef Michael's

    Restaurant, American, $$$
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    “Chef Michael’s is one of my favorite restaurants in Islamorada. It’s famous for having the freshest fish in town, especially hogfish, as well as sustainable varieties that aren’t normally commercially fished or found on menus elsewhere, such as wahoo and tripletail. Saying that, I often order the steak, which is delicious, too. It’s a smaller place, so you need a reservation, but the food is worth planning ahead for and the staff is always pleasant.’

    Florida Keys Wild Bird Center

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    A Great Blue Heron in Perdido Key State Park, Florida
    Blue Heron | © Cheri Alguire / Alamy Stock Photo
    “I think it’s important to protect birdlife everywhere. A lot of the birds we have here in the winter are migratory, so are up north in the summer, sometimes as far away as Canada. This place on Key Largo rescues ill or injured birds like egrets, herons, cormorants, owls and seagulls throughout the year, then rehabilitates and releases them where possible. When you visit you’re asked to pay a donation, but it’s uplifting to see the healed birds, knowing they’ve been helped.”

    Lazy Days

    Restaurant, American, $$$
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    “Want good food and a good view? Come to Lazy Days on Islamorada. Their chicken is the best, but they also do an amazing job with cook-your-own catch. That means, if you catch your own fish while in the Keys, you can bring it here and they will prepare it for you: whether that’s snapper, grouper, mahi mahi or even lobster. As for that view, it’s looking out over the ocean. You’ll see the lighthouse on the horizon, passing boats, some birds and maybe even splashing shark fins, depending on the tide.”

    Lime Tree Bay Resort

    4.3/5 (991 Reviews)
    Lime Tree Bay Resort
    Courtesy of Lime Tree Bay Resort / Booking.com
    Price Drop
    Now from $246 per night
    “The views looking out over the bay, especially at sunset, are impossible to beat from this quiet and small eco-friendly resort by Islamorada. A lot of the people that come on my cruises stay here. They say the highlight is the service: it’s really great because they don’t have hundreds of guests to keep track of, so they can get to know you better.”
    More info
    These recommendations were updated on September 20, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh. This article is an updated version of a story created by Alicia Miller

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