Carysfort Reef Lighthouse – paddling into upper Keys nautical history!

22 miles of open water surfski adventure

paddling off Key Largo.

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Carysfort Reef Lighthouse overview in relation to publicly accessible points on land.

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This story combines extended open water paddling, coral reef snorkeling and some fascinating bits of South Florida nautical history.

(Along with all the photography to bring it back to you so can read about it!)

The backdrop for this story is based on a medium length 22 mile open water paddle in my customized vintage 1997 surfski. I had resurrected this old ski with a new backbone in 2018, specifically with the intent to use her for extended day trips with minimal kit.

The destination for this trip is the gorgeous Carysfort Reef and adjacent lighthouse!

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Carysfort Reef Lighthouse 9.5 miles away as seen from Broad Key in southern Biscayne Bay in 2014.
Photographed at an effective focal length of 2200mm!

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I have been thinking of paddling out to the Carysfort Reef Lighthouse since at least 2014 when I captured the image above from a high vantage point on a visit to Broad Key is southern Biscayne Bay.

It has literally been decades since I’ve last been to the lighthouse. I have fond recollections from the early 1980s of snorkeling the seemingly endless shallow reefs and the majestic light. Since I do not, have not and do not plan on owning a powerboat – for me, a kayak it is! Finding fascination in South Florida’s lighthouses, I have previously paddled out to Fowey Rocks Lighthouse and the Alligator Reef Lighthouse. They are all part of a network of lighthouses built in the 19th century that also include Cape Florida Lighthouse, the Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse and Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse that are accessible by land.

In any case, I was well past due for a Carysfort revisit!

Although this was a solo excursion, I would actually discourage anyone from paddling out this far into open water solo. If you decide to do a paddle like this, I recommend you use the buddy system and file a float plan with someone who can check up on you. Things don’t always go as planned and there are many things that can go wrong when you are far out to sea. There are unpredictable factors like the weather which can also put you into jeopardy and you do not want to be out there all by yourself.

I realize that the above statement might make me sound like a hypocrite, however there is a reason to the madness! The reason is that some trips I need to do alone in order to be in the right frame of mind, to do the trip my way, to let me do all the photography I want, etc. There are times for group trips and then there are times for solo trips. I thoroughly research my options before hand and then pick the most favorable conditions suitable to the trip. I am prepared to face some risk and deal with the consequences if need be!

Fitness, Adventure and Art in one trip!

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“ONE WAY” – my vintage 1990’s Findeissen Shearwater surfski v1.0
The world’s longest kayaking hat!

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The choice of boat for a particular trip is a lot like choosing the right tool for the job. Sure, you can probably do a trip like this with shorter boats given enough stamina and dedication. However longer distances will favor faster, longer and sleeker boats. My old surfski “ONE WAY” fits the job description well. It is very fast, relatively comfortable and stable, and as a sit on top design makes snorkeling super easy. Also, one could argue that it is a superior and safer setup for tropical touring than a traditional sit inside sea kayak.

The surfski is also a lot lighter than most sea kayaks, even the high-end ones.

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ONE WAY v2.0 at Garden Cove with minimal touring gear on top. This resurrected old ski now makes an excellent fast touring day tripper!
Surfski center stringer repair and the Findeisen Shearwater resurrection!

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Since ONE WAY is a sealed boat, everything has to go on top of the deck. I’ve customized her with extra fittings for lines and bungees to make this easier. Primarily I use a low profile “fish cooler” insulated pack that attaches at six points just behind the seat. Inside I carry the absolute minimum needed to safely and effectively complete the trip. So I had 6 litres of water in a bladder (1.5 gallons), an extra 1 litre bottle, food and snacks, extra clothing, line, small drybag with phone/keys/wallet and another drybag with some camera gear. Behind the fish catch pack were my bungeed crocs along with the mandatory PFD. Behind that I had my mask, fins and snorkel under bungees. In front of me I  have a velcro strip on top of the footwell hump where I can attach a compass and my waterproof camera. That’s it!

Well, almost. I also made sure I had the perfect forecast!

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Aerial view of the launch area at Garden Cove in Key Largo as seen on another trip.
Note the tip of Rattlesnake Key in the distance.

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FYI there is a full speed boating channel that runs just off shore at Garden Cove.
Kayaking to Dry Rocks Reef – a Pilgrimage to find the “Christ of the Abyss” off Key Largo!

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Garden Cove in Key Largo is a small launch site for paddlers in the upper Keys for paddling John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and out to the offshore reefs. It’s a great put in for paddling out to see the “Christ of the Abyss”, but is not the closest to Carysfort Reef. During my research into this trip I spotted a much closer launch possibility on the north end of Key Largo on an appropriately named Carysfort Circle. It’s clear from satellite imagery that there used to be ocean access there, however it is directly next to private property and is also inside the Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park.  Upon actually scouting it out in person I found the area overgrown and came face to face with a no trespassing sign and a poisonwood tree to boot! It’s too bad because this location could have cut this trip in half. I include on the above map as a safety reference because it is still there and is the closest possible spot to pull out into in the case of an actual emergency!

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Looking back at Garden Cove. Note the tall radio tower next to the marker. It will remain visible throughout the trip and even all the way out at Carysfort Reef – 11 miles away!

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There are two things everyone should know about Garden Cove from a safety perspective. One is that the water you launch into is not very clean, thus be sure to wear adequate footwear. It is a rocky shoreline and you do not want to cut up your feet. Two, you launch directly into a high speed boating channel with the accompanying boat wakes. So it’s important to stay out of the way and not spend too much time messing around there!

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This Ikelite underwater compass makes a good choice for a kayak and fits onto my velcro “utility board” on the surfski.
I did not actually need it as I could see the two necessary landmarks (towers) at all times.

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Garden Cove gets it’s name from “Whalton’s Cove” referring to Capt. John Whalton who maintained a garden there to supplement rations. He was in charge of two lightships which were the first attempts to actually mark and alert ships of the treachereous reefs off shore in the 1820s. The ships were the Caesar (which rotted away), quickly followed by the Florida. They were positioned inside the reef near a feature called Turtle Harbor which on this trip falls somewhere between the 31BH marker and the lighthouse!

Key Largo was a frontier back then, and as fate would have it Capt. Whalton was killed in ambush by Seminole warriors upon stepping ashore at Garden Cove on June 23, 1837. He thus became an early victim of the so called Second Seminole War of which the infamous Indian Key massacre led by Chief Chekika is possibly the best known part.

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My 22 mile round trip journey from Garden Cove to Carysfort Reef Lighthouse using the 31BH marker as a halfway way-point.

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Note:

I am describing a 22 mile open water round trip with NO possibility of getting out anywhere. Plan accordingly and paddle within your limitations and the weather conditions!!

Be absolutely sure you know what you are getting into before considering doing this kind of a trip!

Safety first means planning and research first!!

Always have plenty of fresh water to stay hydrated!

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Since this trip is all in open water, taking note of landmarks is important to be able to navigate by line of sight. There’s no need to involve a GPS unit, but a compass can prove useful in case weather obstructs the horizon temporarily. It’s surprisingly easy to disorient yourself miles out on the ocean!

You can’t actually see Carysfort Light from the seat of the kayak when you set out.

You need to paddle out about a mile and a half, about inline with the old barge wreck to finally make it out on the distant horizon. However not to worry because there is a very convenient marker beacon #31BH to head for, which acts a a perfect halfway “waypoint” for this trip! Furthermore, two tall towers on Key Largo remain visible throughout the trip, even all the way out at Carysfort Reef. These are actually the best landmarks and the southern one is just behind the put in at Garden Cove. The northern one shows you more or less where the closest land is on Key Largo. So just by spotting these, it’s easy to know exactly where to go.

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The boating channel looks like a runway but it’s best to stay just outside of it and away from the speeding boats!

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Marine beacon / marker 31BH is an excellent way point to head for. At 5.5 miles into the trip, it is half-way there!
Note Carysfort Reef Light behind it on the horizon another 5.5 miles away.

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U.S. Aids to Navigation System (ATON)

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Beacon 31BH with Key Largo in the background.
Note the tall tower on the right – this is the other landmark to look for that also remains visible out at Carysfort Reef!

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Once past the 31BH marker beacon, it really is wide open paddling as there is nothing else out there except the Carysfort Lighthouse itself about five and a half miles away.

Everybody is different, but

I rather enjoy paddling the wide expanses and love the freedom of open water paddling!

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Riding it out to Carysfort Reef Lighthouse on a beautiful morning.

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Sign of our times – even miles out at sea, floating trash can be found. 😦
All that trash – the ugly side of kayaking in Miami!

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It should take about two to three hours tops to paddle out to Carysfort Reef. If you think it will take you longer you should probably reconsider doing this type of paddling because it won’t be fun anymore. For me it actually took longer to paddle out to the halfway point at marker 31BH than the final 5.5 miles out from there to the reef, which only took me about 50 minutes.

This is another reason to go with a fast boat!

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Final approach to Carysfort Reef Lighthouse, now only a mile away!

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Carysfort Reef is out of the way, and there were only three boats present upon my arrival. They were all small coral research vessels and it was mid-week. I’m sure weekends are busier, but I have a feeling that Carysfort isn’t nearly as busy as most of the other reefs in the Keys!

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Delving into a delicious home grown mango after more than two hours of paddling.

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Carysfort Reef is VERY shallow even near high tide. Two to three feet deep here!

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Satellite closeup view of Carysfort Reef Lighthouse off Key Largo.

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Carysfort Reef Lighthouse is actually the oldest of all the Keys lighthouses constructed in the 19th century. It became operational in 1852 and replaced the lightship “Florida” which was tending that duty with limited success. It was also the first to use the iron screw pile construction method that has proven to stand the test of time. Carysfort Lighthouse has stood there for half of the 19the century, all of the 20th century and now a fifth of the 21st century so far. In that time it has withstood several major hurricanes, including the strongest ever on record! It was well maintained by the many keepers until 1962 when it became automated. Since that time it has gone through cycles of neglect and the last time it was renovated was in 1996. By 2015, the USCG had given up on all the Keys lights and in 2019 they are all now in need of new owner/entities that will be able to refurbish and maintain them.

Organizations like the Florida Lighthouse Association and Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation are working to obtain and preserve all the historic Keys lighthouses. Keys artist and resident Larry Herlth “Lighthouse Larry” has created scaled replicas of the lighthouses and has been instrumental in raising awareness as the founder of the annual Swim for Alligator Lighthouse event.

It would really be a shame if they were allowed to simply fall apart!

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Carysfort Reef Lighthouse, June 2019.

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Carysfort Lighthouse detail, June 2019.
These storm shutters were probably installed in 1996 when the lighthouse was last refurbished.

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The underside of Carysfort Light showing the modern aluminum entry access ladders. However they no longer connect to anything.

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L’Attitude is Everything when you’re out at sea! 😉
On the fine ART of living in a lens Bubble!

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Carysfort Reef and lighthouse are named after the H.M.S. Carrysford (note change in spelling) which ran aground on the reef on October 23, 1770. However this reef also carries the distinction of being the site of the oldest recorded shipwreck in North America, that of the H.M.S. Winchester on September 24, 1695. The wreck was not discovered until 1938, and further salvage into the 1950s yielded many artifacts including several of her cannons and many valuable artifacts.

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Underneath the Carysfort Reef Lighthouse in this fun circular fisheye view!

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I’m a fun guy – a real underwater “fish eye” view from underneath the Carysfort Lighthouse.
It presents a very mushroom like appearance! 😮

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True view of the ornate 19th century design of Carysfort Light.

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Carysfort Reef Light has the distinction of having been in continuous service from 1852 to 2014, the longest of all the Keys lighthouses. It is also the oldest surviving screw pile lighthouse in the nation!

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Construction of Carysfort Lighthouse in 1849 at Merrick & Towne foundry in Philadelphia.

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Schematic of two iron screw pile design lighthouses. Carysfort Lighthouse was the first to be installed over the Florida reefs in 1852!
Image source: National Archives

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Carysfort Reef Lighthouse circa 1892.
Photo credit: floridamemory.com

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The timeless Carysfort Reef Lighthouse captured in June of 2019!

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Carysfort Reef Lighthouse around the turn of the 20th century.
Photo credit: floridamemory.com (sepia tone removed)

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Carysfort Reef Lighthouse in 1949.
Photo credit: U.S. Coast Guard

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Carysfort Reef Lighthouse circa 1962, the year it was automated.
Photo credit: U.S. Coast Guard

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Carysfort Reef Lighthouse was first lit on March 10, 1852 and had 18 fixed oil lamps set in 21″ reflectors. This was a (relatively) inexpensive but inferior technology, albeit one that was necessitated since the original purpose made First-order fresnel lens went mysteriously missing at an auction while in storage. They had to have another custom revolving First-order lens made in France to specs which was finally lit on March 17, 1858. This huge lens (10 ft tall) has been on display at History Miami Museum since the early 1960s.

At the time of it’s construction, wrecking (marine salvage) was really big business in the Keys. There was reportedly a wreck a week somewhere on the reefs! No doubt everyone could “see the light”, so to speak – the need to have the lighthouses out there. But obviously this ran counter-productive to the commercial interests of the day. So my impression from reading between the lines is that there were certain people who tried to delay the construction and lighting of this first of the off shore lighthouses as long as possible. Perhaps an early example of political corruption and of the government – private sector revolving door that we see so much of in our own time!

By 1962 Carysfort Reef Light was electrified and automated, thus no longer permanently staffed. The huge First-order fresnel lens was replaced by a more compact fixed Third-order lens (only 5 ft tall). In 1982 this lens itself was removed and replaced with a modern VRB-25 rotating beacon like the one pictured below (at Alligator Reef Light).

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Modern VRB-25 Marine Rotating Beacon as installed at Alligator Lighthouse circa 2012. Carysfort no doubt had a very similar setup up until 2014 when it was deactivated!
Kayaking to Alligator Light Reef (lighthouse) .. of Fishes, Wreckers, Pirates and Keys History!

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In 2014 the US Coast Guard deactivated Carysfort Reef Lighthouse (along with all the other off shore Keys reef lights) and in February 2019 it was listed as surplus!

Although most wrecks on the Keys reefs and Carysfort Reef itself happened in centuries past, from time to time they do still occur in modern times. The most infamous was the wreck of the Alec Owen Maitaland which ran aground on October 25, 1989 while being piloted by an unlicensed drunk first mate. The ship cut a huge gash into Carysfort Reef and totally destroyed almost 700 square meters of living coral about a mile and a half southwest of the lighthouse. Read about the ongoing coral restoration project (pdf). Interestingly the damage later uncovered remains of the Menemon Sanford, a side wheel paddle steamer carrying Union soldiers which sank there on December 10, 1862.

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The primary function of any lighthouse is to keep ships away. However wrecks do still occur occasionally – sailboat on Carysfort Reef circa 2003.
Photo credit: NOAA

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Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary map.

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Given the ecological significance of the Keys reefs as the only living barrier reefs in North America, it should comes as no surprise that Carysfort Reef is part of a protected area. In fact as one of the best developed reefs in the Keys it lies just outside of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, but inside the federally protected Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Additionally it has it’s own Carysfort Sanctuary Preservation Area! Yellow buoys mark the Sanctuary Preservation Area where no fishing or anchoring is allowed.

Instead, there is a ring of mooring buoys to tie off to. Divers are not allowed to touch anything underwater, especially not the coral!

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Carysfort Reef and lighthouse showing the ring of mooring buoys around the reef. Note the new replacement tower to the NE.

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ONE WAY tied off to one of the several 18″ white mooring buoys over Carysfort Reef. There is no need to bring an anchor, in fact it is prohibited in the Sanctuary Preservation Area!

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Carysfort Sanctuary Preservation Area map.

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Carysfort Reef through time: 1975-2014.
GIF credit and information: biospherefoundation.org

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Carysfort Reef has changed a lot through the decades, as have all the reefs. It has not been for the better, unfortunately! My own childhood visits to the reef bring back memories of large tracts of Elkhorn and Staghorn corals, among others. It looked very similar to the circa 1975 photos.

I remember being very impressed and thought that Carysfort was the nicest reef out there in the early 1980s!

Coming back now more than 35 years later I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. While not nearly as nice as back then, I was happy to see that the reef was still there and alive. It is in a diminished state however, though not as bleak as the 2014 photos show in the link. Of course, Carysfort Reef is one of the largest coral tracts in the Keys, and I only saw a small part right next to the lighthouse. From what I did see, there is still a lot of beauty and colors to be seen, but it’s more spotty now and not nearly as vibrant.

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Caribbean Coral Reefs Through Time: 1975-2014.
Photo credit and information: biospherefoundation.org

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A woman snorkeling on Carysfort Reef with the lighthouse behind her in 1966. Note that she is sitting directly on the reef!
Photo credit: floridamemory.com (magenta color cast removed)

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Please remember: DO NOT step on or touch any coral!!

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Diving in at Carysfort Reef, June 2019. Note the cool reflections on the underside of the surface.

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Time to dive under into the very shallow Carysfort Reef. It really is extremely shallow in spots, like 2 to 3 feet. I found it best to simply relax and float above and gently kick with my fins and not try to stand to avoid stepping on the reef!

The water was mostly crystal clear on the reef and under the lighthouse. The fact that it is so close to the Gulf Stream helps a lot with that, no doubt. In comparison with Alligator Reef, there were not nearly as many fish at Carysfort. However there does look to be a lot more coral at Carysfort than at Alligator!

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Panorama from underneath the Carysfort Reef Lighthouse showing the iron screw pile construction.
There is actually quite a bit of junk now underneath like pieces of old equipment, ladders, bricks, etc.. !

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Directly under the center of Carysfort Reef Lighthouse!

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The very shallow Carysfort Reef still has lots of sea life.

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It would be easy to spend several hours snorkeling over this reef!

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Mustard Hill Coral at Carysfort Reef.

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Staghorn corals growing at Carysfort Reef off the upper Florida Keys.

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The large tracts of Elkhorn coral that I remembered were no longer there, but I did see many other living corals like Staghorns, Mustard, Brain, and many soft corals and fans, sponges, small conchs, etc!

I lost track of time while snorkeling over the reef, but it may have been close to two hours. 

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One of the many beautiful coral heads at Carysfort Reef.

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Panorama of coral heads growing at Carysfort Reef!

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What finally snapped me back to reality was the arrival of a tourist snorkeling boat. Sounds carry very well over water and a boatload of people 500 feet away sounds like they are right next to you! In any case only one showed up while I was there and they didn’t hang around too long. So after maybe a half hour or so the boat was on it’s way again.

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Back on the surface showing just how shallow many parts of Carysfort Reef actually are!

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A “cattle boat” offloads it’s cargo of eager snorkelers over Carysfort Reef. Because of it’s distant location, it receives fewer visitors than other Keys reefs.

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Crystal clear gin-like waters at Carysfort Reef with the lighthouse as a silent sentry through the centuries!

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There’s only ONE WAY back from Carysfort Reef Lighthouse, and that is 11 miles of paddling to be exact!

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The departure of the tourist boat meant that I should also probably think about heading back myself. Reluctantly I untied myself off the mooring line and set myself adrift while I snacked and rehydrated from all the snorkeling.

I allowed myself a final slow arc around the lighthouse to the northeast towards the new “replacement” signal tower at Carysfort Reef.

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Departing shot of Carysfort Reef Lighthouse and I am saddened to leave.

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This new tower is only 40 feet tall and a very simple structure. With modern navigation devices and aides it no longer needs to warn ship traffic of the reef, however it does flash the characteristic three flashes per each minute as had the original Carysfort Reef Lighthouse!

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The new 40ft tall replacement for Carysfort Reef Lighthouse is situated about 600 meters NNE of the original and now absolete light. It does not need to replicate the original function, but rather now marks the protected marine areas.

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The gorgeous aqua marine Keys hues surround me as I paddle away from Carysfort Reef Lighthouse.

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Early afternoon clouds rolling in off the mainland present different hues heading SW!

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Heading back in towards shore I made fairly quick time again to reach the 31BH marker in under an hour. The second stretch back to Garden Cove took a bit longer again. The clear aqua blue off shore waters changed to a darker green the closer to land I got. It was now low tide in Key Largo!

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Marine beacon 31BH with the Carysfort Lighthouse 5.5 miles behind me on the horizon.
Five and a half more miles to go!

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Still a few miles out from Garden Cove heading for the tall tower “in the pocket” to the right of my bow. Note the point of Rattlesnake Key to the left!

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The afternoon felt still and was somewhat overcast which helped to keep me a bit cooler as I paddled the final miles of this trip. Again navigation was super easy as I simply headed towards the big tower which is directly behind Garden Cove.

I was fortunate to have a “perfect day” out on the blue water at Carysfort Reef Lighthouse to accomplish everything I had wanted.

I had been away far too long!

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Carysfort Reef Lighthouse vicinity and Alligator Reef Light about 40 miles to the SW.

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NOTE:

I would actually discourage anyone from paddling out this far into open water solo, unless you know exactly what you’re doing and have left a float plan with someone who cares about your well being. The reason being the combination of open water and unpredictable events like the weather – you don’t want to be there all by yourself if something were to happen.

If you decide to go, use the buddy system!

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Be safe and enjoy your time on the water

and underwater! 🙂

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! BLESS – Feel Irie

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© 2019 Flex Maslan / kayakfari.com / awakenthegrass.com . All original photographs, artworks and music in this portfolio are copyrighted and owned by the artist, Flex Maslan, unless otherwise noted. Any reproduction, modification, publication, transmission, transfer, or exploitation of any of the content, for personal or commercial use, whether in whole or in part, without written permission from the artist is strictly prohibited.

All rights reserved!

DISCLAIMER:

The maps and images on this site are not intended for navigation, I am not a guide; use any and all information at your own risk! Your mileage may vary .. so use good judgement before venturing out!

I hereby disclaim any sponsorship, endorsement, nor association with any product or service described herein. The photographs, depictions, products, and ideas presented on this site are for informational purposes only. Your results may vary, and I do not imply nor guarantee the effectiveness, suitability, design or operation to adhere to any standard. I assume no legal responsibility for the implementation of anything herein presented! Use any and all information at your own risk! By using any and all information from this website, you accept the final liability for any use or possible associated misuse!

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With that said..
Blessings friends!

🙂