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In Key Largo, Let a Pelican Be Your Guide
Erik R. Trinidad

'Key Largo, full of pick up trucks, beef jerky, fast food restaurants and K-marts'.

"I’m bored," my friend Donatella said as we laid out by the pool at the less-than-modest but affordable Travelodge in Key Largo in between scuba dives as our bodies rid of absorbed nitrogen. "Let’s go explore." (We both had issues with just sitting around to sunbathe because, let’s face it, it can—and inevitably does—become boring.) But where to go exploring in Key Largo was a different question. We had no guide or concierge or anyone to lead us in any direction.
When you hear the words "Florida Keys," you most likely think of turquoise waters, a relaxed attitude, water sports and Ernest Hemingway. If you’ve actually been to The Keys, you know that these thoughts only apply to Key West, and the upper keys don’t fit the stereotype. Key Largo, just 40 minutes south of the glitzy Miami is the exact opposite of its southern sibling, full of pick up trucks, beef jerky, fast food restaurants and K-marts. If it weren’t for its proximity to the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, you probably wouldn’t think of going there—you might as well plan a trip to the middle of South Carolina.

We left our friend Robin for a short while—she had much more of an attention span for sunrays than we did—and hopped in our rental car to head south on US Route 1 aimlessly. We traveled down the asphalt path through the backcountry and there really wasn’t anything of interest. Luckily Donatella spotted something out of the corner of her wannabe J-Lo sunglasses. "Look, there’s a bird sanctuary." It was really the only thing we had going for us without having to drive all the way to Key West—which, if you’re behind a Floridian driver, takes an eternity—so we parked the car on the gravel driveway.

The bird sanctuary wasn’t a huge high-tech conservatory or anything. Like the rest of Key Largo, it looked like it was just pieced together by some country guy who had a lot of wood lying around. "I reckin I’ll mak me a burd howse," he probably said, perpetually expanding it with his plethora of wood since he was probably bored of just laying around sunbathing. But there was no such fellow to greet us by the supposed entrance, and it felt like we were trespassing on someone’s property.
However, we were greeted by the unlikeliest of hosts: a pelican. You know, one of those birds about two feet tall with the long beak of which the lower bill has a pouch that cartoon characters usually hide in. He stared us right in the eyes and we waved him back a hello—the type of wave you perform to greet an animal.

He turned around and started walking down the pathway. "I think he wants us to follow him," I said. And we did. "Peli" as Donatella soon dubbed him, lead us to the different sections of the sanctuary like a butler—where injured pelicans recuperated, where they ate, where they went to frolic in the water—even to the actual human we found who was preparing fishy treats. Peli lead us to the places of interest and let us take it in, and then lead us to the next stop. It was quite unusual to be escorted by a waddling little bird, but entertaining nonetheless. We were directed all the way to the marshy beach where we were awarded with a beautiful view of the ocean. It was a great way to spend an afternoon.
Peli, the gentlebird he was, escorted us back to the parking lot. What a nice gesture I thought. "Bye Peli!" Donatella waved back. He truly was a gracious host to have shown us a good time that day.
So if you’re ever in Key Largo with nothing to do, look to the birds. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a pelican as entertaining as Peli.

© Erik R. Trinidad September 2002

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