Shipwrecks, sharks and some underwater jams

Approximately six miles off of Big Pine Key, Looe Key is thriving. The massive spur and groove reef formation, one of the better-developed reefs in the chain, is a brilliant spectacle. Armies of blue tangs swim elegantly over the coral beds as flocks of midnight parrotfish peck at the corals with birdlike beaks as if the reefs were made of peanuts. When the sun goes down, octopi slink about this coral garden. Clearly, Looe Key is one of the Florida Reef’s Top 5 snorkels.

One of the shallowest reefs in the chain, the corals grow so near the surface that when the Atlantic rolls over some of the shallower beds, a white froth whips up atop the turquoise waters like a meringue. As for the name, Looe Key, there is some confusion as to the origin. To start with, it is referred to as Looe Key rather than Looe Reef because once upon a time there was a narrow stretch of dry land here that has since been swept back into the Atlantic by a hurricane.

The word Looe is a misnomer, mostly. The discrepancy concerns the last letter, the e. Mistakenly, some accounts attribute the H.M.S. Looe, a British frigate built on the Thames River by Limehouse Ship Builders in 1741, as the ship that wrecked here and left her name. This is not the vessel that crashed into the reef in 1744. The captain, Ashby Utting, sometimes associated with that vessel, has been wrongly placed aboard the H.M.S. Looe. Ashby Utting commanded the H.M.S. Loo, a fifth-class British frigate built around 1706.

A ship of war, the Loo carried between 40 and 44 cannons and spent her early years sailing between Newfoundland and Russia. She also spent time in service as a hospital ship before intercepting pirates and smugglers sailing the high seas. Confusing the two ships is understandable as both ships were active during those early years of the 1740s when Great Britain and Spain were at war.

While the territories of South Carolina and Georgia were under British control, La Florida belonged to Spain and at least once already Spanish privateers had ventured into the Georgia territory to attack. A fleet of Royal Navy ships headed by Capt. Utting and the H.M.S. Loo was sent to Charleston, S.C., to help protect the coastline. During fall and winter months, when hurricanes and the other squalls of summer were not threatening the tight passage through the Florida Straits, the Loo was ordered to make the trip south and disrupt Spanish trade between Europe, St. Augustine and Havana.

It was Feb. 2, 1744, when Capt. Utting came upon a suspicious-looking ship flying the French flag near Cuba. It is not clear what " suspicious " means, perhaps what was suspicious were some of the dark-skinned " Frenchmen " sailing the vessel. Utting gave orders to chase the vessel down and when his marines boarded the ship, something caught the captain’s attention. One of the men aboard the French ship was observed tossing papers overboard. The crew of the Loo was quick to scoop the contraband out of the water and when Capt. Utting read the papers, it was discovered that while the vessel was indeed flying French flags, the ship was the captured English merchant vessel Billander Betty. Furthermore, the ship was being used by the Spanish.

Capt. Utting took control of the vessel and began towing it back to Charleston. On night two of the trip, the H.M.S. Loo sailed past Cayo Hueso (Key West). Every half hour the crew dropped a sounding line to mark the water depth and around midnight, on Feb. 4, satisfied with the safety of the ship, Capt. Utting went below deck to his quarters. About an hour later, the men on watch suddenly saw waves breaking over a shallow reef system. An alarm was sounded and evasive actions were taken, but the rudder struck the reef, broke off, and the ship, unable to steer, was pounded by swells and beaten against the coral beds. She was sinking — and sinking fast. To make matters worse, a few minutes later the Billander Betty crashed behind her.

Lived to tell the tale

When the sun emerged over the Atlantic’s horizon the following morning, there must have been a mixture of emotions percolating among the 274 survivors crowding the thin layer of sand rising about a foot out of the clear turquoise waters. According to Capt. Utting’s written account, the small beach of an islet was approximately 300 yards long and 100 yards wide.

The dilemma for the survivors was threefold. Not only was this Spanish territory, but Calusa Indians inhabited the coconut archipelago and unfortunately for those men standing on the barren key, the Calusa made a sporadic living off of shipwrecks and ship wrecking and were prone to killing survivors, except in the case of Spaniards who could be captured and held for ransom. Also, there was always the chance a storm could roll through and sweep the beach clean.

All was not lost, however, as the survivors had managed to salvage a handful of launches, 20 bags of bread and six barrels of gunpowder. There was even a glimmer of hope when a Spanish sloop passed by the wreck site — though spying the English, it quickly sailed off. Capt. Utting ordered three launches packed with armed marines to capture the ship at all costs. Those hopes seemed to fade when, over the course of the night, none of the ships returned. The following day, however, the sloop sailed up with the three launches in tow. How three launches armed with marines captured the sloop is not clear. Maybe the sailors aboard the sloop set anchor for the night. What is clear is that in the end, with the help of the captured Spanish sloop, all survivors sailed away to safety.

While there is nothing left of the Loo but her memory, Looe Key remains a snorkeling goldmine. The reef formations grow in 5 to 25 feet of water, but be careful not to snorkel too close to the shallowest coral beds as the ebb and flow of the tide can prove dangerous. Because this is such a shallow reef, casual snorkelers who prefer to stay at the surface are able to witness first-hand some of the more intricate details hiding in the nooks and crannies: banded shrimp, Christmas tree worms, and the sometimes neon details of tiny fish called gobies.

This is also an excellent reef to see sharks. The dark blue line in the water visible from the reef is the demarcation between the blue of the Atlantic and that deeper shade of the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream brings the sharks in, but do not be afraid of the sharks. Instead, marvel at the liquid way they cruise over the reef. Look for electric blue and black striped remoras clinging to their bellies. Three kinds of sharks frequent the reef, the ubiquitous nurse shark, black tips, and Caribbean reef sharks. These elegant fish should not be feared and certainly represent far less danger than any trip in an automobile.

Underwater jam

Each year, Looe Key is home to a delightfully offbeat festival of the senses, the Looe Key Underwater Music Festival. For more than a quarter of a century, on the first Saturday after the Fourth of July, scuba divers and snorkelers are afforded the opportunity to explore a beautiful tract of coral reef while listening to Jimmy Buffett tunes broadcast through a series of strategically placed underwater Lubell speakers.

The event was first conceived in 1985 by Bill Becker, a former disc jockey and current news director at U.S. 1 Radio, 104.1 FM, and Fred Troxel, a dentist from Big Pine Key. Becker has been maintaining the integrity of the playlist ever since. In addition to Jimmy Buffett and mainstays like The Beatles’ " Octopus’s Garden, " reggae tunes are played as well as the recorded songs of humpback whales.

" I like percussion, " Becker says. " Percussion makes a good sound underwater. And New Age music, we play some of that. And it’s all commercial free. For four hours, from 10 until 2. "

The festival is an effort to educate as well as entertain. Coral reefs are important biological and ecological marvels and not merely beacons for divers and snorkelers and the coffers of the tourism industry. In addition to the four hours of commercial-free music, recorded public service announcements from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary promoting diver etiquette and coral reef awareness are broadcast. The event is simulcast live on the radio and streamed worldwide online.

The annual event is sponsored by the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Keys Council of the Arts. Those interested in participating should contact the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce ( for all the latest details. To visit the reef, charter outfits from Bahia Honda to Key West make the trip daily.

And, for the record, if there really was such a thing as an octopus’s garden, Looe Key would have one.

— Brad Bertelli is an author and snorkeling enthusiast living in Tavernier. His book, " Snorkeling Florida: 50 Excellent Sites, " was published by the University Press of Florida in 2008.