Sublime Sombrero

There is a fiesta going on beneath the turquoise surface of the Atlantic 3.5 miles east of Marathon’s Boot Key Harbor. Sandy grooves mark the floor like white lines on an asphalt parking lot. In between, walls of limestone substrate rise from the floor like great spurs. The spurs of limestone substrate rise for 5, 10 and 15 feet, and are carpeted with elegant sea fans, mounds of star corals, brain corals and pillar corals, as well as fire coral and sponges. To top the reefs off, elkhorn corals grow from the edges like great horned crowns.

The only way to account for both the mass of substrate and the intricate patterns of reef growth is time. A reef this structured can only be the result of thousands of years of hard-working coral polyps, and they have done a righteous job. The reef, possibly a Top 5 snorkeling destination in the Keys, is definitely a sight to see. It is conceivable that a snorkeler could explore the nooks and crannies of this shallow reef site for hours without ever seeing the same coral twice.

Sometime between Juan Ponce de Leon’s expedition of 1513 and the creation of George Gauld’s 1774 chart, Spanish explorers named the locale Sombrero Kay because there used to be dry land out here. Gauld noted the slight beach of an islet as Cayo Sombrero on his chart. In J.W. Norie’s book, " Piloting Directions for the Gulf of Florida, the Bahama Bank & Islands, " he noted that, " About 5 miles S. 1/4 E. from the west end of Cayo Vaca, there is a small sandy kay on the reef, called by the Spaniards Cayo Sombrero; this is the easternmost kay on the reef. "

There seems to be no recorded account of why the identifier, sombrero, was assigned to this former plot of land. Perhaps, from the point of view of a sailor, the way the little spit of sand appeared to sit atop the brim of coral heads gave the site the appearance of a big hat. In any case, the presence of land, of an easternmost key, is probably why so few shipwrecks are associated with the reef.

Even after the island was blown asunder by some combination of time, tide and hurricanes more than 100 years ago, wrecks still failed to pile up. It does not hurt that a series of patch reefs nine miles to the north had been marked by a red and white barrel mounted atop a 36-foot iron pole in 1852. That reef, Coffins Patch Reef, had been one of 15 reefs marked by James Totter and the Coastal Survey at the time. Coffins Patch was also the first site chosen for what would later become the Sombrero Key Lighthouse.

Work on the 160-foot high iron structure was still in the beginning stages when a hurricane blew through on Aug. 29, 1856, and destroyed the work platform. After the storm, further plans for construction were put on hold. It was then decided that Sombrero Key would be a more stable location and construction crews abandoned the Coffins Patch site and reconvened at Sombrero Key in 1857.

Tallest beacon

Sombrero Key Lighthouse was completed in 1858. Because it stands at 160 feet from the tip of the tower to the Atlantic floor, it is the tallest of the lights marking the Florida Reef. The focal point of the light is 142 feet high.

Like the Carysfort Light built before it and Alligator Light built after, the Sombrero structure was built atop a screw pile octagonal design mounted on eight massive discs resting on the bottom. The iron beams supporting the structure were pounded into the limestone substrate by a steam-driven hammer to a depth of 10 feet — 1 inch at a time.

Like Carysfort Light, Sombrero was constructed under the command of George G. Meade, a Lieutenant in the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. In later years, this particular Meade would be promoted to General George Meade and command the Union Army of the Potomac. He would help defeat Robert E. Lee at the battle (the second battle) of Gettysburg.

Sombrero Key Lighthouse was the last navigational beacon built to mark the Florida Reef before the Civil War. While the reef does not seem to have a great deal of history in terms of shipwrecks, one ship in particular did manage to leave an impression. The double-masted French steamer, S.S. Louisiana, was driven onto the reef by hurricane force winds and heavy waves on Oct. 17, 1910. While all 600 passengers and crew were rescued by the U.S revenue cutter Forward, salvage of the ship itself proved a difficult and lengthy operation.

Merritt and Chapman Derrick Wrecking Com. eventually freed the vessel, at some cost to the reef. Dynamite was used to free the Louisiana as such practices were common back in those days. To dislodge the ship, the dynamite blasting and removing of chunks of destroyed coral reef were repeated until a small channel for the ship to egress was blown clear, a task that was not completed until February 1911.

Looking at satellite images of Sombrero Reef today, there is definitely an anomaly out at the reef that stretches west from the lighthouse. It is either the trough left behind by the dynamite blasters digging their hole for the Louisiana’s egress or the deposit field of the land that once occupied Sombrero Key.

Like every lighthouse marking the reef, Sombrero Key had been manned by a civilian crew until 1939, when all United States lighthouses were integrated into the U.S. Coast Guard under the Presidential Reorganization Act.

Life on the lighthouse

Lighthouse duty was an isolating position and every man handled the job differently.

For instance, in November 1958, Boatswain Mate First Class Furman C. Williamson was given the assignment of officer in charge of Sombrero Key Lighthouse. Like so many people, Williamson was unnecessarily afraid of the barracudas that have apparently lurked beneath the iron structure forever. He explained to a reporter, " There is no restriction against swimming, but we just don’t dare take a chance. "

When Hurricane Donna stormed across the Middle Keys in 1960, the four men on duty at the light were Chief Williamson, Engineman Ernest Bryan, Seaman Cecil Bryan and Seaman Donald Beckman. The men reported 150 mile per hour gusts and 25-foot waves crashing against the lighthouse. The bottom platform of the structure was ripped away by the wind and waves, but the living quarters, 40 feet above the water, remained a safe haven. A story appearing in the Keynoter on Thursday, Oct. 27, 1960, reported one of the men saying, " It was rough, but we made it. We had plenty of steak and we had our own power generating plant. "

The Sombrero Key Lighthouse remained a manned station until its automation in 1963. What is different about the massive red structure is that today it can be seen by automobiles crossing the Seven-Mile Bridge. It is unfortunate that from such a distance, to passengers in a car the lighthouse appears as an unfairly demure beacon against the horizon.

However, snorkelers should allow themselves to be drawn to the structure as it indeed marks a fantastic snorkeling destination. The Middle Keys claim Sombrero Reef as the No. 1 rated snorkeling reef in the Keys. It is definitely a Top 8. What the reef has in its favor — what all Middle Key reefs have in common — is that the Middle Keys are not Key West or Islamorada or even Key Largo. They have not suffered the same traffic and the reefs have not sustained the same wear and tear as some of the busier reefs.

Rare up-close looks

The verdant coral gardens growing here range from single-digit depths to around 35 feet. It is not every reef in the chain that offers such an up-close and personal view of its innermost offerings. But, because some corals grow so near the surface, snorkelers are afforded the chance to see some of the more intricate details of the reef so often obfuscated by depth. This one can bring right into view some of the more brilliant and delicate details of a coral reef like the tiny Christmas tree worms that sprout like Dr. Seussian Douglas firs from the corals. Long-legged, candy cane-looking crustaceans called banded coral shrimp step lightly around the reef.

For snorkelers willing to float and watch the sometimes not-so-random inner-play between species on a reef, there is an opportunity to witness firsthand what biologists refer to as a cleaning station. While every reef has them, shallow Sombrero Reef can provide easy viewing for those who are patient. These places, these cleaning stations, operate like any drive-thru or, in this case, swim-thru personal detailing service. For instance, a barracuda will swim up to a specific coral head or ledge like a car pulling into a car wash. The fish is serviced by a cadre of wrasses, gobies and delicate shrimp like the exquisitely blue-shaded Pederson’s cleaning shrimp.

Their job is to scour the barracuda clean of parasites from its body, inside the gills, and between the barracuda’s snaggly teeth. When the shrimp, gobies and wrasses have done their job, the barracuda swims away and a black grouper pulls up and everyone goes back to work.

It is not always barracuda and grouper pulling in — snappers, grunts, angelfish, even turtles and eels swim through. Sometimes the waiting line can be two or three fish long. And yes, while this is generally a relationship of trust and mutually beneficial, every once in a while the barracuda or grouper snacks on one of the gobies or wrasses. To be fair, every once in a while the cleaner fish will take a small fleshy bite out its client, too.

— 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.