Many of the places I write about in Beached are real. Key Largo, individual dive sites, the Overseas Highway, all ground my story with a sense of realism. Other locales are drawn from my imagination so as not to taint a real business with the specter of crime. Sometimes, I blend the two—and one such place is the fictional Aquarius Dive Shop located in the very real Port Largo Marina.
Even without my addition, Port Largo has a storied history. For starters, it was originally built as an airport. Secondly, the land was underwater.
The tale begins in the late 1960s, when a developer purchased a submerged parcel of state-owned land with the intent to turn it into an airport that Monroe County would eventually control. Located on the Atlantic side of Key Largo, the parcel had to be dredged and a breakwater constructed. The paved breakwater served double-duty as a 2,300-foot runway and the airport opened in 1972. Commercial carriers offered commuter flights from Homestead and Miami, but local lore maintains that drug runners maintained a busier flight schedule.
Eventually another savvy developer realized pilots didn’t need a runway with a view and that wealthy people would pay a hefty premium to live on the edge of the Atlantic. After a court battle with the county, the airport closed in 1972.
Surrounded on three sides by water, the converted airstrip is now a separate gated community comprised of a single street. Palatial homes, built to withstand tropical storms and hurricane winds, rise above carports, garages, and surge levels on the Atlantic side of the street. Their docks run parallel to the main Port Largo canal on the other side.
Today, a hodgepodge of homes, resorts, dive shops, restaurants, and tiki-bars dot the seven canals that make up Port Largo proper. The famed African Queen (from the 1951 movie of the same name), enjoys easy access to the Atlantic, although it now transports tourists rather than Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. Boat traffic on holiday weekends can be intense with pleasure crafts, commercial charters, kayakers, jet skiers, and paddle boarders all vying for the right of way. One has to navigate a 90-degree bend—affectionately known as crash corner by the local captains—to access the marina.
There’s an adage about writing what you know, and I spent a great deal of time in Port Largo. So does Mer.
Mer and Leroy looked over their shoulders the entire way back, only powering down the LunaSea’s engines when they hit the no-wake zone at the entrance of Port Largo.