Welcome to the Chubby Chatterbox Newsletter, where I’ll be posting favorites from the Chubby Chatterbox archives. In addition, my complete thriller Return of the Mary Celeste will soon be serialized here for those who have asked for something beyond a regular post.

My novel is based on a true event, arguably the greatest maritime mystery of all time. In 1872 the crew and passengers of Boston brigantine Mary Celeste abandoned their seaworthy ship and its valuable cargo, vanishing in the middle of the Atlantic. Speculation over their fate has never abated. History records that after the Mary Celeste tragedy no one from that fateful voyage was ever seen again. History is about to be rewritten…

Return of the Mary Celeste


Tragedy struck the brigantine Mary Celeste on the morning of November 25, 1872. The hourly log was later recovered from the deserted vessel; At 8 a.m. the last notation was made. By 9 a.m. no one remained aboard to chalk the next entry.

Something had terrified Captain Benjamin Briggs and his crew, prompting the seasoned skipper to make a decision certain to affect not only himself, his ship and crew, but his family as well—his wife and two year old daughter were aboard Mary Celeste. Much ink has been spilled in fanciful and scientific attempts to explain the calamity that engulfed this perfectly seaworthy ship, yet all that is known for certain is this: in a matter of minutes Captain Briggs became convinced that the only way to save their lives was by ordering everyone into a hastily launched lifeboat. By giving the order to abandon ship, he also launched the greatest of all maritime mysteries.

On December 5, 1872, a month after leaving New York Harbor, Mary Celeste was found drifting on a calm and empty sea. The ship was in fine condition, perfectly intact with valuable cargo safely stored in her hold, but the crew and passengers had vanished. None were ever seen again.

Until now….

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Saving a Life in Key Largo

May 30, 2016

One of the reasons Mrs. Chatterbox and I travel is to challenge our preconceptions of a place with firsthand experiences. I’d heard about the Florida Keys my entire life and was excited to lay my eyes on them.


We rented a car in Miami and drove to our first stop—Key Largo, made famous by the film with Bogie and Bacall. Frankly, there wasn’t much to do in Key Largo except eat key lime pie and try to cool off in swimming pools hot enough to poach an egg. The Keys are surrounded by a massive coral reef so the water is still, without waves. However, we took an excursion that proved extraordinary; doused in insect repellent, we toured a saltwater portion of the Florida Everglades.


The boat was small and manageable, with only our skipper, Captain Dave, and one other couple. It was hot, in the mid eighties, with nearly a hundred percent humidity. Thunder was rumbling directly overhead by the time we entered the mangroves. Captain Dave provided some interesting facts. Mangroves are the only trees capable of growing in saltwater. The wood grows slowly and is too dense to float or burn. The trees can be thousands of years old, and when they die they do not fall but continue to be supported by descending limbs growing into the water.




Ancient mangroves




This spot is known as Hemingway’s Pass, but no one seems to know why.  Captain Dave told us his ninety-three year old friend dove from this branch (below) when he was ten years old, and the branch was dead then.



It’s illegal to destroy or remove mangroves because they help hold the Keys together when hurricanes arrive, and they serve as a nursery for lemon sharks and other aquatic life.


Captain Dave gave the appearance of a crusty cuss but it turns out he’s a passionate bird rescuer and environmentalist, donating time to local bird hospitals and sanctuaries. He posed for a picture, and this was as close to smiling as he could manage.



Captain Dave


His true colors came into focus when we rounded a bend so he could show us a great heron. We saw a bird in distress. As we neared, this typically shy bird struggled but didn’t fly away. Its wing had been caught in fishing line and the bird was doomed unless it could be freed. Captain Dave leapt from the boat and managed to free the bird, which limped deep into the mangroves. Captain Dave followed, all the while keeping an eye out for the pythons now lurking in the Everglades, but more about that in a future post. When the heron shot out of the mangroves and flew away, and after I’d grabbed a gaff and pulled the tackle and nasty hook from the water, Captain Dave was content we’d done all we could. We continued on our way.




Great heron caught in fishing line



A feather left behind


No pythons were spotted but we did have a wonderful encounter with other local residents. I insulted my Portuguese seafaring ancestors when Captain Dave stopped the boat and told us to look over the starboard side of our boat. It took a while to figure out which side was starboard, but when I did I saw a mother manatee nursing her pup.


We’d been told most of the manatees had already bred and gone north and we probably wouldn’t see any, but these two seemed in no hurry to leave. In fact, the mother seemed to enjoy our company and moved her pup in front of our boat so we couldn’t pass. Captain Dave commented that the pup looked about four years old and the mother must be very smart because her back was not crisscrossed with motorboat scars. According to our captain, manatee groups are dominated by females and once lived on land, choosing to return to the sea. These creatures, which inspired homesick, rum-drinking sailors to believe in mermaids, are closely related to elephants.





Mother manatee and pup



I’d hoped to see a manatee on our trip, but seeing these benevolent creatures in an ancient mangrove instead of a theme park for tourists was an experience I won’t soon forget.     




Today is Memorial Day and I’ve made a tradition of posting That Damn War! to celebrate the service of Darwin Thomas, killed in Vietnam. Once more I offer it in remembrance of those who gave their lives in defense of our freedom. Check it out (here).





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Welcome back. I love this post. Can't wait for more.
By: Rick Watson on May 30, 2016
I've just been writing about Florida, though a bit further North than the Keys, so my head is full of the place. I was interested to read about your trip through the mangroves. All this time and I never knew those things about them. I think the high humidity would bother me, but the water is probably the best place to be. I look forward to reading more.
By: Jenny Woolf on May 30, 2016
sounds like an outing I would have enjoyed.
By: Ellen Abbott on May 30, 2016
Happy to have you back... safe and sound. Sounds like you had your fill of Key Lime pie. Your exploration into the mangroves and seeing manatee's in their natural environment is definitely a highlight. Plus your attempts at rescuing a bird has the makings of a National Geographic episode. :)
By: Daniel LaFrance on May 30, 2016
I think Dave is one of many who deserve a medal for rescuing birds etc... because they need it so much. You had a rare glimpse of seeing a manatee and with her baby! You are lucky. I love manatees even though i wonder why sailors thought they were mermaids
By: Birgit on May 30, 2016
i just read your post on your neighbour. it is very sad and he died so young... today he would be 73 I believe. Very sad but a nice tribute to him
By: Birgit on May 30, 2016
I loved this post--& I cried again when I reread your post about Darwin!!
By: fishducky on May 30, 2016
It sounds like you enjoyed your trip to South Florida. We need more people like Captain Dave...the environment and ecology in Florida could benefit a lot from people with passion and awareness. Looking forward to future posts about your trip!
By: Pixel Peeper on May 30, 2016
Good for Captain Dave! Fishing tackle is the worst. Where we often camp there's a river with a deep pool where people both swim and fish. We are always on the lookout for hooks and line caught in tree roots by the banks. Nasty stuff.
By: Botanist on May 30, 2016
Ah, you are enjoying my home state. Lucky you to see the Manatee and her pup. That is how they should be seen. Touching post about that fine young man Darwin. And yes, they are ALL damn wars.
By: Arkansas Patti on May 30, 2016
A great way to begin summer with your return to the blogosphere. Looking forward to your future posts on the Keys. We've been there a few times and are always fascinated. Rescuing a great heron and seeing a manatee and pup are extraordinary adventures.
By: Tom Cochrun on May 30, 2016
Its great to see you back, i hope you had a wonderful trip. Yes, manatees are impressive, and i've been told they are very proud parents, wanting to show off their children just as we do. Your war remembrance story chokes me up every time.
By: messymimi on May 30, 2016
So I gather you're pretty impressed with Florida. Most tour operators are very knowledgeable and have an entertaining presentation.
By: red Kline on May 30, 2016
Good for him for saving that bird, but isn't that a Great Egret? And the story of your neighbor is touching. I can't image the impact felt on the neighborhood.
By: sage on May 30, 2016
Well, thank goodness you knew better than to jump on that manatee's back for a photo op!
By: Val on May 30, 2016
Thanks for your remembrance of Darwin Thomas.
By: Tom Sightings on May 30, 2016
Sounds like fun. I wouldn't want to run into a python either.
By: Patrick Dilloway on May 30, 2016
I am happy you were able to go, and it sounds like had a great time. However, if I was to go with that kind of temp, and humidity, they would just have a puddle on the floor. I am so very happy to hear you and the Capt. were able to help the heron. Cat
By: Cat on May 30, 2016
I love this story. Great photos, too. Manatees are magical! What an amazing experience to see mother and pup like that.
By: Mitchell is Moving on May 31, 2016
Very cool! I'm glad the heron was saved. I'm not much for swamps, so I'll just sit here in my air-conditioned apartment and look at your great pics! LOL!
By: Lexa Cain on May 31, 2016
fabulous adventure- and bless your Captain Dave for being so kind to all animals. and Welcome Home!
By: Kathe W. on May 31, 2016
i am very familiar with mangroves and tropical areas like that. They do burn mangroves in Asia, so not sure about that fact. I (and my husband) once saved a heron caught in the mangroves so your post brought back memories.
By: Tabor on May 31, 2016
I think I'm in love...with Captain Dave. He's a quiet, humble hero. Is he single? I hope you had a meaningful Memorial Day, Stephen.
By: Robyn Engel on June 1, 2016
Captain Dave looks like a typical Floridian, with his blonde locks and blue sunglasses. I could not live in a place with 100 percent humidity, though.
By: Catalyst on June 1, 2016
What a great experience! My parents honeymooned in Key West over 50 years ago.
By: The Bug on June 3, 2016

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