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6 odd festivals of the Florida Keys

A flotilla of powerboats hovers above a Technicolor reef, tied together like a fleet of mothballed warships. “We’re almost ready,” says Bill Becker, who is in command of the lead pontoon vessel.
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A flotilla of powerboats hovers above a Technicolor reef, tied together like a fleet of mothballed warships. “We’re almost ready,” says Bill Becker, who is in command of the lead pontoon vessel.

He turns his radio up a notch. “OK,” he says. “Here we go.” Becker signals to the scuba divers waiting at the stern. One by one they step off the side of the boat, plunging into the transparent Atlantic off Looe Key, Fla.

There’s a rush of bubbles, and then the water erupts in music. It’s the same sound coming through the boom box on the boat, except that the ocean seems to distort the Jimmy Buffett cut being piped through a submerged speaker. “You can’t really understand it until you’ve experienced it,” says Becker, a Florida Keys disk jockey with a sunburned face and a ready smile. “Not until you’ve heard the music — underwater.”

Think the idea of tethering a couple of boats together and listening to tunes while submerged is wacky? Try slathering generous amounts of fluorescent body paint and sweating through the third-most famous parade in the world, behind Rio’s Carnivale and New Orleans’ Mardi Gras parade. Or strapping on enough leather to make the Terminator blush and motoring to Key West on a Harley-Davidson.

The Florida Keys are home to a collection of the strangest festivals in the United States. They range from the overexposed (just try to get a hotel room in the Southernmost City the week leading up to Fantasy Fest) to the obscure (Becker’s Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival is mostly an excuse for local residents to throw a party on their boats). But they all have one thing in common - they are as quirky as this island chain is long.

1. Hemingway Days Festival, which happens every July in the Southernmost City, is more than just an opportunity to commemorate Key West’s most celebrated writer. You’ll also see hordes of Papa look-alikes strolling down the streets of Key West - a surreal sight, to say the least. Festival highlights include a marlin tournament, several raucous parties, a key lime pie eating competition, and of course the now-famous Hemingway look-alike contest. Why would anyone come to the Southernmost City in the middle of summer to honor Papa? Here’s a clue: many key events take place at the author’s favorite watering hole, Sloppy Joe’s Bar on Duval Street.

2. The Key West Poker Run in September is an excuse for thousands of motorcyclists to invade the islands. They collect cards at one of five stops from Miami to Key West and then “play” their hand. The event, which benefits a children’s charity, ends in (no joke) a lingerie show and tattoo contest at the Schooner Wharf Bar in Key West. There’s also a hog roast and a “blessing of the bikes” on Sunday at Mallory Square. If you can’t make September’s event, try coming back in March during Bike Week.

3. Fantasy Fest, which takes place in late October, is a 10-day extravaganza of costume competitions, masquerade balls and street fairs that climaxes in a grand parade through Key West. The big celebration, which is something of a cross between Rio’s Carnivale and a Halloween party, is the kind of event where the bystanders are as interesting as the participants. Many of the 60,000 or so Fantasy Fest revelers are typically covered in body paint - and often little else - as they cheer on the caravan of costume characters and floats. (Warning: Despite efforts by townsfolk to tone down the parade, Fantasy Fest is something reserved for, er, more mature audiences.)

4. The Key Largo Boat Parade in December, though not as big as those in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Annapolis, Md., or Hamilton Harbor in Bermuda, makes up for its small size in its oddness. A parade of boats decked out in holiday lights put-puts past an audience of mostly local spectators after nightfall. But this is one event where more than your fair share of boats veers off course - a bit too much eggnog, captain? - and holiday well-wishers fall into the warm waters of the Florida Bay. Or just jump in. In years past, it’s been the kind of event that residents talk about long after the holidays are over.

5. Conch Republic Independence Day, or, to be more accurate, “days,” is a string of events that usually takes place in the week leading up to Mardi Gras. The Florida Keys has declared its “independence” from the United States at least twice in the last two centuries, and there are a number of bizarre events meant to commemorate its sovereignty. The highlight of an independence parade down Duval Street is a “battle” between the U.S. Coast Guard and Conch Republic troops in which wet Cuban bread is used as ammunition. Also on the agenda: a pirate’s costume ball and pig roast. Mel Herlehy, Steve Murphy and Brian Morgan pretend to play musical instruments while Bill Becker waves an American flag Saturday, July 13, 2002, at the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival off the Florida Keys.

6. The Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival in July, strange as it may sound, is more than a chance to experience how water distorts Jimmy Buffett tunes. The event is also meant to help preserve the fragile coral reefs. From time to time, the music is interrupted by diver-awareness announcements from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary officials offering tips on how to enjoy the reef without destroying it. But that’s as solemn as it gets. After the music ends, everyone heads back to shore for conch chowder cook-off and a beer or two.

Becker admits that the party didn’t begin with any serious intentions. He says when he started the festival, it was because he needed something to do during the off-season. Listening to music underwater seemed “strange enough” to get people interested. “There wasn’t anything like it, and to the best of my knowledge there still isn’t anything like it,” he says.

Down in the Keys, he’s in good company.