Picture yourself careening through the narrow streets of Boston at speeds sane people wouldn’t begin to imagine in the wee, small hours of a cold, miserable and pitch-black winter morning. Once would be too much for most, especially when black ice lurks around every other corner, but Sean Barron did this for a living. He had to, because, you see, Barron was a 911 paramedic for the city of Quincy, Massachusetts, and when your beat is a major American city, bad weather means more than your share of emergency calls.
After nine years, Barron and his crew had attended to more than their fair share, until one day, after an exceedingly gruesome detail, Barron decided enough was enough and, for the sake of his mental well-being, it was time for a change.
The last straw came when Barron was hit by a 49-foot boat, while off the coast of Cape Cod. “I had to get out of that type of work before it ate me up alive,” Barron recalled. “I was only 30 years old and I felt I had seen enough to do me for the rest of my life. It was like a tour in Vietnam, without the bullets.”
So, Barron took what was essentially a leap from Hell to Heaven; from the darkness of misery to the light of contentedness and from the Northeast’s madness of Boston to the serenity of Florida’s Everglades.
The difference was like night and day, Barron would later admit. He bought a house on Isles of Capri and met up with Gary and Ellen Eichler, owners of the Double R Fishing and Tour Company, located at the Port of the Isles Marina, within the Retreat Del Sol Hotel lobby, in Naples. He also worked with the Capri Fish House on the Isles of Capri and started his own company, S. Barron-Collier Bait & Fish Company.
“It’s been quite a ride, and one that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve been very fortunate to hook up with some really great people who took me under their wing and taught me much of what I know today about the Everglades,” Barron said.
Most of them were masters of the mangroves, spider streams, the Fakahatchee Strand and North America’s largest (and the world’s second-largest) mangrove jungle. “They taught me practically everything I know about this area, considering I was just a city boy from Boston when I first came down here,” he said.
What they didn’t teach Barron, however, and what he developed himself, was the art of good storytelling, which he picked up and refined through his own research and the stories he had heard over the years. “A lot of tourists who come down for our manatee eco tours, backwater or offshore fishing don’t know the stories about the pirates who used to hang out here, or the drug runners, who, back in the ‘50s, made this area their own private drop zone.”
After hearing that, and with a little bit of prodding, Barron was soon off on his very favorite pirate tale, as we cruised through the seemingly endless streams which snaked their way to the Gulf of Mexico and Panther Key’s most famous ex-resident, the pirate Juan Gomez.
“Gomez was born on the Portuguese island of Madeira, in 1778,” Barron began. “He was only 12 when his parents moved to Lisbon, Portugal. He ran away to France at 15 and became a cabin boy on a French ship, but ran away again when it reached the West Indies. He finally ended up on a Spanish merchant ship named the Villa Rica and sailed to many ports in South America and the Caribbean.”
But, on one remarkable voyage, the ship found itself 40 miles off the Florida Gulf Coast and was captured, looted and burned by a pirate known as Gasparilla, and his bloodthirsty crew. The only lives spared by Gasparilla, whose real name was Jose Gaspar, were young Gomez and the governor of Spain’s daughter. The remaining 11 female Mexican passengers were summarily beheaded without mercy. Gomez was soon made a full member of Gasparilla’s pirate brotherhood, which admired the young Gomez and his ability to keep his head, while others were losing theirs around him.
A short while later, Gomez sailed for Charleston, in the Carolinas, where he found himself on a slave ship that was captured while sailing between Africa and the West Indies, and was reunited with Gasparilla at Boca Grande at the age of 43.
After the sinking of Gasparilla’s vessel by an American warship in disguise, Gomez hid out on Panther Key, 12 miles from Marco Island, until 1825. Gomez became part of a crew working on a schooner through 1831, when he participated in a revolt against the Spanish authorities in Cuba. He managed to escape capture and death when he set out to sea in a small craft before being picked up by a passing boat and dropped off at St. Augustine. In 1855, at the age of 77, he set up residence in a palmetto shack on Panther Key, because the island had an amazing supply of fresh water, with an underground stream that bubbled to the surface.
It was during this time that he became a friend of Walter T. Collier and his son, William D. Collier, who became the first family to live on what is now Marco Island, in 1870, and subsequently ran a general store there.
Gomez had everything he needed on Panther Key, what with a ready supply of fresh water and a viable food supply of meat on Hog Key. There, they continued to roam free, away from the panthers on Panther Key.
When the former pirate guesstimated his age to be 92, he remained a heavy-set, dark-eyed, full-bearded man, still able to climb tall coconut palm trees to reach the fruit.
In his later years, Gomez was frequently questioned by local yachtsmen about the tropical paradise around Panther Key, along with such exotic locations as Hog Key, Round Key, the Hole in the Wall and White Horse Key, all of which are situated among the Ten Thousand Islands of Florida’s lower Gulf Coast. To earn food, clothing or money, Gomez would relate fascinating tales of a buccaneer. He told of African slave trading ships, along with heavy chests filled with loot and casks loaded with gold doubloons, jewels, diamonds, solid gold rings, church ornaments, earrings cut from female prisoners’ flesh and, for the more gullible listeners, a treasure map.
But, as all good things must come to an end, so ended Gomez, the crusty old pirate, at the ripe old age of 122, in 1900. He set out from Panther Key in his old catboat to do some fishing, but somehow became entangled in his own mullet nets and drowned. His body was discovered some time later by fishermen out of Chokoloskee Island, and the story of Juan Gomez finally came to an end.
As Barron was quick to point out, though, if you thought the area’s allure ended with Gomez and Gasparilla, he quickly jumped to the 1930s, when the infamous gangster, Al Capone, would bring his entourage from his estate in Palm Island, Florida to spend a few rollicking evenings at what was then Remuda Ranch, just off Route 41.
In the ‘50s, the area found itself the main dropping point for bales of drugs from planes coming in from South America. Teams of men in go-fast boats would pick the bales up out of the water and ship them over to Miami.
The high performance go-fast boats, now known as cigarettes, were designed for offshore racing.
They became notorious for illegal trade trafficking and drug smuggling. They got their “cigarette” name in the ‘80s, when they were used to smuggle the untaxed smokes.
They were 38-40 feet long, with a narrow beam and close to 1,000 horsepower, which allowed them to whip around bends in the outlying Everglade streams.
They could also zip into dense mangrove tunnels that shielded them from Coast Guard vessels that couldn’t navigate the inch-deep waters, and they were practically invisible from the air.
“One incident, however, pretty much put the end to the drug trafficking,” Barron recalled with a chuckle. “And, it was pretty funny how it happened.” He recalled that after a particularly heavy drug drop, the leader in charge of delivering the goods across the state was in a bind as to how to transport them to their destination.
“So, he went into a Ford dealership that was nearby and asked the salesman, in a foreign accent, if he could buy five dump trucks and could he teach him how to drive the trucks,” Barron recalled.
“This naturally raised some suspicion, so the salesman notified the local police of what was going down.” The end of deal, the end of the drug transaction and ultimately, when the Coast Guard got their own fleet of go-fast boats, the end of the drug trafficking, ensued.
The best thing is that Barron gets to spend his time in the Everglades, the Fakahatchee Strand, the Ten Thousand Islands Wildlife Reserves and off the Isles of Capri every day, kayaking, fishing, giving manatee eco tours or leading nature tours.
“We get to see endangered wildlife, like bald eagles, dolphins and manatees at eye level, as we paddle through the canopy trails or take our 40-foot pontoon boat to white sand barrier island beaches for amazing kayaking, shelling, exploring and wildlife photography,” Barron pointed out.
The Ten Thousand Islands is a perfect place to observe manatees in their natural habitat, he added. Manatee viewing and nature tours are fully narrated by knowledgeable local captains and their pontoon boat is stable, comfortable and USCG approved.
For tour pricing, schedules and group rates, call 239-642-9779 or visit www.doublersmanateetours.com or www.
marcoislandcharters.com. For more information, call Sean Barron at 239-642-0110, at the S. Barron-Collier Bait & Fish Company.