Accessible Travel: Key Largo Water Adventure
By Janet K. Keeler
Capt. Mick Nealey is a man on a mission. And that’s to get people out on to the water to fish, snorkel, swim or maybe just sightsee, no matter their physical abilities.
Nealey is the owner of Tranquil Adventures in Key Largo and he is what you could call a full-service proprietor. He answers the phone, books the trips, loads the boat, drives the boat and washes it all down when the excursion is over.
In the middle of all that, he’s fishing guru and Florida tour guide. The idiom “chief cook and bottle washer” might have been coined for him.
All of this goes toward his desire to see “active disabled Americans” enjoy what he does about Florida, especially the Keys: swimming in blue-blue water, snorkeling the reefs and especially fishing. But maybe more than any of that, he said, he wants to give people back some of the joy that may be missing from their lives.
He does this aboard his 30-foot fiberglass trimaran, a multi-hulled pontoon boat that is stable enough to accommodate a 400-pound motorized wheelchair. “I have had people come from all over the world because they can’t find a boat that will take the heavy wheelchair,” he said. The boat is as yet unnamed because he’s planning a naming fundraiser.
His non-profit efforts have received funds from the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation and the Woody Foundation, both organizations dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with mobility challenges. In addition, Mercury donated an engine and some other equipment. The company also produced Unbound, a five-minute video on Nealey and Tranquil Adventures.
The captain is a Florida native who grew up in the Miami area and contracted polio there when he was 2 years old. The result of the disease left one of his legs smaller and thinner than the other. He never wore shorts as a kid. Think about that: a Florida boy who doesn’t wear shorts. He wears them nearly every day now. At 67, he doesn’t much care what other people think about the way he looks.
He had a long career in production at the Miami Herald but when post-polio syndrome hit him in 2002 he was forced to retire. It was then that he started in earnest offering his services as a fishing guide, something he had done unofficially for years. His own journey with physical challenges has shaped his mission and outlook.
“Growing up, I had a lot of disabled friends,” he said. “I knew a lot of people wishing they could do these things. When I retired this was something I could continue doing and working at.”
Tranquil Adventures is on the Dixie Highway (U.S. Route 1) that leads to north to Miami and south to Key West. It’s just over 60 miles from Miami and Key Largo is the first city that drivers hit when they begin a Keys adventure. Key Largo is the home of John Pennekamp Reef State Park, a popular spot for diving and snorkeling and the nation’s first underwater park. The park has land features, too, including ample parking, sandy beach, a visitors and education center, boat rentals and campsites.
Nealey offers several types of trips and most are customized to the clients’ needs. He works with passengers in wheelchairs and those with other mobility and even mental challenges. He’s got a group of men from a nearby assisted living facility that occasionally joins him for a day of fishing. They are not as steady on their feet at they once were and holding fishing rods can be problematic. He has a variety of rods, including those with push button reels.
The most common excursions are for fishing at nearby John Pennekamp, which is just a few miles from where the pontoon launches. Nealey provides the tackle and bait and the boat often heads to Pennekamp before the sun rises. Anglers in that area regularly snag cobia, pompano, hogfish snapper, porgy and mackerel. When the boat heads bayside and into the shallow mangrove channels, fishermen chase grunts, snook and jack crevalle, which put up a good fight. There’s even a chance to catch grouper at certain times of the year when they come in to spawn. And it’s not uncommon for his clients to get a barracuda or shark on their lines.
Patrons of local restaurants pay a premium for hogfish but Nealey said that porgy is just as tasty. In fact, he said, most eaters wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the firm, mild white fish. Nealey also has connections with local restaurants that will cook fresh-caught fish for his patrons. Many people who join Nealey’s fishing excursions bring their lunch but they can also arrange for him to stop at a tiki bar restaurant for a bite and maybe a tropical cocktail. There are many fingers of water accessible from the bay and oceans sides of Key Largo and there are plenty of restaurants with docks. Don’t worry about figuring it all out. Nealey has you covered.
Nealey often takes patrons to the bayside of Key Largo where they can kayak (he supplies to kayaks and paddles) and swim. He knows some quiet spots where other boats aren’t causing waves and rocking the pontoon boat. This is where the customization part comes in. When Nealey knows what accessibility issue a client is having, he works to make those accommodations. Sometimes, it’s not about fishing at all but just the desire to feel the salty wind and see the sights along the glittering water.
For young children and those with severe handicaps, Nealey heads to a small, secluded island on the bayside where the water is just about a foot-deep at the shore. The waves are gentle and people are able to sit in the water comfortably. Parents of young children don’t have to worry about rough water knocking them over. He recounts a time when a hesitant young paraplegic went from sitting in the surf, to paddling about with his hands in deeper water to finally snorkeling. Nealey is there along with companions and caregivers to help.
He also has an 18-foot-square pool float that is popular with many of his handicapped patrons, and that provides another way to get comfortably close to nature.
The boat is equipped with a lift that swings riders out over the water and then lowers them into the water. He said that on some boats that accommodate wheelchairs, the operators want to pick people up and help them into the water. However, shoulder damage makes this unworkable for many disabled people. The lift is a good solution.
“Getting in the water is therapy,” he said. “It makes us feel like we can do what other people can.”
Another bonus of a trip with Tranquil Adventures is that families with one disabled member can bond on vacation in ways that sometimes are not possible. Some can fish and swim; others might kayak and snorkel, all according to their abilities and desires. Often, Nealey said, the disabled person is sitting on the sidelines while everyone else is having fun.
And that leads us back to his mission: No person left behind.