Sombrero Key Reef can be seen as you’re driving across the Florida Keys famous Seven Mile Bridge. Just look for the lighthouse on the south side of the bridge
Sombrero Key Reef is marked with a lighthouse that’s 160' tall. The depth of the water ranges from 5' to 50'. There are 23 mooring buoys, S-0 thru S-22. This is a Sanctuary Preservation Area. That means no taking of fish or lobster and it’s strictly enforced. It’s located 4 miles southwest of Vaca Key. The GPS Coordinates are 24'37.553 N and 081'06.654W.
This reef is one of the largest spur and groove formations in the Florida Keys. Each finger of these formations is separated by wide valleys of white sand. Many different species of coral are growing here. The lettuce, brain, star, finger, gorgonian and large stands of elkhorn coral are all continually building on this reef. There’s a limestone and coral formation that’s called “The Arch.” It’s 8' high so it’s plenty big enough for you to swim through. Up near the lighthouse is an area of rubble and grass. Huge barracuda like to hang out here and near the legs of the tower. Almost every species of reef fish can be found at this reef, from the large Jewfish to the small jawfish.
There’s more coral here than most other reef systems in the Florida Keys. This creates one of my favorite creature relationships. It’s the cleaning station. These corals attract large numbers of cleaner fish like the juvenile spanish hogs, parrotfish and neon gobies. These guys attract the larger fish. The cleaner fish are parasite eaters and the larger fish are parasite carriers. You’ll want to try and spot one of these cleaning stations so you can observe this wonderful relationship between these fish.
They originally planned to build the Sombrero Key Reef lighthouse out of concrete like the one at Jupiter Inlet and in Cape May. They changed their minds and drew up plans to build it out of wrought iron with the screw pile method for a longer life which they thought would be 200 years. Actual construction for this light began in 1856. A hurricane blasted through the Florida Keys on August 29, 1856 and ripped the temporary platform into several pieces.
Construction resumed the following year under the direction of Lieutenant George G. Meade. It was built in 8' of water. The pilings are sitting 10' down into the limestone reef. The 12" wrought iron pilings are centered on cast iron disks, 8' in diameter. There are 8 of these legs that form the shape of an octagon and one in the center. It’s 56' across at the bottom and is tapered to 15' at the top. There are six sections from bottom to top. The light keeper’s quarters were 30' square and divided into 4 rooms. It was built 40' above the water. It was in the second section. It was made of quarter inch thick boiler-iron and lined with wood. The enclosed circular staircase leading to the lantern was constructed the same way. There was a ladder for access to the water. It was built as a cost of $153,159.41. It is the tallest of all the lighthouses in the Florida Keys. It stands 142' above the water.
The Sombrero Key Reef lighthouse was first lit on March 17, 1858 by Joseph Bethel. He served here as light keeper for the next 21 years.
The light has a white sector that’s 45,000 candlepower. There are three red sectors that are 13,000 candlepower. As of 1968 the light could be seen for a distance of 18 miles. The light was fully automated in 1959. The original Fresnel lens was removed in 1982. You can see it on display at the Key West Lighthouse at the end of the road in the Florida Keys.
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