The Florida Keys & Key West

Florida Keys News

Kelly McKinnon Brings Youthful Appeal to a Century-Old Island

MARATHON, Florida Keys — Kelly McKinnon’s love of fishing attracted him to the Florida Keys, but he never dreamed his back door would be three feet from the Atlantic Ocean.

The handsome 29-year-old who grew up in Rochester Hills, Mich., the Great Lakes and the Tennessee mountains exudes youthful energy and appeal as the executive director of historic Pigeon Key, a tiny island symbolic of a century-old yesteryear and one of the most unusual historic sites in the Florida Keys.

McKinnon has been devoted to Pigeon Key for the last three years, first as education director then in August 2008 becoming the exec. He’s also one of the island’s only fulltime residents.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Pigeon Key is located beneath the Old Seven Mile Bridge at mile marker 47 bayside. It’s reached either by foot or ferry service, though McKinnon’s primary mode of transportation is his own 17-foot center console boat.

“It’s a different way of life on the island; I can’t just zip back to the store for milk or eggs,” McKinnon joked about the oddity of living on an island among islands.

A graduate of Michigan’s Wayne State University, McKinnon, who previously had spent two years at Florida Keys Community College, said his professor at Wayne State told him about the education director’s position. He promptly moved back to the Keys.

“I really like fishing, and came to the Keys for years with my father on trips, which is how I discovered FKCC,” he said. “At Pigeon Key, the [marine science] subject matter appealed to me, and who could ever imagine living in the middle of the ocean at a camp?”

In the early 1900s, the five-acre island was a camp for laborers constructing the railroad that connected the Florida Keys with the mainland for the first time. Today it features quaint restored cottages and a museum for visitors that showcases the railroad's fascinating history. Electricity is provided by a generator.

Supported by interns and a seasonal staff of nearly 16 people, McKinnon works in concert with the Pigeon Key Foundation to preserve the island’s historic value. That includes its museum, tours, research, special events and education, notably the hands-on Pigeon Key Marine Science Camp.

The camp helps young people from elementary school to college and post-graduate age learn the importance of conservation, marine mammals, reef fish and coral reef systems. For 15 years it has provided private, customized programs to more than 30,000 participants from more than 1,000 schools throughout the United States.

“We have to strike a balance between being historically accurate and viable for future generations,” McKinnon said.

Historical accuracy is particularly apparent at one of the island’s structures, transformed by the Pigeon Key Foundation into a railroad museum filled with historic photographs and artifacts. These include concrete "bones" that served to test the strength of mixtures used to build the Old Seven-Mile Bridge.

Future plans include painting the foreman’s house, one of the island’s original buildings from 1908.

Conservation is a core message McKinnon delivers to educational program participants, many of whom have assisted him and the Pigeon Key staff with removing exotic plants and trees from the island to promote native species growth, solar energy projects and replanting mangroves along shorelines.

“By just doing one thing,” he said, “we can help improve many things at once.”

Marine education is near to McKinnon's heart.

Marine education is near to McKinnon's heart.

Yet he manages to still have some fun ...

Yet he manages to still have some fun ...

McKinnon teaches snorkelers the "Are you OK," "Yes, I'm OK" signal before they enter the water, during a marine education class.

McKinnon teaches snorkelers the "Are you OK," "Yes, I'm OK" signal before they enter the water, during a marine education class.

Pigeon Key Marine Science Camp has helped more than 30,000 elementary-through-college age students, like this group, from more than 1,000 schools throughout the United States.

Pigeon Key Marine Science Camp has helped more than 30,000 elementary-through-college age students, like this group, from more than 1,000 schools throughout the United States.