Robbie’s Marina is located at mile marker 77.5 at the north end of Lower Matecumbe Key, Islamorada, in the middle Florida Keys. Located on the Gulf side of the island, it has become an icon in the Keys in recent years. There, schools of huge tarpon cruise the shallow waters and are tame enough to be hand-fed right from the docks.
This is not the type of fish feeding experience where a few bread crumbs are thrown into a pond.
These enormous prehistoric fish (some of which are over 150 pounds and are as long as five feet) have been visiting the marina for more than two decades looking for a meal. Visitors can pay a dollar to access the docks, and a few dollars more buys you a bucket of fish to feed these giants of the sea. More adventurous visitors can kneel down on the low docks and lean out over the water, holding the fish just above the surface. The tarpon will breach the surface and suck the fish right from your hand. These fish don’t have teeth, just a sandpaper-textured mouth, so the only thing you can get by getting too close is the equivalent of road rash on your hand.
So how did these fish come to claim Robbie’s as their mealtime hot spot?
One evening 20 or so years ago, the marina’s namesake, Robbie, found a tarpon floundering in the shallows. The fish’s mouth was badly damaged so he called a friend to help stitch up the mouth. He put the fish in a tank and hand-fed it until it could be released back into the bay. It swam away and fed freely, but over the following days and weeks it would return looking for a meal from its savior. Soon enough, a large school would appear for food. Over time the school has grown, and now you’ll find up to 100 fish hanging by the docks at all times of the day and night.
The area’s pelicans have also learned that there’s an easy meal at hand, so you’ll have to protect your bucket from their hungry beaks. And down below the waters, a variety of fish congregate for scraps. You may see more species of fish from Robbie’s dock than you would on some snorkeling excursions!
Having one of these enormous fish take a fish from you is an experience you won’t soon forget and is a thrill for the whole family to witness. If the size and quantity of these fish intimidates, some more timid visitors feed the tarpon by throwing the bait fish in the water and watching as the tarpon boil to the surface, making a loud popping sound as they inhale their dinner with force and gusto.