Weird Livestock in the Florida Keys

  • Duncan Coles, a former Miles Smith Farm worker, now works for the Fish & Wildlife Research Institute in Marathon, Fla. The Institute is experimenting with raising spiny lobsters and sea urchins so they can be released into the ocean to help save coral reefs. Duncan and author Carole are next to the spiny lobster tanks. The sea urchin tanks are in the background. Courtesy of Carole Soule

Published: 6/3/2023 2:00:04 PM

Ever since reading Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” an overnight train has called my name. When husband Bruce suggested we visit a former farm worker who relocated to the Florida Keys, I booked a sleeper car from New York City to Miami. Our “roomette” was twice the cost of an airline ticket but included meals, a personal car attendant, and other perks of first-class travel.

After a five-hour bus ride to New York City and a short walk from the bus station to Penn Station, we settled in the second-floor first-class waiting lounge, featuring free food and a view of the rebuilt Moynihan Train Hall. Then we boarded our train.

The seats in our roomette were comfortable, but I could see how hours and hours of sharing a six-foot space could lead to thoughts of murder, whether en route to the Orient or Florida. I peeked into the larger sleeper rooms with twice the area and a private shower and bathroom, but they were also twice the price, so we made do with our tiny space. Restless, I took frequent walks through the corridors of the three other sleeper cars to the dining car.

There were no white tablecloths or polished silver, but dinner was OK; like an airline meal, tasty but pre-cooked and filled with preservatives. After dinner, Billy, our car attendant, made up our beds; Bruce had the lower bunk, and as I climbed into the top bunk, I was sure the clickity-clack of the rails and gentle swaying of the train would lull me to sleep. It worked for Bruce, but sleep eluded me as I looked out the window at the passing scenery.

There were no murders on that train trip, but the ride did include drama. One woman was taken off at the Delray Beach, Fla., stop for a medical emergency; another was removed because she was acting out. At the beginning of the trip, this woman danced and sang through the first-class cars, dressed in a different outfit each time. Once she was sent back to her room to put on shoes. There are rules. As the trip continued, she repeatedly insulted the train staff and demanded to be let off the train. She got her wish in Deerfield Beach, Fla.

In Miami, we rented a car for a two-hour drive to Marathon Key to visit farm friend Duncan Coles who works at the Fish & Wildlife Research Institute, a farm of sorts. He manages an experimental sea urchin nursery, part of a project to protect coral reefs. Algae can smother slow-growing coral. Sea urchins graze upon the algae so the coral can grow.

Duncan showed us a tank with penny-sized baby urchins and other tanks containing medium-sized and large urchins. The Institute is experimenting with techniques to raise and release these creatures to help save reefs. Covered with black spines, none of them, even the babies, looked cute and cuddly. But I gained a new appreciation for creatures I’d formerly thought were a just nuisance, especially to bare-footed swimmers.

We did make it to Key West, where we visited with Ernest Hemingway’s surviving 53 cats and got to tour his famous house, where I participated in a writers’ workshop and got some ideas for a murder mystery -- fictional, of course.

Carole Soule is co-owner of Miles Smith Farm ( in Loudon, N.H., where she raises and sells beef and other local products. Her book, “Yes, I Name Them,” will be available in September 2023. She can be reached at

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