Explore Key West

How to Rate a Sunset, Keys-Style

Cold drink in hand, try spotting the green flash as you play this game the next time the sun sets in the Keys

In the Florida Keys we justifiably lay claim to the most spectacular sun awakenings and finales in the universe. Anglers rise early enough to witness the brilliant fireball burn its way out of the ocean, its igneous shafts dramatically piercing the clouds overhead. Divers relish the midday sun’s intense rays, which light up the ocean waters like a torch, illuminating the colorful corals below. Sunbathers lie prone on pool decks and man-made beaches, soaking the solar rays, storing up some much-needed vitamin D.

But our sunsets take center stage in the twilight hours. Both visitors and residents jockey for an unobstructed vantage point from which to watch the smoldering orange ball ooze into the sea like a sphere of molten lava. Flotillas of small boats drift anchorless in the Gulf waters . . . waiting. Travelers pull their autos off the Overseas Highway and stand at the water’s edge, their awestruck attention riveted on the setting sun. Key West even has a daily sunset celebration ceremony at Mallory Square, complete with fireeaters, jugglers, and Keys buskers of every shape and description.

If you are vigilant, you may see the green flash, a brilliant, emerald colored spark of light that occasionally appears just as the sun melts into the sea. The rare sighting lasts only a second or less and has inspired legends the world over. According to the Boston Globe, “The green color results from the refraction, or bending, that sunlight undergoes as it passes through the thick layers of atmosphere near the horizon. Blue and green wavelengths of light are refracted the most, just like in a prism, so the setting sun appears to have a very thin blue-green fringe on its top edge. This fringe is hidden by the glare from the rest of the sun until all but the last of the sun’s rim is blocked by the horizon.”

In the Florida Keys the sun sets over the Gulf of Mexico. The day must be clear, and the sun must meet the horizon through a cloudless sky to see the green flash.

Although sighting a green flash is a singular phenomenon akin to spotting a comet or a shooting star, every sunset is reason for celebration in the Florida Keys. So allow us to share with you our little-known and muchguarded 10-point secret rating scale for the ceremonial Keys sunset watch:

The Gee-Whiz Sunset Rating Chart

Rule #1: Score five points if the sun sets at all because that means you are alive.

• One point for preglow (reflection of sun and streaks across the water).
• One point if you see the bottom of the sun touch the horizon.
• One point if the top of the sun touches the horizon.
• One point for an afterglow (the sky turns pastel colors).
• One point for the company you keep while you are watching the sunset.
• Score a bonus point if a sailboat, bird, or cloud moves in front of the sun as it sets.
• A verified sighting of the green flash is an automatic 10 points.