By Halee Turner, former Visitor Services Coordinator at FMM
Blake Banks was born in Palmetto, Florida, but lived and worked in Cortez as an independent commercial fisherman. With the help of his wife, Betty Banks, he owned and operated his own company, Deep Reef Fisheries Inc. Banks was the captain of their boat, the “Medusa”, which he stored on his property and maintained himself. In turn, Betty did all the accounting, balancing the cost of boat repairs and trip expenses with the income generated by each catch.
Captain Banks traveled through much of the Gulf of Mexico, but preferred to spend most of his trips fishing off the coast of Florida. Each trip ventured into water hundreds of feet deep and could last anywhere from ten days to three weeks. During this time, he would communicate with his wife only by radio, speaking in a code they had developed. Betty would help by coordinating sales, relaying messages and reporting weather forecasts to her husband at sea.
When he returned, Captain Banks would sell his catch to fish houses throughout the area. He bargained for the best prices and kept notes on each transaction, observing any difficulties he faced in making a sale or changes in price.
While working as a commercial fisherman, Captain Banks became fascinated by all types of sea life. He started to collect interesting specimens as he came across them during his trips, keeping detailed records about each acquisition. With time, he developed his interest in marine biology by attending classes at MCC (now SCF) and teaching himself how to properly preserve his finds.
His collection grew to contain many unique items all from the area off of Florida’s Gulf Coast. He entered some of his more remarkable treasures into the annual Sarasota Shell Show, and soon found himself the recipient of many ribbons for his interesting displays and rare shells.
Banks also found an opportunity to share his collection in the Annual Cortez Commercial Fishing festival. He and his wife would bring specimens for all to see. One of the most unique finds he displayed was a live Isopod, a prehistoric looking, deep sea crustacean, that he had pulled up while long line fishing.
A few years after his passing in 2004, Betty Banks chose to make a donation to the Florida Maritime Museum that included approximately a third of his shell collection, many of his daily logs, permits, other paperwork and some antique items.
Alongside the actual specimens in his collection, his logs provide useful, educational information about the wide variety of marine life he came into contact with. Museum volunteers like Robin Schoch, a retired marine biology teacher herself, have worked diligently not only to identify and study items in the Banks Collection, but also to piece together some of the larger stories it has to offer.
For example, his collection contains a swordfish skull, but his records further identify it as the first swordfish Banks had captured. It was hooked during a trip aboard the "Medusa" from July 10th through July 19th, 1999. His fishing log reveals that the fish was six feet and eleven inches long and was caught at a depth of 85 fathoms (510 feet). He charted the location of his find by hand at 25° 45’ North and 84° 12’ West and his photographs show both a close up of the fish and a snapshot of Captain Banks holding his catch.
The Banks Collection includes a wealth of information about these kinds of personal discoveries, in addition to details of his everyday life. He documented events in his community, made observations about the weather, and noted unusual occurrences at sea. These records not only tell a personal story about Blake Banks and his passion for marine biology, but also provide a unique look into a disappearing way of life. His story illustrates the hard work, ecological awareness and economics that still drive commercial fishermen today.
In Phase II of the museum’s “Re-Imagination” of permanent exhibits, the former Banks room will become the new gift shop area. The Banks Collection will be a prominent exhibit feature in the new Education Room, which formerly was the Captain’s Corner. The anticipated re-opening date is January 5, 2021.