Carl Starling-Key set the scene: the first full moon in June, the tide, outgoing. A late afternoon spearfishing excursion at Whale Cay in the Berry Islands.
Starling speared a good one, a fat grouper, grunting and wedging itself in a head of coral.
The popular charter boat captain, former pro boxer, TV and movie extra soon found himself in a scene from Jaws. Except Steven Spielberg wasn’t there and the mechanical shark was all too real. This one, unlike Spielberg’s “Bruce,” was functioning.
“At about 10 feet from the surface I felt a terrific jolt to my upper thigh, as if a boat was running over me. It felt as though a lifting crane was pushing me through the water. Having been spearfishing since I was a child, I realized that I was in the jaws of a shark that was taking me out to the deep water perhaps to drown and devour me. I reached my right hand down to put my thumb into his eye in an attempt to get him to release his vise-like grip,” Starling wrote in Shark Attack!, a feature in Fisheye View magazine in 1984.
Seven years later, Starling, dubbed “The Man with the Golden Smile and the Shark Bite” in a Miami Herald story, ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Miami Commission.
I can handle the sharks at sea. I don’t know if I can handle the ones on land. They’re much more vicious.
Shark-bite survivor Carl Starling, on running for a seat on the Miami Commission in 1991
“I can handle the sharks at sea. I don’t know if I can handle the ones on land. They’re much more vicious,” Starling quipped in a Miami Herald feature in 1991.
Starling bested the shark, and sparred with world champions Muhammad Ali, Jimmy Ellis and Willie Pastrano at the 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach under trainer Angelo Dundee. He racked up a boxing record of 14 wins, five losses before being drafted by the U.S. Army in 1963. He served with the 82nd Airborne Division.
The one opponent he could not beat was esophageal cancer. Starling, born in Miami on Nov. 7, 1944, died surrounded by family and friends in Coral Gables on Feb. 22. He was 71.
For three years he fought the cancer the way he powered through everything else in life: with character, strength and positivity. “When he was done with treatments he lifted weights again; that’s an inspiration,” said his son Ryan Starling.
He ran marathons, too. Named the Best Charter Boat Captain in South Florida by Miami New Times in 2013. And Starling was a member of the South Florida Free Divers Club. “I’m the best looking of all these guys. You know that, right?” he teased a CBS4 reporter who followed him on a 91-foot dive sans tank in 2013.
“He was a well-read jock,” said one of his ex-wives, Lina Palmer, mother of his son Drake. The two met while Palmer was jogging outside Coral Gables Country Club near her home. “What struck me about him was, ‘What an athlete!’ Plus, he was well- read and knew about literature, and normally the two don’t go hand in hand. But that big heart!”
The two remained close. That was Starling’s way. A previous ex-wife, Lydia Muniz, mother of his son Ryan, acted as his health surrogate as he battled cancer. Both families had blended decades ago.
“When I first met Carl one of the first things he did was he took me to some holiday event and he said, ‘We’re going to my ex-wife’s house.’ And I thought, ‘This might not be comfortable,’” recalled Palmer. “When we got there, her parents, her aunts and uncles and all her family, they were so accepting. They had been divorced many years when I met him. It was just so special. She’s of Puerto Rican descent and I’m Cuban. To us, family is so important and when I saw that, I understood she was a special woman.”
Starling, Muniz said, “was always part of our lives. Definitely an amazing man who lived life to the fullest. My family and friends absolutely enjoyed spending time with Carl. He was always the kind of man to give the shirt off his back even if it was the only shirt he had. He was fun to be with and a true character.”
Palmer teasingly called him “a salty old dog” and one gets the impression Starling would have cherished the description.
“He was an energetic ambassador for Coconut Grove’s docks, where he kept his pride and joy, The Prince of Tides, for more than 20 years,” wrote his friend Esmond Choueke. Atop his tuna tower, Starling, a descendant of British Bahamians, whisked hundreds of people, including movie and TV crews, along Biscayne Bay for fishing and film shoots. He appeared in several himself. Starling had an uncredited roll in the Frank Sinatra flick Tony Rome, which was shot in Miami in 1967. He, and his 34-foot Prince of Tides, named for the Pat Conroy novel, appeared in the Robert Redford made-in-Miami movie, Up Close and Personal, in 1996.
Along the way, the Miami Jackson High School Class of 1963 grad found time to teach at various Miami-Dade high schools, including at The English Center, an adult and community education center, where he taught advanced conversational English to non-speakers. Banners in his class read: “This is a Positive Thinking Area!”
Often, he used humor to get through to his students, like the time he tried to get them to name Abraham Lincoln’s hometown. He knew his audience, a 1997 Miami Herald feature reported. “I know what you’re thinking. He was from Marianao, and that’s why we have Lincoln-Marti schools here in Miami, right?”
The Cuban students got the joke. Marianao is a neighborhood in Havana.
One of Starling’s students, a Guatemalan, flew in from the University of Colorado to visit him in the hospital, Palmer said. “Carl gave him the chutzpah to study physics of all things. Everybody put him down. But Carl gave him such confidence. That goes to show what a difference he made in some of these people’s lives. Carl took an interest in them. He was just incredible.”
Starling is survived by his children Elyana, Ryan and Drake Starling and grandchildren Ashley, Brittany, Courtney and Chad. Donations in Starling’s name can be made to ShakeALegMiami.org. A memorial service will be held at Monty’s in Coconut Grove at a March date to be announced soon.