Blake Banks was born in Palmetto, but he 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. He 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.
Capt. 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 10 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, Capt. 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, he 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 Manatee Community College (now State College of Florida) 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.
He 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 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, have worked diligently not only to identify and study items in his collection, but also to piece together some of the larger stories it has to offer.
Banks' collection contains a sailfish skull, for example, but his records further identify it as the first sailfish he had captured. It was hooked during a trip aboard the "Medusa" from July 10-19, 1999. His fishing log reveals that the fish was 6 feet 11 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 closeup of the fish and 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.
Learn more about Florida's maritime history and view the Banks Collection by visiting the Florida Maritime Museum anytime from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The museum is at 119th St. W., Cortez. Admission is always free. More information available by calling 941-708-6120 or at floridamaritimemuseum.org.
Halee Turner, assistant at the Florida Maritime Museum, is passionate about helping others share their stories. She can be reached at Halee.Turner@manateeclerk.com.