I spent the better part of March 2014 trying to make any kind of camping reservation in the Florida Keys, without any success. I resorted to what I thought were some clever IT tricks, but they didn’t work out, and as a result, no reservations were obtained. I signed up with a group that promised to find camping cancellations in the Florida Keys and then let you know. For that they would charge double the cost of a campsite. It was still a deal. That didn’t work out either. The campsite in Long Pine Key, in the Everglades, is about an hour and a half to two hours from Bahia Honda, so we drive instead of camp.
Bahia Honda holds warm place in my heart, because in 1972, while I was attending Southampton College, there was carbonate geology field camp run by a great guy and teacher, Professor Larry McCormick PhD, who also brought along a bunch of biologists to help us better understand the organisms that we were seeing for the first time alive. The experience of that field camp, along with the trip down to Florida and back, is one of those life altering experiences that people talk about, and overstate, but this was the real deal. It referenced all the fossilized organisms, in what they might look like, where they live, what living things were nearby them in their environment, all of which we had studied about in Ohio from the Ordovician, and it truly let me appreciate what the Marine Sciences were all about, and what my fellow classmates back at Southampton College, the biologists, were so excited about. It provided me new experiences. I met new people. I experienced new climates. I was exposed to the southern way of living for the first time. I was the subject of prejudice, and I was immersed in entirely new environments.
My experience in the Florida Keys that winter provided me with the opportunity to explore on my own, and poke at eco systems that I had never seen before. That one month-long trip has helped sustain me intellectually and emotionally, over decades, and has provided the basis upon which I’ve gained valuable insight into things seemingly unrelated.
We started the day early. We hit the dump station and the fresh water supply the evening before, in preparation of having water to take showers with after we played in the water in the keys, so after a quick cereal breakfast, we were off. The traffic was light, and the weather was overcast and a little cool, only about 65 ° with a pretty steady wind, so without the sun beating down on you, it felt pretty cool. Yes, but not anywhere near as cold as all our relatives back up in New Jersey.
We made it to the Park, without incident, paid our nine dollar admission fee to a very perky young lady who was manning the gate, and the Bahia Honda State Park was ours. Unfortunately, there was the lingering smell of decomposing seaweed. It wasn’t really a sewagey smell, but there was that lingering faint aroma. The color of the water was sapphire blue, tourmaline and a bottle glass green, and then just clear as air. We walked over to the gift shop in search of the sticker for the back of the RV and a pin for Louise, as is our custom and found both those and a wonderful manager, we had fun talking to. There were kayak rentals available and I asked Louise if she would like to go out on one, and she immediately jumped at the opportunity.
We rented a two-man kayak and were supplied with paddles and life vests, and we were off to conquer the Atlantic. It was very nice. The two-man kayak was an open top kayak so I had a little trouble with my legs and the seat, but Louise was perfectly comfortable. So we paddled about a half to three quarters of a mile to the North enjoying the different colored waters, the eelgrass, and looking for anything we could see in the water, and just generally enjoying ourselves. We passed a kayaker and I asked him about the rocks to the North and he told me they’d be a great place to stop, so off we went. The area looked familiar enough to me, considering it was over 40 years ago that I was in this neck of the woods. So I was pretty excited.
We hopped out of the boat and I made a halfhearted effort to beach on the rocks. The effort would did not work, so we stuffed it between a big pile of rocks and a little pile of rocks and it floated around in a nice little circle and didn’t go anywhere which was just fine with me. I started poking around in the water anticipating life. I was pretty disappointed. There were no bryozoans, very little algae, no seaweed, no crabs, no worms, no coral, no nothing. We did see a couple very small sergeant major fish hiding under the overhangs of some really old coral that was covered over with red seaweed, and there was the occasional larger sandy colored fish that zipped from point-to-point that we never really did see. I was working on what I remembered seeing back in 1972. I thought to myself that I was either a massively confused, or terrifically optimistic or feeling that I only remembered the really good things and didn’t remember all this dead stuff from back then, but I was pretty sure that was far, far different in 1972.
I thought that if I used a gauge, like Great Peconic Bay on the East End of Long Island, which has suffered through a number of serious red tide incidents and whose ecology has been greatly impact by them, but has made a recovery in the last several years, against what I was seeing in the waters of the Florida Keys, I would have a less emotional frame of reference. The Keys lost. Even with hundreds of thousands of summer visitors, faulty septic systems, warm summers, outbreaks of algal blooms, over fishing, the Great Peconic Bay on the East End of Long Island has far more broad and vibrant ecology than what I saw in the Keys.
We had a great time paddling back to where we rented the kayak. It had gotten warmer, and the wind was to my back as we kayaked home. We returned everything we needed return and found the manager of the gift shop smiling and I talked to her about what I thought things had been back in 1972 versus what I was seeing now. She said I was not mistaken. She said that back in 1972 the area between the reef and the shore was loaded with fish, crabs, coral, but now the reefs offshore, three miles away, were hard-pressed to sustain the coral life that remained. She said there was extensive work underway in which coral was encouraged to set on substrate and then the substrate was divided up and placed in areas on the offshore reef in hopes that the man assisted coral would help bring the reef back to some shadow of what it had been. She indicated it was not uncommon to find coral growing on the flats sticking up through the grasses, back in the day, but there was nothing there now.
I’ve only read about eco systems crashing and up to this point I’ve never witnessed one, but it is really sad. We saw lots of boats, and lots of fisherman, and I am sure that there are big fish in the sea, but if the base of the environment is rotten, I don’t see how the fish of the top can survive. I think it’s akin to going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and walking into the Impressionistic Gallery to find all the paintings are gone and part of the floors been torn up and there are holes in the walls and construction debris all over, and you’re not really sure whether that tearing it down for good or hopefully renovating. I saw something in those tidal pools that makes me think it’s been torn down for good, and I am so terribly sad that my grandchildren will not be blessed with the treasures of nature I experienced.
We had plenty of water, so we took showers in the RV, dried off and took little tour of Bahia Honda State Park before we left. It was late, I was hungry and I didn’t feel like cooking at our estimated arrival time of 8 o’clock, so we stopped at a Publix in Marathon, and got their most excellent fried chicken with some rolls, some coleslaw and had an excellent dinner in the RV in their parking lot. There is an airport on the North part of Marathon Key, and it was just our luck, that on that day, there was a World War II B-24 and B-17 being exhibited. Both were also flying along the length of the Florida Keys, and it was very exciting to see the B-17 fly overhead at about 250 feet. Occasionally, not to be outdone, someone from the nearby Air Force Base would also make a high-speed pass overhead. The comparison in noise and performance was stunning.
We called family, who were still up in Pittsburgh regarding some traveling, finished up, and drove home. We arrived about eight, relaxed for a couple of minutes and went to bed, fell asleep, and slept like a log. Even with the failed eco systems it was a phenomenal day.