On a gum-gray June afternoon, between thundershowers, my son and
I are running a 17-foot skiff through the backcountry of Florida
Bay. The wind has lain down, the water is silk. Suddenly, a
glorious eruption: bottle-nosed dolphins, an acre of them, in a
spree of feeding, play and rambunctious lust. From a hundred
yards we can hear the slap of flukes and the hiss of blowholes.
We can see the misty geysers, the slash of black dorsals, the
occasional detonation as a luckless bait fish gets gobbled.
No matter how often I witness the sight, I'm always dazzled. A
stranger to these waters could only assume he was traveling in
authentic wilderness, pure and thriving. If only it were so.
It's easy, when surrounded by dolphins, to forget that the bay
is fatefully situated downstream from the ulcerous sprawl of
Florida's Gold Coast. Four-and-a-half million people live only a
morning's drive away.
The river that feeds the backcountry is the Everglades,
sometimes parched and sometimes flooded. Water that once ran
untainted and bountiful is now intercepted and pumped
extravagantly to sugarcane fields, swimming pools, golf courses,
city reservoirs--and even the Atlantic. What's left is dispensed
toward the bay in a criminally negligent fraction of its natural
flow. The water isn't as clean as it once was, and it doesn't
always arrive in the right season.
September 17, 1995
That the bay is sick is hardly a surprise. The wonder is that it
has survived so long and the dolphins haven't fled to sea forever.
I fell in love with the Florida Keys by staring at a road map. I
was about five years old. My grandfather was a storyteller, and
my father was a sportfisherman, and I had listened to their
exciting tales long enough. I wanted them to take me.
Outdoor magazines extolled the Keys as jewels or gems or a
string of pearls dangling languidly from the continental flank.
From the map I memorized the islands transected by U.S. 1. They
had lyrical, funky names--Sugarloaf, Saddlebunch, Ramrod, Big
Coppitt, Lower Matecumbe. To a boy growing up on the steamy,
iron-flat apron of the Everglades, it seemed fantastic that an
exotic undersea paradise existed only three hours away--maybe
less, the way my dad could drive.
This I already knew: The Keys were surrounded by water--the
Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, Florida Bay--and the water was
blue, by god. All you had to do was look at the map.
Except the map was misleading, as I discovered when we rode down
the Overseas Highway, me in the backseat, my father and
grandfather up front. The water of the Keys was beyond a map
printer's blue; it was a preternatural spray of indigo, emerald,
turquoise and violet. And the hues changed with each passing
Another thing I knew about the Keys: The great Ted Williams
lived there! In certain sporting circles he was more revered for
his flycasting than for his batting. Riding through Islamorada,
I pressed my face to the window in hopes of glimpsing the
legendary slugger. He was bound to be at one of the charter
docks or tackle shops, grinning that newsreel grin, posing for
snapshots next to a gaping 100-pound tarpon.
It was a much different era, before Jet Skis and time-shares and
traffic signals came to the Keys. Now they're trying to
four-lane U.S. 1 all the way from Florida City to Key Largo.
Ted Williams has moved away, and the water isn't always as blue
as it should be.
Florida Bay is a thousand square miles of hard-bottom shallows,
grassy banks and mangrove islands that stretch from the Upper
Keys to the rim of the Gulf of Mexico. On low tide the flats
become exposed, pungent and crunchy, revealing the labyrinth of
spidery ditches by which the backcountry must be navigated.
Casual boaters seldom venture here more than once. Getting
beached on the banks is no fun; getting lost can be worse.
Despite its smooth and placid face, the back country sometimes
roils to a murderous fury.
In 1948 a promising young jockey named Albert Snider won the
Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah. To celebrate he and some friends
took a fishing trip to Florida Bay. They anchored their yacht
off a small island named Sandy Key.
Snider and two pals got in a rowboat to go redfishing. They were
still within sight of the yacht at dusk when a storm blew up out
of nowhere. The next morning the Coast Guard launched an
extensive air-and-sea search, which lasted for days. Snider and
his companions were never found.
The racing world was shocked. Snider's mount in the Flamingo, a
horse named Citation, was given to one of Snider's best friends,
a rider named Arcaro.
That year Citation won the Triple Crown, and the famous jockey
gave part of his winnings to Snider's widow. Eddie Arcaro had
considered joining his buddy on that fishing trip to Florida Bay
but had gone to Santa Anita instead.
Historically the backcountry has belonged to fishermen,
smugglers, poachers, bootleggers, fugitives and the occasional
professional adventurer. Its gallant snook and tarpon attracted
Zane Grey in the 1920s; its imposing eagles, ospreys and herons
caught the artistic eye of John James Audubon in the 1830s.
Early this century, plume hunters in Florida Bay wiped out many
thousands of wading birds because rich ladies on Park Avenue
fancied white feathers in their hats. When the law cracked down
and plumed hats went out of style, the egret and heron
populations slowly rebounded--only to be ravaged again as
wetlands dried up, victimized by drought and greedy water
"management" practices. Today most of the backcountry lies
within the boundaries of Everglades National Park, so the birds,
manatees and crocodiles enjoy a modest degree of protection. The
water itself is under no such stewardship.
The decline of Florida Bay has spanned the terms of several park
superintendents, who have displayed widely varying degrees of
concern and influence. Blame must also be assigned to the state
of Florida. It boasts strict pollution laws for rivers and
coastlines, but enforcement is a farce in the Everglades, which
is used as both a cistern and a sewer by industry and
agriculture. By the time freshwater reaches the bay, scientists
can do little but draw samples and hope for the best.
To be sure, some of the bay's natural spectacles still appear
unharmed by man: A fire flash of roseate spoonbills high in
the black mangroves. Or the sparkle of jittery bonefish tails
among mangrove shoots at dawn. Or a steep tannic creek so
teeming with snappers that you can't see the bottom for the fish.
Here's the heart of the riddle: How can the backcountry look so
robust in some places and so moribund in others? How can it
change so fast? One day the water is as clear as gin; the next
it's like chowder.
Nobody truly knows why. The maddening riddle is now pursued by
biologists, ecologists, hydrologists and a wagonload of other
Ph.D.'s. Cheering them on are business leaders, tourism
promoters and once indifferent politicians.
Not so long ago only fishermen and a handful of scientists gave
a damn. One of the first to spot the trouble was captain Hank
Brown, a dean among the guides of the Upper Keys. Impassioned
but quiet-spoken, Brown has spent more time in the
backcountry--roughly 8,000 days--than all the attending academics
combined. "The only thing I have going for me," he says, "is
that I look at it every day."
In the late 1980s Brown noticed patches of turtle grass dying in
the western and central parts of the bay. Soon entire banks went
bald, and the water turned muddy. The effect upon backcountry
fishing, a major industry of the Keys, was instantaneous.
Flycasting for tarpon, permit and bonefish depends on relatively
clear water. Hard-core anglers won't pay $325 a day to flail
blindly in the mud. They want to see their quarry; it's the
essence of the sport, an indescribable high. As the backcountry
got murky, Brown and other guides began losing clients to the
still-crystal flats of the Bahamas, Belize and Mexico.
In the fall of 1990, Florida Bay suffered a staggering fish kill
in Garfield Bight and other coves. Administrators of Everglades
National Park showed scant interest in the problem until Brown
and others began directing the media to the scene. For a place
that depends on tourism, the only thing worse than the sight of
bloated rotten fish is front-page headlines about bloated rotten
fish. The kill was investigated. Lack of oxygen was blamed but
But by far the most shocking symptom of the bay's collapse was
the massive floating clouds of algae that seemed to bloom
wherever the sea grasses died. Phytoplankton mixed with
wind-stirred sediments to transform healthy water into a
bilious, rank-smelling broth. "First came the turbidity," Brown
recalls. "Then the grass died. Then the root systems
disintegrated, and the banks of the channels literally caved in."
In 29 years on the water he had never seen anything so ominous.
Hank and his wife, Joy, videotaped the fish kills and the
rotting sea grasses and sent out copies on cassettes. Hank went
to government meetings to warn about what was happening in
Florida Bay. Other guides, young and old, sounded the alarm, too.
One important tourist who heard about the crisis was George
Bush. That the president loved fishing in the backcountry was a
cause for great optimism by many Keys locals. If he couldn't do
something to save the place, they reasoned, nobody could. And
they made a point of telling him about it. During one
bonefishing expedition, a guide scooped a handful of foul mud
off the flat to show the president how the sea grass was dying.
But nothing happened after Bush went back to Washington.
Nothing. Meanwhile Florida Bay got sicker.
The problem is fresh, clean water. There's not enough of it
moving down the peninsula. Getting more will require prompt,
stouthearted action, for which Florida's lawmakers are not famous.
When nature controlled the plumbing, good water ran south in a
sheet from Lake Okeechobee through the Everglades, finally
emptying from Shark River and Taylor Slough into the brackish
estuary called Florida Bay. It was a perfect system, except that
it did not anticipate the demands of reckless, unchecked urban
growth. As Fort Lauderdale and Miami boomed in the '40s, the
Army Corps of Engineers built 1,400 miles of levees and canals.
Pump houses were installed to prevent flooding of farms and
newly developed subdivisions (real estate brokers still being
somewhat sensitive about their image as tawdry swamp peddlers).
In the ravenous euphoria of a land stampede, no thought was
given to the possible adverse effects of gouging deep trenches
across Florida's wetlands. For engineers the mission was a
simple one: Move the water.
Now the federal government and the state of Florida are spending
millions trying to fix the mess. In theory the restoration plan
would mimic the ancient pattern of Everglades drainage while
reducing pathogenic levels of mercury, nitrogen, phosphorus and
pesticides. But in fact there's still no official commitment to
replenish the total annual volume of freshwater once sent to
Florida Bay. Without that, many scientists say, the backcountry
will never recover.
So much water has been purloined for urbanization that the bay
today receives about one tenth of its historic flow. In the
1980s successive seasons of brutal drought and exceptionally
high temperatures conspired with dumb flood-control practices to
hasten the crash. No longer brackish, the bay was becoming a
hot, briny lagoon--in some places, twice as salty as seawater.
Most experts think huge algae blooms in the backcountry are
related, at least indirectly, to the ultrahigh salinity. They
believe too much salt in the water can kill sea grasses,
triggering a cycle of decay. Dead grass loads the water with
nutrients, which in turn gorge the plankton. As the algal mass
spreads, it damages more grasses in its path. "Thus a positive
growth loop, similar to a cancer cell's, is born," explains Dr.
Joseph Zieman, a University of Virginia scientist who has
studied Florida Bay extensively.
A minority view is that the blooms are caused by phosphates and
other waste swept into the bay from distant cities and farms.
Whatever the cause, the effect is arresting. Although the
phytoplankton isn't toxic to sea life, it blocks sunlight
essential to the habitat of larval lobsters, shellfish, corals
and sponges. The onset of the algae was followed by a drastic
slump in the Gulf of Mexico's pink-shrimp harvest.
By 1992 the bloom was so prolific that a 450-square-mile area of
the bay had been dubbed the Dead Zone. Mark Butler, a biologist
at Old Dominion University in Virginia, was conducting a field
study of spiny lobsters when a 100-square-mile blanket of algae
settled for three months around the Arsnicker Keys. Underwater
visibility dropped from 25 feet to six inches.
In a letter to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary,
Butler wrote, "When the bloom finally dissipated, we were awed
at the devastation.... Over 90 percent of the sponges at our
study site were either killed or severely damaged."
I was out in the bay on a day when it was happening. With the
plankton clogging their membranes, sponges were dying by the
hundreds and floating off the bottom. The surface became a
bobbing gantlet of brown, decaying clumps of sponge; the water
was greenish and grungy. The sight put a knot in my gut.
So widespread and thick was the algae that it could be tracked
by satellite photography. Currents eventually carried the inky
plumes out of the bay through the bridges of the Keys, toward
the Atlantic. There the algae settled on reefs, causing an
uproar among dive-shop operators and charter captains.
Traitorous winds also puddled the crud around Islamorada, in
plain sight of tourists on the Overseas Highway. It was not a
Once a preoccupation of guides, lobstermen and shrimpers, the
worsening conditions in the backcountry suddenly became an
establishment crusade. That's because the Keys' economy depends
entirely on water as clean, blue and inviting as it appears in
the travel brochures.
(To say the aquatic balance of the Keys is fragile isn't a
cliche, it's an understatement. Recently scientists flushed a
viral tracer into a residential septic tank in Port Largo. Only
11 hours later the virus emerged in a nearby canal; in another
12 hours it turned up offshore.)
As soon as the decline of Florida Bay was identified as a major
threat to tourism, the obligatory task forces and blue-ribbon
panels were convened. Politicians from Key West to Washington,
D.C.--some in dire need of pro-environment credentials--adopted
the bay as their ward, their Walden Pond.
Even Bush finally got on board. In August he hosted a celebrity
bonefish tournament, with proceeds to benefit the Everglades.
For those who waited in vain for Bush to do something during his
presidency, it's sourly ironic that the gesture comes now, when
he's out of office and out of power.
But any newfound support must be welcomed, because time is so
precious. Between 60,000 and 100,000 acres of sea grass are dead
or damaged in the bay. The die-offs and algae blooms continue to
advance across the backcountry in two prongs, one from the gulf
and one from the interior.
The worst-hit area remains the so-called Dead Zone, the bay's
northwestern quadrant. There, near the once fabled tarpon
grounds of Oxfoot Bank, the marine bed is tundra. Redfish, trout
and pompano have been displaced by mud-loving bottom feeders
such as catfish and mullet. A slight breeze churns the lakes and
basins to marl; on each incoming tide the silt-filled water
rolls eastward from Sandy Key toward Ninemile Bank and beyond.
From far away it's visible--a march of yellowish muck on the
horizon. In July it breached Rabbit Key Basin, clouding one of
the backcountry's most pristine lakes. One day you could count
the blue-black slabs of tarpon resting along the banks, and the
next day you couldn't see your own fingers in the water.
SAVE FLORIDA BAY! plead the bumper stickers.
Theories, models and plans abound. The one thing virtually every
expert agrees upon: The bay is doomed without a pure, dependable
flow of freshwater. That's only the beginning of recovery, the
baseline. Reclaiming that water means rechanneling some canals,
filling others and displacing some farmers and homeowners who
have moved into the wetlands bordering Everglades National Park.
Unfortunately, less controversial options haven't worked.
For instance, the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida
Water Management District have been trying to transfuse water
from the problematic C-111 canal toward Taylor Slough. After two
years of experimental pumping, the results are discouraging.
"There's no evidence any of that water is making it to the bay,"
concedes Steve Davis, an ecologist for the water district. Davis
and others suspect that what's being pumped toward the
backcountry is cresting at the upland marshes and retreating
downhill into the same holding canal from which it came. Even in
a swamp, gravity rules.
No fewer than 15 government agencies and private conservation
groups are working on the mystery of Florida Bay. Support has
been strong and bipartisan, but folks in the Keys are nervous
about the anti-environment mood in Congress. Meanwhile
scientists are lining up for about $5 million worth of grants
earmarked for studying the bay.
The camps are sharply divided between those who believe years of
further research are needed and those who advocate swift action.
Davis says that well-grounded science is important, but the
clock is ticking for the backcountry: "We want to move ahead. We
don't want to study this thing to death."
So many bureaucracies are involved in the saving of Florida Bay
that it's inconceivable that the process would go smoothly, and
it hasn't. After a long, heated battle with vegetable growers,
the state of Florida this year finally agreed to condemn and
purchase the Frog Pond, a tract in southwest Dade County deemed
critical to the replenishing of the bay. But no sooner was the
deal done than the state offered to lease the disputed land back
to the very farmers it had evicted. (Applying the same logic,
Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf should have allowed Saddam Hussein to
reoccupy Kuwait after the gulf war and pay rent.)
The upgrading of Florida Bay from a problem to an emergency has
also spawned predictably petty turf guarding and bickering about
who's running the show. In July, for example, scores of
scientists met in the Keys to offer strategies for
reinvigorating the bay. Conspicuously absent were the staff and
biologists of Everglades National Park, wherein the bay is
situated. Incredibly, park staffers were forbidden to attend the
summit. The brass didn't like the way the meeting had been
arranged, so they ordered a boycott.
Nothing like team spirit in a time of crisis.
The last 18 months have been blessedly wet. Loads of rain,
including a deluge from tropical storm Jerry, drenched the
Everglades and continue to nourish Florida Bay. Some shallow
banks show a stubble of new sea grass--a promising sign, even if
it's only a few meager inches. Salinity in the bay's
northeastern reaches has fallen to predrought levels.
Another good sign: The algae blooms aren't as stubborn as in
recent summers. Prevailing breezes have kept the discolored
waters away from the shorelines of the Upper Keys--a relief for
the Chamber of Commerce, because not even the most dogged
tourists will snorkel in pea soup.
In some basins and inlets the backcountry looks amazingly
healthy. It was a good spring for tarpon, and guides say snook
fishing is the best it has been in 20 years. An air of cautious
hope has returned to the docks. "The water," says Hank Brown,
"is absolutely gorgeous in places. But every time you get your
hopes up, a storm comes through, and everything looks like crap
All of us who live here would love to think that the worst is
over, that Florida Bay is rebounding for good. But most
scientists don't think so. The rains are fickle, and by winter
the water might be too salty again.
That's why it is imperative that a natural flow be restored as
soon as possible, while the political will and funds exist to do
it. The engineering isn't as daunting as the politics. Powerful
special-interest groups are demanding a say in where the
lifeblood of the Everglades goes, how much they get to keep and
what they're allowed to dump in the water on its way downstream.
The battle begins up at Lake Okeechobee, where Big Sugar
finally (and reluctantly) has agreed to filter phosphates from
the runoff of the cane fields. Farther south, the cities siphon
heavily from the diked "conservation areas"--cheap, accessible
reservoirs that help fuel the breakneck westward growth in Palm
Beach, Broward and Dade counties. Even below Miami, on Florida's
still rural southern tip, water policy is disproportionately
influenced by private interests. In the dry months what would
otherwise trickle through the glades to the bay is diverted
instead to a small cluster of tomato and avocado farms.
Conversely, in the wet season the surplus water is pumped off
the fields to protect the crops. The canal network was absurdly
designed to flush millions of gallons not into the Everglades
(which were made to absorb them) but into Manatee Bay and Barnes
Sound, which are saltwater bodies. The effect of such a copious,
sudden injection of freshwater is an overdose--lethal on an
impressive scale to fish, corals and other marine life.
But it's all for a good cause. Upstream the avocados are plump
During all my days in the Keys, I met Ted Williams only once. It
was several years ago, at a gas station in Islamorada.
He noticed my skiff on the trailer and stalked up to inquire
about the bonefishing. Understand that Wil liams's reputation in
the backcountry was as fearsome as it was at the ballpark, so I
was a jumble of nerves. But he was as pleasant as anyone could
be. We talked about the tides, the wind, where the fish were
feeding. Then he got in his station wagon and said goodbye. It
wasn't so long afterward that he sold his place and moved away.
I understand why he left, but I wish he hadn't. His unshy
temperament would have made him a valuable ally in this battle
for Florida Bay: a glaring, impatient presence before county
commissions, water boards and legislative committees.
Fortunately the Keys have other fiery defenders. One is Mike
Collins, who spends almost as much time haggling in the back
rooms of Talla hassee as he does poling the backcountry. Twenty
years ago Col lins fled Wall Street to become a fishing guide in
Florida, the sort of madcap impulse of which urban daydreams and
Jimmy Buffett lyrics are made. Changing latitudes, I'm happy to
report, did not transform Collins into a laid-back guy. He has
been a tenacious and refreshingly blunt-spoken advocate for
Florida Bay. So, given the many exasperating ob stacles to
saving the place, I was mildly surprised to hear Collins say,
"I'm pretty optimistic. There's enough will to get it done. And
there are some very good people working on it."
We were in his 19-foot skiff, tearing a frothy seam across a
glass-calm morning, when he stopped to explore a redfish bank
near Buoy Key. The scene was disheartening. Only months earlier
the bottom had been lush and green. Now there were silty craters
where the turtle grass had died. Leaning hard on the push pole,
Collins agreed: It looked bad. But it could bounce back, he
said. With a little luck and a little help.
You'll hear this over and over from those who spend their lives
in these waters--a firm, almost spiritual confidence in the
recuperative powers of nature. "What this does," Collins said of
the big rains, "is buy us some time." But he, too, worries that
budget cutters might pull the plug on the Everglades, murdering
it once and for all. For Collins, who happens to be a
Republican, saving Florida Bay isn't an ideological choice, it's
a moral one. There is simply no honorable argument against it.
"Look, I've been all over the hemisphere looking for someplace
else that compares--the Bahamas, Belize, you name it," he says.
"But I always end up back here in the Keys, doing battle with
these birdbrained bureaucrats. You've got to fight for it,
because there is no place else that comes close."
A few days later I travel to the source: Taylor River, a
tributary of the aortal slough through which the Everglades
delivers essential freshwater to the eastern bay. At the boat's
helm is Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida scientist who
has spent 18 years with endangered crocodiles along the
backcountry's most remote coves and beaches. It has been a
banner season for the crocs, Mazzotti reports, and a good year
for most wildlife, thanks to the rains--which could end tomorrow,
or next fall, or five years from now. Another drought is
inevitable; the only uncertainties are when it will come and how
long will it last.
Mazzotti is no less ardent than Collins, but he's a bit more
diplomatic. "It's not that we've killed Florida Bay, though
we're damn close," he says. "It's that we've compromised its
For today, there's water enough to navigate Taylor River, which
at its mouth is but a jungly creek--overgrown, slender as a mine
shaft, mosquito-choked, strung with ornate, dewy spiderwebs. A
whispering current, southbound and strong, puckers around the
mangrove roots. Reaching over the gunwale, I touch two fingers
to the surface, then to my mouth. No trace of salt.
The water is warm, absolutely fresh. It tastes like hope.
The water of the Keys was beyond a map printer's blue; it was
a preternatural spray of indigo, emerald, turquoise and violet.
In the euphoria of a land stampede, no thought was given to the
adverse effects of gouging deep trenches across Florida's
Scientists flushed a viral tracer into a residential septic tank
in Port Largo; only 23 hours later, the virus turned up offshore.
I always end up back in the Keys, doing battle with these
birdbrained bureaucrats," Collins says, "because there is no
place else that comes close."