Updated: Apr 20
The national parks belong to everyone. To the people. To all of us. The government keeps saying so and maybe, in this one case at least, the government is telling the truth. Hard to believe, but possible. – Edward Abbey, American author and essayist, in “Appalachian Wilderness,” 1970
Friday, 31 March 2023, Homestead FL
I awoke early, still bothered by the loss of the bag (and passport book) yesterday. Then, while going through my morning rituals, I discovered I had misplaced the topical gel for my rosacea. Not a major loss - I had another tube at home, where I'd return in four days - but knowing that I'd messed up again really grated. Another message from Phyllis, that she'd looked again and still found no bag, did nothing to dispel my dark mood.
It took only 15 minutes to drive to Biscayne NP (even including one wrong turn). I'd left early to forestall any possible problems, constantly second-guessing myself. After checking in, the worker handed me my snorkel equipment - and my first hurdle. For a watersport, I'd chosen to wear my glasses rather than my contacts. Of course, the snorkel mask didn't fit cleanly over my glasses. Must I relegate myself to a fuzzy view of the underwater world? "Hold on," said the worker. "Let me see if we have a mask with a prescription lens back there." Luckily, he did.
They directed me to a sign on the marina: 'Meet here for small group snorkel tour'. 'Small group' indeed - six guests and the guide/captain on a 40' sailboat.
Frank had worked for the Biscayne Institute for six years, enjoying the freedom of getting paid for spending time on the water. (Considering that 95% of the park is water, you need a boat to truly see it.)
A steady breeze greeted us on the water, but it came from the open Atlantic, so Frank motored us to a spot where we could tack better against the wind. On the way, he chatted with us about the history of the park. By the 1960s, developers began eyeing this area, and plans for a big ship port, a refinery and a power plant moved forward. Homeowners on Elliot Key envisioned resorts and tourists. The damage that these projects would cause in the bay jolted people interested in conservation - the heated cooling water discharges from the power plant, for instance, killed the sea grasses, and they would need to cut through the coral reef and dredge a canal for ships.
In the late 60s, the momentum for preserving the bay grew. Residents of Elliot Key, seeing their dreams of development dollars fade, took action. They bulldozed a six-lane highway down the center of the key, destroying seven miles of mangrove forest, hoping that the environmental damage would make it no longer worthy of protection as a National Monument. This highway - dubbed 'Spite Highway' - changed nothing, and Biscayne NM was established in 1968. Twelve years later, it joined the ranks of National Parks. (The forest quickly grew back in the near-tropical climate, and now the only trace of Spite Highway is a hiking trail.)
As Frank explained, thousands of years ago, the bay was a slough similar to Shark Valley in the Everglades. Over centuries, water levels rose, and brackish water filled the bay. In the mid-20th century, a hurricane dredged the bay, leaving the bay as it is today. Despite appearing like a vast pool of water stretching from the mainland six miles to Elliot Key, it only averaged 6'-10' in depth.
The website said that the captain would determine our destination based on conditions as we set out. On calm days, he could take us to snorkel over shipwrecks that littered the bay - what I'd hoped for. With a steady wind, though, he pointed the boat to Elliot Key, where we could snorkel in the protected waters on the leeward side of the key.
While motoring and while sailing, we all relaxed on the deck, chatting amiably, soaking in the sun. An occasional wave would break against the boat, giving us a splash of water. Since Frank had spent much time in the Florida Keys, I asked him for recommendations for my drive down tomorrow.
As we got close, Frank pulled in the sail and motored to our anchorage, twenty yards offshore. "Now you've got two and a half hours to do whatever you like. Kayak to the beach for lunch, snorkel, hang around the boat. Your choice!"
From the beginning of the challenge, I'd earmarked this park for a return to snorkeling. Just like cross-country skiing, I had dabbled in it during the 80's, snorkeling on one of my Hawaii trips - and never since. With the moment upon me, I debated whether to go with the 'safe' choice of kayaking. But I knew I had to get a reset after yesterday, so I opted to start with snorkeling. Frank helped me get to the back deck, handed me my mask and fins, and I slipped into the water. I made it just around the side of the boat before returning, sputtering and coughing up sea water. "What am I doing wrong?"
"Try to bite down on the mouthpiece, form a seal with it and your lips."
I tried again, hanging on to the ladder. Once the sea water hit my face, my body reacted quickly. You're under water! Don't breathe or you'll DROWN! That reflex action had me jerking my head up again.
Okay, okay, just take it easy. Holding onto the ladder, I slowly lowered my face into the water, refusing to let the reflex control me. I took a breath, and another. Okay, looking better.
I tried a few more dips with my iron grip on the ladder, then cautiously floated away. Not completely comfortable, but manageable. And the world below the surface! Mostly sea grass beneath the boat, twenty yards from the shore, but beautiful - and the prescription goggle lens seemed custom-made. After a few exploratory strokes, I went back to the ladder. "Frank, I think it'll work. Could you hand me my GoPro camera?"
The GoPro actually made things easier. Rather than worrying about my breathing, I found myself focusing on finding the fish and setting up video shots. There seemed to be a lyrical tableau to the fish darting back and forth,
peeking from the coral holes, winding through the waving fans.
I spent close to an hour and a half floating, gazing, slowly paddling. Almost twenty minutes of video promised me memories. So calming and peaceful. One video take exemplified the beauty of the scene:
Time to mix it up. I returned to the boat, ditched the mask and fins, grabbed a paddle and my lunch, and hopped into a kayak. It took only a few minutes to reach the beach, with a few other people nearby.
To the north, I could barely make out the Miami skyline against the horizon.
I lingered over lunch, then re-boarded the kayak and paddled near shore. Soon - too soon - Frank blew the air horn calling us back to the boat.
With the wind to our back and the sails full,
we cruised back across the bay at 4 knots. No rush, no hurry, no cares, just easy conversations.
Overhead, billowy clouds helped us play hide-and-seek with the sun.
I couldn't have picked a better antidote to yesterday afternoon's debacle.
P.S. I got to relive the watery wonderland as I created a music video (here's a call-out to David Arkenstone's song Heart of Spring on his Celtic Book of Days). Enjoy!