Posts Tagged ‘Florida’

Pilgrim at Key West

May 31st, 2009

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

This sentence, the first line of The Old Man and the Sea, always thrills me—the simple way it sets up what is to come. Hemingway is one of the reference points I have as a writer. Like a GPS satellite, he’s someone I use to triangulate my position, to consider my direction, to consult when I’m lost. I don’t know how many times I’ve alluded to the “built-in, shock-proof shit detector” that Hem said is the most essential gift of a good writer. Or how many times I’ve recalled his advice to “write the truest sentence you know.”

Seeking inspiration in Hemingway's house.

KENNEDY WARNE
Seeking inspiration in Hemingway's house.


So I was happy to pay my $12 to have a look through his house in Key West. I had driven to the “Conch Republic” from Miami to catch up with my friends David Doubilet, the great underwater photographer, and Jennifer Hayes. The two of them were on assignment for National Geographic, photographing a story on artificial reefs. A really big artificial reef in the form of the ship Vandenberg had just been scuppered six miles offshore, and David showed me some spectacular images of the sinking from two remote cameras he and Jen had attached to the bow and the bridge.

But back to Hemingway. The first surprise was how many people were queuing to take the tour. Not bookish types trying to get in touch with some literary ambience residual in the walls—or possibly in the cats, of which there are dozens lounging about the place—but standard-issue Hawaiian-shirt-and-suntan-lotion tourists. Either the man’s celebrity is undiminished, or the Hemingway marketing machine is highly effective—or, I suppose, both.

Hem's house, a place of pilgrimage.

KENNEDY WARNE
Hem's house, a place of pilgrimage.


I stood at the steel grille blocking entry to the sanctum sanctorum, Hemingway’s study, and imagined myself tapping at the ancient portable typewriter on the desk, or reclining in the faded green lounger when the words weren’t flowing (probably more of the latter than the former), or strapping on the canvas backpack stashed under the window and heading for the snows of Kilimanjaro.

I glanced at the titles on the bookshelves in the main house. Danger is My Business, The Great American Novel, The Tumult and the Shouting. Muscular titles for a muscular writer. Though for Hemingway the inner tumult grew too great. Another title on the shelf gave me pause: When Night Descends.

Ground zero: Hemingway's study.

KENNEDY WARNE
Ground zero: Hemingway's study.


According to a sign on the wall, half of Hemingway’s library is in Cuba, where the man’s memory is also revered. A Google search brought up a story about finding Hemingway in Cuba by Wright Thompson in the Kansas Star. He writes about a bar where Papa’s followers raise a glass to his memory:

“Yet they also know that this might be as real as it gets. The Hemingway McDonald’s isn’t here yet, and the drinks do go down easy. They’re made the same way as back then. The waiters probably dress the same. So what if the prices are higher. They don’t come for a historical dissertation. They come to feel adventure, something they’ve otherwise traded for the safety of a cubicle and a 401(k). They come for a feeling, for that one moment of one day when they get it. When the lights dim and the band plays and the smoke curls, this place delivers.”

In a week I’ll be in Cuba, looking for my own adventure, not in a bar, nor in a fishing skiff in the Gulf Stream, but among some of the best preserved mangrove forests in the Caribbean.

Correction: When I first published this post I got the name of the Kansas Star author wrong: it’s Wright Thompson, not Wayne Thompson (which happens to be the name of my solicitor). I also couldn’t get the link to work, but it seems to be OK now.

The path to restoration

May 29th, 2009

For the past two days I’ve been visiting mangrove experts and restoration sites. At Weedon Island in Tampa Bay I met Tom Smith of the US Geological Survey. He’s vitally interested in the question of how mangroves will cope with rising sea levels. On the one hand, their sediment-trapping ability means they can hoist themselves up by their bootstraps, keeping their heads above water by building up the soil around their roots. On the other hand, there are limits to how rapidly they can accumulate sediment.

Robin Lewis at a restoration site he designed near Fort Lauderdale.

KENNEDY WARNE
Robin Lewis at a restoration site he designed near Fort Lauderdale.


“If the rise is 1–2 mm a year they can keep up just fine. If sea level goes up 2.5–3 mm a year, they probably can’t,” Tom said. The average sea level rise recorded at Key West for the past century has been 2.2 mm/year—just within the threshold of what peat-building mangroves can accommodate. Is the rise increasing? Not recently, Smith says: “In the last 20 years sea level in the Gulf of Mexico hasn’t risen a lick.”

Southern Florida, being so flat, is especially vulnerable to rising seas. Much of the land has a gradient of 1 in 100,000. Each centimetre of tidal elevation pushes water 10 km inland. Would planting thousands of mangroves keep the waves at bay? Not necessarily, says Tom. Even a small escarpment would prove an insurmountable hurdle to mangroves moving inland. And in many places human infrastructure inshore of the mangrove fringe would arrest the mangrove retreat.

Another of Tom’s research interests has to do with the “ecological goods and services” of a mangrove forest. The relatively new field of ecological economics attempts to put a value on natural habitats such as mangroves based on the contribution they make to the biosphere—in oxygen production, carbon storage, fish nursery functions, substrate for shellfish, roosts for birds, and so on.

Tom Smith at a Tampa Bay study site, where mangrove regeneration has been prolific.

KENNEDY WARNE
Tom Smith at a Tampa Bay study site, where mangrove regeneration has been prolific.


“One of the questions we’re asking is how big a patch of mangroves do you need for these services to be noticeable,” he said. “How much of a contribution do you get from a 10-metre-wide mangrove stand compared with, say, a 100-metre-wide stand? How much support for fisheries do you get? Is there a linear relationship between stand size and ecological goods and services? We don’t know the answers yet.”

The same questions interest Robin Lewis, a mangrove restoration specialist who showed me two of his project sites near For Lauderdale, north of Miami. Robin trained as a fish biologist before turning his attention to mangroves in the mid-1970s.

One of the sites we visit, West Lake Park, used to be tomato fields in the early 1900s. An ambitious restoration project was commenced in 1986, involving restoring saltwater flow through the site, removing invasive casuarina trees and reshaping the land to mimic the natural topography of a mangrove wetland. Now boardwalks weave through lush stands of mangroves, all of which have self-seeded (“volunteers,” in restoration lingo).

Mangrove awareness in Fort Lauderdale extends to mural-covered airport shuttles.

KENNEDY WARNE
Mangrove awareness in Fort Lauderdale extends to mural-covered airport shuttles.


It takes about 30 years to produce trees of the stature and density of natural stands, Robin says, but the goal for ecological restoration (as opposed to simple reforestation) is not just a nice spread of trees but “functional equivalency” between the restored site and a natural site. That means that all the ecological components are present and accounted for. For mangroves, that can be a lot of organisms. Researchers have found that a typical cubic metre of mangrove mud contains between 20,000 and 40,000 visible organisms—critters bigger than 0.5mm.

We stop to watch the courtship rituals of small fish called mollies, which are circling in the muddy water under the mangrove canopy. The males have a bright blue patch on their tails, which they are flamboyantly displaying to the females. Robin says it takes as little as five years for fish populations in restored mangroves to match those of undisturbed ecosystems. Looking at the swirling mollies, I remark, “If you build it, they will come.”

Panthers and airboats

May 27th, 2009

I’m standing in a marsh surrounded by frost-blasted mangrove shrubs, their foliage dead and chocolate-brown. Layne Hamilton, project leader of the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, is pleased about this. Since freshwater flow was channeled and diverted by developers (see yesterday’s post), the salinity of the marsh has been increasing, and as a result mangroves have been creeping inland, altering the nature of the place.

Which way now? Joyce, Andy and Layne ponder the best route to the next sampling station.

KENNEDY WARNE
Which way now? Joyce, Andy and Layne ponder the best route to the next sampling station.


In the 1920s there were about 4000 ha of mangroves in the refuge area; now there are more than 7000 ha. The plan to restore the marsh includes restricting the mangrove invasion and burning off some that have already encroached. Frost is helping keep down the mangroves’ prolific regeneration.

While Andy From and Joyce Mazourek go about their data capture, Layne tells me about the history of the marsh, known as the Picayune Strand. It was developed for real estate in the 1960s as the Southern Golden Gates Estate, but it never took off, and by the 1980s had become a haven for outlaws, poachers and drug runners. The Fish and Wildlife Service bought out the property owners in the 1990s, and the area was turned into a state forest.

Salt crystals on a mangrove leaf attest to the ability of many mangrove species to exude excess salt from their tissues.

KENNEDY WARNE
Salt crystals on a mangrove leaf attest to the ability of many mangrove species to exude excess salt from their tissues.


“It was seen as a great restoration opportunity for the western Everglades,” says Layne, who has been managing the project for the past seven years. As well as providing an ecological asset, there’s the thought that a restored wetland could help mitigate sea level rise. Mapping the vegetation and researching the hydrology are part of the baseline study being done before freshwater flows are restored.

Thunderheads are moving in our direction, blackening the sky. Andy is ready to pull the plug on the trip if they get any nearer. For someone from a country where electrical storms aren’t a major threat, the prospect of lightning strike is new to me, but it’s a daily reality in Florida as the hurricane season draws close. No one on the boat is taking the billowing clouds lightly. “An airboat on a marsh is a lightning rod,” says Andy.

Skimming across the marsh.

KENNEDY WARNE
Skimming across the marsh.


But the clouds come no closer, and we continue crisscrossing the marsh, occasionally getting stuck in the mud. When that happens, we all get off the airboat while Andy guns the big prop, waggling the rudders left and right, trying to move the machine into deeper water. In fact, we’re lucky to have been able to use the airboat at all. South-west Florida has had a drought this year, and a week ago the marsh was almost dry.

Late in the day, Layne finds panther footprints in the mud. As it happens, she also leads the Florida panther recovery programme, and tells me about the big cats. There are only about 100 of them left, she says—though that’s three times the number there were in the mid-1990s.

A big problem has been inbreeding. When a species hits a population bottleneck like the panther has, all kinds of debilitating diseases and deformities crop up, jeopardising recovery. “As a subspecies, they were just about to blink out,” says Layne.

The heart of the recovery programme has been to introduce the panther’s close relative, the western cougar, from which it is physically indistinguishable. “We brought in eight females from Texas, and they are helping fill in the holes in the genome of the panther.”

Further obstacles in the way of recovery are a disease called feline leukaemia, which jumps from domestic cats to panthers, and pseudorabies, which panthers pick up by eating feral hogs, and which kills them almost immediately. But Layne says the top cause of mortality is intraspecific aggression. Male panthers need about 200 square miles of range, and if they don’t get it they attack and kill females and kittens.

Andy sees the panther; I see the sign :(

KENNEDY WARNE
Andy sees the panther; I see the sign 🙁


The public hasn’t exactly embraced panther recovery with open arms. It’s a fearsome predator, and seeing road signs advising motorists to watch out for panthers no doubt causes unease among some Floridians. “It will take a lot of outreach and persuasion to get communities to be comfortable with a larger panther population,” Layne says.

That night, driving back to the house where we’re staying, Andy suddenly shouts, “Look! Panther!” Of course, I am looking in the other direction, and by the time I look where he is pointing the cat has slunk into the shadows. It’s the first time Andy has seen one in all the years he’s been coming here, and I don’t begrudge him the sighting for one minute, but I can’t help thinking that it follows the well-known Law of Journalistic Avoidance that is part of the wildlife creed. I have to make do with photographing the sign.

(Don’t) have a banana

May 26th, 2009

We are barely out of the marina, heading into the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge for a day of research in the mangroves, when Joyce Mazourek, the refuge manager, gets a “rescue-me” call from one of her staff. Her outboard has died. Can we give her a tow? We motor over to the boat, listen while the motor is fruitlessly cranked, agree sagely that it is definitely not starting and tow it back to the boat ramp.

We set out a second time, idling through the manatee protection zone (boat propellers are one of the chief causes of manatee injury and death), then Joyce pushes the throttle down for a high-speed slalom ride through the mangrove-fringed islands that make up the refuge. Ten Thousand Islands, adjoining Everglades National Park, has some of the best preserved mangrove habitat in the US.

Ten thousand islands? Well, no. More like a few hundred, but who’s counting? I first came across this island maze off Florida’s south-west coast while scouting for mangrove sites on Google Earth. From the air, the islands looked like cells under a microscope.

Andy From changes batteries in one of his water-level recorders.

KENNEDY WARNE
Andy From changes batteries in one of his water-level recorders.


Then I found out that Andy From, a GIS (geographic information systems) guy with the Fish and Wildlife Service, would be spending two days in the refuge downloading data from his water level monitoring sites. He invited me along.

This first day is devoted to checking the island sites; tomorrow we will go into the marshes by airboat. Andy occasionally consults a satellite map, but mostly navigates by memory—this is his 17th trip to collect data. His monitoring equipment consists of a PVC pipe sunk into the mud, with mesh-covered holes near the surface so that water can flow into them, and an ultrasound distance recorder in the top of the pipe.

Sunglint creates this optical illusion in a satellite image of part of the Ten Thousand Islands wildlife refuge.

GOOGLE EARTH
Sunglint creates this optical illusion in a satellite image of part of the Ten Thousand Islands wildlife refuge.


While Andy downloads the sea level data to a handheld device, Joyce sucks up groundwater from three different depths to measure temperature, salinity and electrical conductivity. All this data provides baseline information for a coming restoration project. Decades ago, canals were dug in the watershed north of the refuge as part of a massive real-estate development that never got off the ground. Those canals deprived the marshes of fresh water, disrupting the natural hydrology and changing the flora and fauna. The plan is to restore sheet flow of fresh water across the refuge, and Andy’s data will allow environment managers to measure the effects.

I busy myself with the mangroves themselves. It’s high tide, and tree-climbing crabs have clustered around the trunks of the trees, some of them several metres up. I try to photograph them, but as soon as I get within range they sidle to the opposite side of the trunk. When I move around that side they scuttle back to their starting point. I keep up this game of hide and seek for a while, then give up. They are too nimble for me.

As the day proceeds we have some lucky critter sightings. We startle a spotted ray, jet black polka-dotted with white, and watch it wing away through the murky water. Crossing a shallow area, we see horseshoe crabs, those ancient armoured arthropods which have changed very little in 400 million years. The air temperature is in the 90s Fahrenheit, and I’m eyeing the water for a dip, but change my mind when a two-metre bull shark swirls around the boat. The area is known for them. They are an unpredictable species, and the turbid water pretty much rules out swimming with them. I don’t want to end up a case of mistaken prey identity. Bulls don’t have the megadentition of great whites, but no way would you want to have their pearly whites sunk into your leg.

Joyce Mazourek, a victim of Cumulative Banana Syndrome.

KENNEDY WARNE
Joyce Mazourek, a victim of Cumulative Banana Syndrome.


We stop for lunch. Andy has made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for him and me, and is alarmed to see Joyce eating a fruit salad with banana. Like many fishermen, he considers bananas to be bad juju on boats. “Oh, oh,” he says. “We’re in trouble now.” Joyce says she’s been eating bananas on trips into the refuge ever since she started as manager a few months earlier, and has never had boat trouble. “But maybe it’s a case of CBS—Cumulative Banana Syndrome,” I suggest. “All that pent-up banana karma is about to be unleashed.”

I spoke truer than I knew. As we started for the last site of the day the motor started making a gnashing noise, and eventually cut out completely. Something had seized in its innards. We ended up paddling the last mile to the marina, past the mansions of the Port of the Islands resort, watching for manatees and listening to the chattering call of a bald eagle.

It was a pleasant way to end the day, but we agreed that, tomorrow, no bananas!