At the mouth of the creek, within sight, an expansive sea grass flat. From the porch you could see — a few hundred yards away — where a truck tire had lodged in the sea grass. In those years it held a single permit. A large, thirty pounder who would circle the tire reliably like guarding a nest. Try as he might, my father could never catch that fish. It existed, I imagine with forty years distance between us, as a demarcation of the human realm and the miraculous.
My father was an avid flats fisherman. Through him, now gone five years, I experienced Florida Bay and Biscayne Bay in the last years where the momentum of marine biology accumulated over thousands of years still provided a prism through which a remarkable biodiversity expressed itself. Those were the good old days, although the crusty old timers we met at dawn breakfast at the Wooden Spoon, across from the tiny, open air Marathon Airport, spoke of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s as though they were yesterday too.
What we were still able to experience on Florida Bay in 1972, occasionally when the conditions were mysteriously right — the explosion of marine life in one of the world’s most pristine, unique ecosystems. The Everglades.
Because of college and work, my visits to Marathon in those years were winter drop-ins. I still remember the exotic fragrance of oleander stepping off the commuter plane from Miami in the warm dark.
Harry Spear, my father’s longtime guide, had a sixth sense for finding fish on the flats. On cold, windy days, when the Atlantic and Gulf were unfishable, Harry had a reliable backup plan. In the magic hour between night and day, we would gas up and trailer Harry’s Dolphin skiff up US 1 to Card Sound Road in Key Largo about an hour away. We’d put in at John Pennekamp, Harry pointed the skiff north towards the creeks opening to the bay as daylight broke.
It was on such a morning I first experienced the flats surrounding the Arsenicker Keys, less than a mile off Turkey Point. Can’t tell you the exact date, but my recollection is that it was before the two nuclear reactors were fully operational. What I can attest is that the southern portion of Biscayne Bay reliably held some of the largest bonefish anywhere in the United States. In other words, they were well fed by a remarkable estuarine environment that flourished in the interaction between salt water and fresh water coursing through wetlands along the southern fringe of the bay. Before Turkey Point.
The turtle grass meadows in the southern part of Biscayne Bay were astonishingly green and lush. Here is a short video clip made in the Bahamas that shows what the bay bottom looked like:
It was mesmerizing to stand at the bow of the skiff, staring down through a narrow column of water into the thick carpet of sea grass. Today the bay bottom, in exactly the same area, is arid as a desert.
There is not a trace of marine wilderness that held abundant shrimp and crabs and pelagic predators called grey ghosts. These rare species stood for thousands of years of evolution that brought the first fishermen and settlements to south Florida. And they are mostly gone, now.
Biscayne National Park, established by presidential order in 1968, has not been able to protect these fragile areas. For decades, Florida Power and Light has asserted Turkey Point is a good corporate neighbor. According to FPL, it is a steward of the natural environment, but the company has obstructed for decades a close analysis of both its direct impacts and the indirect effects of the nuclear facility on 30,000 acres surrounding the FPL facility called the Model Lands. Long ago, these wetlands were understood to be critical to the health of the southern portion of Biscayne Bay; providing an abundant source of fresh water critical to marine habitats.
Today, FPL claims 800 employees in the Homstead area. Its executives are among the highest paid in the state of Florida. For all the economic blessings FPL confers, these cannot make up for what has been lost and what FPL is obligated, by binding legal orders, to help recover. Joe Podgor, a former director of Friends of the Everglades, put it very well when he said many years ago, “Saving the Everglades is a test. If we pass, we may get to keep the planet.”
Forty years ago, this test began to be administered right here in our backyard.