Cady looking out on the Atlantic Ocean during our time in the Keys.
Our adventures went a little longer than usual, with a three day trip to the Florida Keys putting an end to an eventful week. We kicked things off on Tuesday by visiting Everglades National Park. We started at the Royal Palm Visitor Center, where we met with Artists in Residence in Everglades (AIRIE) Executive Director, Deborah Mitchell. She gave us a tour of the AIRIE Nest Exhibition: an installation built to raise awareness about invasive species. After, we met with Pedro Ramos, Superintendent of Dry Tortugas and Everglades National Park. Ramos talked to us about the importance of informing our youth about Everglades restoration and following our dreams.
Our trip to the Park spanned from the Anhinga Trail to the Flamingo Visitor Center. During this time we saw a prescribed burn intended to help maintain the fire-dependent Pine Rocklands. We waded into a Cypress dome to look at a swamp micro-ecosystem, saw Taylor and Shark River Sloughs, and the transition between freshwater and saltwater communities.
A view of a small lake in the mahogany hardwood of Everglades National Park.
Wednesday we met with former Florida Senator and Governor Bob Graham joined by The Everglades Foundation’s Chief Operating Officer Shannon Estenoz. Between Senator Graham and Shannon, we entered what I would later discover to be my favorite meeting thus far. Senator Graham talked to us about environmental activism and his Save Our Everglades Campaign in 1983, which aided in passing monumental environmental legislation like the Kissimmee River Restoration Project in 1992.
From left to right: Natalie, Zion, Cady, and Bella with Senator Graham and The Everglades Foundation’s Outdoor Education and Outreach Coordinator Dr. Kristie Wendelberger.
During our meeting, one prevailing topic stood out to me: how to combat fatigue and failure within political advocacy. Estenoz argued that reframing issues can increase support, such as emphasizing Everglades restoration as an infrastructure program. This immediately reminded me of the Stream Policy Window Model, which outlines that identifying a problem is the first step in achieving new legislation and societal change.
However, if a problem remains unsolved for too long, fatigue can cause less social mobility. This is where newcomers into the issue, as Graham told us about how the formation of Caloosahatchee based Captains for Clean Water and non-native Floridians made a huge difference in shifting public perception about the Everglades. Realizing how important redefining problems and recruiting new activists to environmental movements was not my only take away from the meeting, however, as Senator Graham gave me advice on how to more effectively lobby in the future, which I plan to apply.
Bella, Natalie, and Zion during our tour of Florida Bay with Florida International University Research Associate Dr. Tom Frankovich.
Thursday, we finally arrived in the namesake of this piece: the Florida Keys. The drive was spectacular with hundreds of islands speckled in Florida Bay and the Atlantic Ocean visible from Highway 1. We met with Dr. Tom Frankovich, Florida International University Research Associate, who gave us a boat tour of Florida Bay and taught us about seagrass die-off events in Florida Bay.
One of the mangroves islands we saw in Florida Bay.
Florida Bay encompasses a total of 1,100 square miles and serves as a nursery for reef fish and nesting birds. With the average depth of the Bay only being between four and five feet, filtered light is abundant, giving rise to vast seagrass beds just below the surface. Historically, the freshwater flow coming from Everglades National Park fed Florida Bay, allowing for lower salinity levels than the surrounding Atlantic, creating the perfect microclimate for turtle grass, manatee grass, and other seagrass species. Less water entering the Everglades system has changed the Bay’s salinity levels. Today, low circulation and record-breaking temperatures are all factors that contribute to increased Bay salinity levels and, in turn, seagrass die-off. Warmer, hypersaline waters hold less oxygen, which grasses rely on at night. When oxygen levels get too low, it leads to seagrass die-off from sulfide poisoning. Increased nutrients in the water from decaying dead seagrass results in algae blooms, further degrading the Bay’s ecosystem and removing nursery grounds for native fish like smalltooth sawfish and yellowtail snapper.
Dr. Tom Frankovich reviewing seagrass species with Natalie and Bella in Florida Bay.
Just like the rest of the Everglades ecosystem, Florida Bay has a lot to gain from the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). Lower salinity levels and increased water flow throughout Florida Bay will contribute to healthier and more diverse seagrass communities, with mixed beds being less susceptible to ecological disturbances and mass die-offs.
A view of Alligator Reef Lighthouse in Islamorada, Florida.
Habitat degradation aside, the Bay was still beautiful, which made me only want to fight to protect it more. From our experiences, our snorkeling trip at Alligator Reef was the icing on the cake. The glimmering, aquamarine water of the reef shelf was accompanied by a symphony of Spanish music and seagulls, all under the watchful eye of a 19th-century lighthouse. I saw purple sea fans, rainbow parrotfish, yellowtail snapper, nurse sharks, and barracudas, yet, to quote India Arie, I only saw “a fraction of a fraction, of the deepest of the deep [ocean].” This blew SCUBA diving in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, out the water (yes, we Arizonans get out every once in a while). But I wouldn’t expect anything different from the third largest reef community in the world.