When it comes to the health of South Florida’s unique ecosystems, it’s all in the water. We’ve been inspired by the many dedicated individuals in the national parks and protected areas we’ve visited that are deeply committed to keeping these natural areas in good shape for generations to come. However, these islands of conservation have only limited influence over the tide of human pressure that threatens their continued existence as a living community.
The coral reefs of Biscayne National Park and elsewhere along the Florida coast are prime examples of how water quality issues within a protected area can be a major concern. A flyer within the visitor’s center introduced us to a new concept: “reef-safe sunscreen”. As a park ranger put it, “If it’s on your skin, it’s in the water.” Many of the chemicals used in sunscreen are damaging to reefs, and those snorkeling or diving can bring them directly to the coral. Zinc oxide gets the highest marks for being reef friendly, but these safer sunscreens are not required in order to dive. In the end, it all comes down to what individuals choose to do, and if the pervasive trash in the water at Biscayne National Park is any indicator, there is much reason for concern.
On the other hand, the situation at Everglades National Park highlights the threats to water coming from outside of the protected boundary. The park, the first created to protect a threatened ecological system, is only surviving “on life support” according to the park officials. Historically, the lifeblood of the Everglades came from the seasonal overflowing of Lake Okeechobee southward into the region, but human use from Orlando to Miami diverts billions gallons of water per day for human use through a system of canals and water control devices. The lush agricultural landscape outside of Miami, for instance, that captivated us with its tropical fruits and palms, is made possibe by water that no longer flows into the Everglades.
The little water that does reach park can also cause major problems. Decisions to allow in large quantities of water can be out of sync with the natural cycles, flooding the nests of wading birds (whose populations in the region have declined by 93% since the 1930s) and spreading out their food sources over a huge area. Agricultural runoff creates an even deeper problem by destroying the mats of algae called periphyton that form the base of the food chain in the region.
Places half-way across the country are even contributing to the Everglades’ demise. Mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants far away reaches the park and contaminates small and large animals alike. The fish and other water animals soak up mercury, which then build up in the birds and small mammals that get their meals from the water. At the top of the food chain, the 10 Florida panthers left in the park are taking in a large amount of mercury. One panther found dead in the park had mercury levels toxic to humans.
The park is in the midst of a 30-year plan to try to restore the water flow to more natural levels, so there is much being done to try to save the Everglades and other natural areas in Southern Florida. Knowing how much these amazing places are up against was one of the reasons we decided to transition to a life on the fly and experience them sooner rather than later. We sincerely hope these amazing places will be healthier when the Younger Fives return one day to visit with their children.