Paradise Lost

DSC00112Sanibel Island is, hands down, my favorite place to vacation.  It’s a beautiful little island which has no high-rise buildings or traffic lights, with stunning tropical vegetation and tons of small-town charm.  I can always count on seeing lots of natural wildlife, possibly due to the nature preserve that takes up about a quarter of the island.  My husband and I first visited the island almost thirty years ago, when I was six months pregnant with my daughter, and despite having to wear a maternity swim suit that looked like a circus tent, I fell in love with Sanibel.

I have so many great memories of our family vacations on the island, where we walked the beach, collected shells, rode the miles of bike trails, and lounged by the swimming pool together.  Once, I was sitting on the screened-in patio of our condo, reading a book and sipping on my wine, when my young son came up from the pool and stood in the doorway, dripping wet and calling out for me to bring him his camera.  I asked him why, and he said there was an alligator on the beach, and he wanted to get a picture.  I told him alligators don’t go on the beach, but he assured me that some people at the pool had told him there really was an alligator down there, and could I please hurry with the camera.

So I fetched his camera and wandered back out to the patio.  I had actually picked up both my book and my glass of wine before the full implication of our conversation sunk in; that’s how relaxed I am when I’m on Sanibel.  And then of course, I ran down to beach as fast as my chubby little legs would carry me, frantically yelling “Stay away from that alligator!”   Which was a good thing, because as it turned out, there really was an alligator on the beach.

IMG_1112Even though our kids are grown up, my husband and I still enjoy Sanibel, and we just returned from a week-long visit there.  We had a wonderful time, right up to the very last day, when we noticed what looked like a thin brown line on the eastern horizon, right where the ocean meets the sky.  As we watched, the line of dark, murky water grew larger and larger, spreading across the bay toward the Sanibel beaches.

It turned out to be the result of the release of flood waters (Florida has been hit with record rainfalls recently) that had been “back pumped” into Lake Okeechobee and which were now being redirected into the Caloosahatchee River and carried into the Gulf of Mexico.  When the massive amounts of fresh water, polluted with flood debris, meets the ocean water, it causes all kinds of environmental problems such as killing fish and marine life, increasing red tide, and  temporarily turning miles and miles of beautiful ocean water a dark, oily brown.

IMG_1119I know that this has been a problem for many years, and that environmentalists and the government agencies who authorize the massive release of the lake water into the rivers and ocean are at odds with each other.  As a rule, I try not to take sides in a dispute when I don’t know all the facts, and I definitely do not know all the facts about this issue.  I am not a Florida resident and I know almost nothing about marine biology or water resource management.

But I know what I saw, and what I saw was ugly and unnatural, and deeply disturbing. I know that the destruction of the Earth’s natural beauty and delicate ecosystem is a wide-spread problem, and that we need to do a better job of caring for our fragile planet.   And nothing brought that home to me more than witnessing first-hand the pollution of the waters of my beloved Sanibel Island.

29 thoughts on “Paradise Lost

  1. That looked really ominous. To see such a pristine place being threatened, makes us wonder about the effects of pollution and where it’s headed. We’ve had our share of environmental disasters in Australian waters too and it’s such a concern.

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    • Yes, the water in bay was a pretty brown when we got there, but the ocean just looked a bit muddy, which we put down to recent storms. But they had done some water releases previously in January, and the ocean was just getting back to a good color when they did this release on Friday. I have no idea how long it will last or how far it will reach, and that’s what’s scary.

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  2. Ann, my oldest son, my Dad, and one of my brothers live in Stuart, Florida and the same thing happens on occasion there. I was there a couple of years ago and they’d just dumped a bunch of nasty water from Lake Okeechobee into either the Saint Lucie River or Indian River (can’t remember which one). We weren’t allowed to swim in it or even let it touch us while boating or even fish it was so toxic. People who lived there were so upset that they had a protest. My understanding is that Lake Okeechobee discharges into a man-made canal type thing. Sad to hear it’s happening on the west coast, too.

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    • I bet it was the Saint Lucie, because they said they were also releasing some of the water in that river as well. From what I understand, when things flooded previously, the water drained south to the everglades,which could handle it. But then that land was farmed and developed, so the government started redirecting it into the rivers that carry it to the Gulf, and it wreaks havoc there. Very sad.

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  3. I’m so sorry. I live on the East coast of FL now as you know. I’m not sure if I’ve heard about this, but it doesn’t surprise me. When I first came down here to visit my Mom 40 years ago, I would visit her beautiful beach–she lives right across the street and her condo has rights to part of the beach. It was so lovely then. But it has really changed over the years: the garbage and how one must clean their feet from the tar buildup that can get on them. The turtles that nest on the beaches are now constantly in danger and are hatching less and less eggs. Today I signed a petition to stop yet another gigantic mansion going up on the beach. It’s very, very sad–but we all contribute in some way I suppose. People want to live here–who’s to say who should and who shouldn’t? Just like people who like to vacation here or where you go? In some way we all contribute to ruining the environment a little at a time….

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    • You’re welcome! I’m no expert on this or any other issue, but I thought maybe I could just share my personal experience with it, and maybe that would help. Like you, I hope there’s a solution before too much permanent damage is done.

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  4. I’ve never been to Sanibel but we’ve visited Anna Maria Island on the Gulf Coast and it’s always so beautiful. Does this type of thing happen on a regular basis along the coast? Certain sections of it? How long does it usually last?
    I have to believe people are reluctant to go back in the water any time soon. Very sad.

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    • From what I understand, the problem is when Lake Okeechobee gets too full from heavy rains, and they have to release some of the waters. The natural path is to the south into the everglades, but that area is now developed, so they divert it into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatachee (sp) rivers, which dumps it into the gulf, and it creates all kinds of problems there. They do this periodically, and had been doing it throughout January on a more limited basis. But then they got a ton of rain the week before we were there and they did one of the largest releases either on the Friday we were there, or the Thursday before, I’m not sure. But we saw the brown water across the bay by Ft. Myers Beach around noon on Friday, and by mid afternoon, it had reached the shores of the southern end of Sanibel. I’m not sure how long it takes for the water to turn back to its normal color, or how long the fish die because of it. It really is sad. I hope Anna Maria Island is too far north to be affected!

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  5. I love Sanibel! I’m sorry to hear this is happening, I spent a month on Sanibel about 5 years ago, shelling and researching and writing. It was one of the highlights of my life, and I hope to go back soon. It’s such a beautiful place- I’d hate to see the wildlife or the island suffer from environmental devastation.

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