Coral Cataclysm

On the morning of Saturday, December 10, a dozen Miami Jackson Senior High School students sit with blank stares outside the Biscayne National Park visitor center in Homestead. The park's superintendent, Mark Lewis, is trying to get the volunteer clean-up day off to a good start, but the obligatory welcome speech is sounding pretty obligatory. "In my opinion that's pretty cool, and you must think it's cool or you wouldn't be here," Lewis says of recent volunteer efforts.

The sixteen- to nineteen-year-old students know why they're here: to kill community service hours. They bite into their complimentary apples and look around, some of the English-as-a-second-language recruits not comprehending much of what Lewis says.

On the ride to Elliot Key, the teenagers sit along the park service boat's gunwales, unsure of what awaits. They've been told they'll clean up ocean-borne trash strewn along the key's coast by Hurricane Wilma and the endless tides. Whatever. Some of the girls giggle behind oversize Chanel knockoff sunglasses, their right hands text-messaging on flip-up cell phones. Jorge, an eighteen-year-old from Cuba, shouts, "What's up!" to a row of pelicans and cormorants sunning on a nearby peninsula. Two boys, uniformed in baggy denim shorts and ball caps, share an iPod's earphones and watch the bay stretch out before them.


Volunteers at Biscayne National Park Visitor Center

In the wake of Wilma, a hurricane more destructive to the park than even Andrew in 1992, this 270-square-mile paradise of pristine coral reefs, estuaries, hardwood hammocks, and endangered species is nursing deep wounds. Some of the damage won't heal for centuries. The park, which attracts about a half-million visitors a year, took almost two weeks to partially reopen after Wilma, but much work remains to be done.

Park scientists are only beginning to gauge the extent of Wilma's effect on the bay and its reefs. The unusually large and fast-moving storm ripped straight through the park, snapping 30-foot-tall mangroves and wild tamarind hammocks in half and turning them brown with saltwater. Unlike Andrew, Wilma pushed huge amounts of the bay's water north, crushing coral and burying it in sediment, according to Richard Curry, head of the park's division of science and resources management. Curry is hopeful most of the damaged coral will regenerate — eventually. "Corals grow at about the same speed as continents move," he says.

It's another line in Biscayne National Park's thick history book. Spanish galleons and pirate ships once plied these waters, and many a vessel found its grave here. For 10,000 years Native Americans, homesteaders, and others have left their marks behind in the form of archaeological relics. These days people come for breathtaking snorkeling, hard-core fishing, and sightings of about twenty threatened and endangered species such as sea turtles, crocodiles, and manatees.

Off the boat, Shalimar, José, Wilmer, Alexis, Ivan, and the rest trudge to the opposite shore, trash bags in hand. Some of them get down to business right away, picking up broken glass, plastic lobster traps, and fishing nets amid the decomposing sea grass, dead coral, and sand. As bonefish circle in the shallows nearby, a few boys kick a dead sponge until someone launches it water-bound. Noel, a long-haired nineteen-year-old who worked parking cars until 3:00 a.m., finds a lobster's sky blue shell. Anna, age seventeen, is unimpressed. Jorge is running his mouth as usual, singing in Spanish to one of the girls as she bends over to pick up trash: "Oh yeah, baby, that's it."

Keeping an eye on the free help, park Ranger Maria Beotegui sighs over the trash that washes in with every tide. "It just never ends," she says before warning some of the boys against touching a dead Portuguese man-of-war. The jellyfish's poisoned barbs could still be potent, she says. Jecreel, a lightly mustached seventeen-year-old, edges away. "Shit, man."

By noon the teenagers are back on the boat, heading for home. The day's harvest — a refrigerator door, pumpkin orange Styrofoam buoys, milk crates, broken glass, a twenty-inch TV set, and bulging black trash bags — lies listless on the deck.

With boat traffic lighter than usual for a weekend, the bay is quiet except for occasional bird squawks and the wind's steady hum. Royal terns, laughing gulls, and double-crested cormorants weave among the little waves. Jorge, Jecreel, and Shalimar stand on the bridge with the pilot. For the first time today, the teenagers are silent.


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