Just as the sun was reaching its highest point in the sky, Lou Greenwell realized he could see again.
During a morning spent paddling across Blackwater Sound just off Key Largo, Greenwell, 70 years old, had begun to wonder if there was any end to the shadowy mass that stretched in every direction across the once-transparent waters. Then, in the shallows on the sound's far west side, little sand sharks appeared below the suddenly clear surface. Not-so-little barracudas rushed around Greenwell's banana-yellow kayak. One shark rested under a mangrove root, heedless of its visitors.
Greenwell was headed toward the Bogies, one of his favorite spots on earth. This narrow waterway has been a regular stop in the 40 years he's been swimming, fishing, diving, and kayaking the waters of Florida Bay. Forming a perfect canopy, massive, gnarled mangroves reached across the narrow passage as if longing for each other's embrace. Tiny warblers hopped from branch to branch, dancing between shadows and shafts of light. "You can get your prayer book out here," Greenwell said softly. "It's like a chapel."
It was in this chapel not long ago that Greenwell had a transformative experience. Leading a group of fellow kayakers in silence, he came upon something massive and still. With a swirl of water and mud, it became two massive things: a manatee and her baby, shyly making a delayed getaway. "It was the cutest thing," he said.
Looking at the water, Greenwell realized no such sighting would be possible now. The creeping pea-green cloudiness had made its way here, too. A hydrologist monitoring a nearby water quality station had warned that the Bogies were murkier than she had ever seen them. For a moment, Greenwell fell silent. The faint percussion of the highway more than a mile away echoed in the mangrove tunnel. "Yeah, the water is a little murky here," he said. Then, with hurt in his voice, he added, "This water is as murky as I've ever, ever seen it."
It is neither plant nor animal, yet it is alive.
It is about one-thousandth of the width of a human hair, yet, en masse, it's been known to block out sunlight for dozens of square miles. It has no external organs, yet can propel itself across oceans. It's the most ancient organism known, nearly as old as the oldest rock. About three billion years ago, it helped transform a toxic stew of methane, ammonia, and other gases into the oxygen-rich atmosphere we breathe. Now it's back, and it seems to have lost its good intentions.
Synechococcus elongatus is a kind of seaborne centaur. Like plants, it contains chlorophyll and can photosynthesize light. Like fish, it can regulate its own buoyancy, descending to the bay floor to collect nutrients and then rising again when sated. No one quite understands how the damn thing manages to swim around.
Oddly enough, this substance, referred to as "blue-green algae," is neither algae nor always blue-green. Scientists use the term because it is easily understood, but it's actually shorthand for a kind of unicellular phytoplankton (Latin for "wandering plant") that more closely resembles bacteria.
In the fall of 2005, the so-called algae crept into several small sounds in eastern Florida Bay where it had never been spotted before, quickly clouding waters that had previously been aquarium-clear. It killed off sponges and other bottom-dwelling sea life as it grew to cover an area more than three times the size of the city of Miami. More than a year later, the veil of green lingers, stretching from Everglades National Park, the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, to Biscayne National Park, home to 10,000 years of human history. Tourism brochures touting an ecoparadise here now seem like the come-ons of a used car salesman. The unprecedented environmental attack and its unprecedented staying power have marine scientists scratching their heads, and fishermen crying into their beers.
Is this the beginning of the end for one of the world's most delicate and vital ecosystems?
The asphalt under Lou Greenwell's feet shook as he carried his kayak to the water. If he spat, he'd hit one of the tractor-trailers ripping by on this narrow strip of U.S. 1 between Key Largo and Florida City. On the other side of the road, backhoes and steamrollers smoothed the gravel bed that would soon be another lane of highway, another piece of asphalt to roll over on the way to Key West. With his back to the bulldozers, Greenwell shouted, "This is paradise for paddlers."
The concrete ramp at Mile Marker 111 is the only bayside public boat input for 18 miles. Two miles north, a formerly public ramp is walled off by concrete barriers. A neon-orange construction sign has the last word: "Notice: This boat ramp will close permanently in December 2006."
Greenwell, a retired airline executive, fights off arthritis with regular yoga classes and the multiday kayak trips he leads for the Paradise Paddlers, a local kayaking club. He's been fishing and diving in these waters since the Kennedy administration. When he retired eight years ago, he thought he'd get serious about golf. Then he discovered kayaking. "I haven't played a round of golf yet," he said.
With a singular smooth motion, Greenwell slipped into his fiberglass craft and floated out into the sound. The sun was brilliant, a few puffs of cloud decorated the horizon, and a warm breeze skittered across the water. But the water itself was almost unrecognizable thick with pool-table-green ooze.
Greenwell didn't bother to unstrap his rusting fishing rod from the side of his kayak. There was nothing to see in the water, and no fish worth having would bother to stick around here. The sunlight-hogging algae had strangled the sea grass. There was little left for fish to feed on, and nowhere for them to hide.
As Greenwell set out for the south side of the bay, a few hundred yards off, each paddle stroke cut through the olive surface like a straw sinking into a lime ricky. Laminated satellite photos and navigational maps were strapped to the deck. A global positioning unit and an emergency radio were in the hatch. But Greenwell was going by feel. He didn't hesitate on his way to a narrow channel connecting Little Blackwater with its bigger sibling, Blackwater Sound.
The channel, carved out when Henry Flagler built his railroad to Key West a century ago, is dotted with rotting wood posts that once supported the weight of freight trains. The thud of the rails has long since been replaced by the droning hum of the nearby highway. As paved arteries spread south from Miami's sprawl, the once-lonely Keys became an easy trip. While the islands have lost hurricane-weary residents in recent years, their draw remains strong, even as their once-bohemian culture shifts upscale. "Resort communities" such as the Colony in Islamorada offer condos starting at $2 million.
Coming out of the channel and into Blackwater Sound, Greenwell twisted his torso with each motion and kept the paddle close to horizontal, minimizing his exertion as he tried to outrun the bloom. Sunlight bounced off the opaque, still water and rippled along the underside of the red mangroves that line the aquatic hallway. Like tiny stars in a green galaxy, yellow "sacrificial leaves" soak up lethal doses of salt from the water to ensure the trees' survival.
Greenwell's route hugged the shoreline as he made his way to the sound's western edge. A kind of wilderness Mister Rogers, Greenwell is tall and somewhat lanky, with a fast smile and mischievous eyes. He tends to repeat hoary old jokes and, with a patient voice, points out cormorants beating the water with their wings and ospreys circling their nests.
Around a bend, deep-throated singing rose into the sky from a flock of gangly wood storks who cruised in formation low overhead. As the storks approached a landing spot out of sight behind the shoreline's tall grass and Australian pines, a flush of white a group of ibis and great egrets erupted into the air with a cacophony of trumpeting. A rookery was nearby, Greenwell surmised, making a mental note of the spot for future trips.
Not far from here is the only place in the world where both alligators and crocodiles find refuge. It's a favorite stop on many of the trips Greenwell has led for the Paradise Paddlers, a club with members from across the country and as far away as Europe. People always seem stunned by the area's exoticism, its overwhelming wildness. "They can't believe that there's some place like this," Greenwell said, "that there's a place so primitive, so beautiful." On the horizon behind him, the faint outlines of metal cranes framed the hulking mass of the Jewfish Creek Bridge, currently under construction.
As far back as anyone can remember, the waters of Florida Bay were almost always crystal-clear. Then, in the early Eighties, fishermen began to notice algae blooms in the western and northern-central stretches of the bay. The blooms appeared consistently, usually growing and subsiding within a matter of days or weeks. In the mid-Nineties, one particularly massive bloom close to 200 square miles in diameter wiped out acres of sea grass and killed off sponges, lobsters, shrimp and other bottom-dwellers too slow to escape its gloomy onset. Scientists were caught off-guard.
A 1995 report by the Florida Bay Science Review Panel, comprising independent scientists as well as federal and state researchers, noted an "appalling lack of information" about the bloom, describing most of the explanations as, "at best, hypotheses based on inferences rather than evidence."
Some said the blooms were related to the bay's increasing salinity. Carl Hiaasen was among many who called for increased freshwater flows from the Everglades to the bay. That approach changed little and, some scientists now say, may have exacerbated the problem with increased nutrient loads from agricultural runoff. Although not as massive or long-lived as the algae tide in the mid-Nineties, blooms have since reappeared regularly in the northern and western parts of the bay.
Then, in the fall of 2005, the unthinkable happened. A bloom started to form in the far southeastern reaches of Everglades National Park. The normally phosphorous-poor waters there were thought to be out of the slimy reach of the phosphorous-hungry algae. Not anymore. The bloom spread out from the park's Blackwater Sound into Manatee Bay and Barnes Sound all bodies of water lapping against U.S. 1 from the mainland to Key Largo. The bloom's onset coincided with a road-widening project on that stretch of highway. Rootless and formless, shaped by wind, temperature and tides, the green tide soon spread northeast to the adjacent Card Sound and then to the southern reaches of Biscayne Bay.
Monitoring by local and state agencies revealed chlorophyll levels had quadrupled, and phosphorous concentrations had increased sixteen-fold in the affected waters. But why? Driving down U.S. 1 to his lab in Big Pine Key, Brian Lapointe came upon a likely answer. As he passed Blackwater Sound, the area where the bloom originated, Lapointe, an algae expert at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, rolled down his windows. "You couldn't help smelling it," he said. "It's the classic rotten egg smell."
Lapointe's scientific mind put two and two together. Ongoing work on the highway had involved the decimation of about 30 acres of mangroves. When the dead trees' root systems began to decompose, they gave off oxygen-depleting phosphorous, Lapointe reasoned. In the absence of oxygen, sulfur in the surrounding seawater would bind with hydrogen and, voila: nasty, gassy hydrogen sulfide smells, a precursor to algae blooms. "That's telling you that you have a real water quality problem," he said.
It shouldn't be surprising that a major road project would have such an effect on an ecosystem as delicate and unique as Florida Bay, said Jerry Lorenz, head of the Keys chapter of the Audubon Society. Lorenz noted that the Florida Department of Transportation says their construction methods are used all over the world without a detrimental impact. "But they haven't been used in this environment," he said.
A July 2006 study by the South Florida Water Management District didn't exactly disagree with the hypothesis Lapointe and others shared, but it didn't entirely support it either. While the bloom's location near U.S. 1 would seem to implicate road construction as a cause, the study said, the bloom's timing also hints at a connection to the 2005 hurricane season, which stirred nutrient-rich sediment, and increased nutrient-rich agricultural runoff from the Everglades. The study estimated that a bloom that size would need three metric tons of phosphorous significantly more than the construction work had produced to sustain itself.
Some activists and scientists smelled a cop-out, accusing the district of trying to smooth over the disastrous environmental impact of the $270 million road project. "From a scientific point of view, the answers are easy," said Larry Brand, a professor of marine biology at the University of Miami. "From a political point of view, it's another issue."
Several marine biologists with the state Department of Environmental Resources Management have studied the bloom almost since its inception. But officials with the agency declined to comment, deferring questions to the water management district. Initially, scientists at the district did not return phone calls. After consulting with district director Chip Merriam, the lead author of the 2006 report, Dave Rudnick, agreed to answer written questions.
Mindful of the political controversy involved, Rudnick was terse. "I refrain from saying there is one cause or that one cause is overwhelming," he said. "There may be other things we don't know about."
Ed Phlips, a University of Florida marine biologist who carried out an extensive Florida Bay water sampling study in the Nineties, sees the plausibility of both sides. On one hand, he's aware of the political pressure at play. Shortly after the bloom was discovered spreading out from roadside construction sites, DOT officials came to Phlips for assistance in studying the phenomenon. "I asked them if they wanted a research project. They really wanted a consultant," he said. On the other hand, Phlips deemed the management district's study "reasonable," saying, "There really was not enough evidence to point blame at anyone."
So, fifteen months after it settled in, the algae bloom has yet to reveal its cryptic origin. "I don't think anybody really knows what's going on in terms of cause and effect and what's going to cause it to dissipate," said Joe Boyer, head of the Southeast Environmental Research Center at Florida International University. "It's like why did the Berlin Wall come down when it came down?"
If anyone would know, it's Boyer. He's coordinated a water quality monitoring project in the bay since the late Eighties, and is considered one of the foremost experts on the subject. But he doesn't have many answers. Agricultural runoff, hurricane-tossed sediment, global warming, and El Niño are all suspects, according to Boyer. It could be, he said, that the bloom will continue to grow as daylight hours lengthen. In that case, the cycle could reach a tipping point. Bottom-dwelling plants, like sea grass, and the animals that depend on them would die off, replaced by an entirely different ecosystem of floating phytoplankton and plankton eaters. Goodbye to clear waters. "That's something we're worried about," Boyer said.
"Key Largo's proximity to the Everglades makes it a premier destination for kayakers, birders, and other eco-tourists." So says the official Florida Keys tourism Website.
Monica Woll, co-owner of Florida Bay Outfitters, the area's largest kayak and canoe outfitter, doesn't bother to send first-time paddlers toward the Everglades anymore. "When you tell them it's supposed to be clear, they say, öYou people don't care about your water. What's up with that?'"
Just beyond the national park's borders, Barnes Sound is dotted with little unmarked wrecks, "money spots" for bonefish, snook, sea trout, and redfish, said George Clark, founder of the Key Largo Fishing Guides Association. Or at least they were, until the water clouded over. Cause and effect are clear, Clark reasons: Fish started disappearing as soon as the U.S. 1 construction began. Making it easier for people to "run down to get to their condo" is a lame excuse to tear up the place, he said. "In the future, what's the draw going to be?"
Despite relatively strict environmental laws, awareness doesn't appear widespread. "I guess there are supposedly some laws saying no net loss," the marine biologist, Lapointe, said of the Keys' mangrove ecosystem. "But it's clear they're still cutting mangroves right and left." Even the city of Key West found itself cited for improperly cutting mangroves in front of the police department not too long ago, Lapointe said.
Efforts to launch a $16 billion Everglades restoration project are largely stalled, and the return of a clean freshwater flow to Florida Bay remains a dream. For now, the largest wetland ecosystem in the world remains straitjacketed by concrete-lined canals and levees. It is a wilderness neutered in the name of progress and poisoned by the runoff of industry and agriculture, especially that of pesticide-heavy sugar cane fields. What once was an 11 million-acre "river of grass" has been drained to a fraction of its size, leaving thousands of years' worth of nutrients exposed and decomposing in a toxic stew.
For Lain Goodwin, another Key Largo fishing guide, the algae bloom is an issue that goes way beyond tourism or fishing. For years, Goodwin has launched into Blackwater Sound, a body of water named for the thick carpet of sea grass that made the clear water appear dark from above. Sure, with the bloom, he has to go ten or fifteen miles out now, instead of five, to find tarpon, redfish, snapper, and grouper. But a few extra gallons of gas in the 200-horsepower outboard isn't the point, Goodwin said. "We've kind of lost the aesthetic of the Keys."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Greenwell has read about the highway project, and he's heard all the other theories behind the algae bloom. He doesn't pretend to know the answers, but he knows the place he comes for sanctuary is changing fast.
Late last year, just before construction closed the boat ramp at Mile Marker 113, Greenwell launched what he assumed would be his last group trip through the area. In an e-mail message with the subject line, "Goodbye to a signature trip," he told Paradise Paddlers club members that soon the ramp at Mile Marker 111 would be closed, too.
That day, the 22 kayakers who joined Greenwell paddled a 13-mile loop from Little Blackwater Sound out to Florida Bay, through the Bogies, across Blackwater Sound, and back to the launch point. Away from the bloom, they saw leopard rays with snow-white bellies and three-foot wingspans. An eight-foot shark bumped into one boat, and frigate birds, their long tails like black streamers, hovered overhead.
Afterward, the group drank beer and reminisced at Gilbert's Tiki Bar in Key Largo. "We talked about how this is going to be a part of history now," Greenwell said. "We'll never be able to do these trips again."