The Adventures of Eco Man

"You can't put this in your story," says Ed Davidson, hunched over a tiny sewing machine in his shop at Biscayne National Park, repairing a piece of diving gear. "Wouldn't fit the image." The image that presents itself, in odd counterpoint to the sewing session, is this: a diminutive Hemingway with bulging Popeye-esque forearms and calves; a suntanned, steely eyed sea dog clad in faded khaki shorts and a blue work shirt, the latter emblazoned with the words "Captain Ed" on the breast pocket; a swaggering beach bum of the rum-soaked Florida Keys, beard streaked with gray, longish hair straggling out from under a big-billed fishing cap in the style of Vietnam vets who have wound up in warm locales.

Davidson, who is all of those things and none, pauses to check on the Reef Rover, one of two charter boats he operates as sole concessionaire at this 180,000-acre aquatic preserve just east of Homestead. The boat, bobbing five miles offshore near a cluster of coral reefs, is safely anchored in a stiff breeze blowing out of the northwest. One or two of the 30 snorklers and scuba divers on board will come back seasick. But most will return to tell friends and neighbors of the park's pristine underwater world. For thousands of European tourists, elderly snowbirds, fly-boys from nearby Homestead Air Force Base, and adventurous locals, the encounter with breathtaking natural beauty will be permanently linked to the memory of Captain Ed.

Normally the fortysomething-year-old Davidson - he won't give his exact age "for fear of scaring off the ladies" - pilots the glass-bottom Reef Rover himself, guiding the specially designed aluminum craft through the shallow blue-green waters past low-lying mangrove barrier islands. Mangroves aren't terribly pretty, and they exude a sulfurous, rotten-eggs odor. But, Davidson points out, their leaves and roots are essential fodder and feeding ground for the myriad sea creatures that inhabit this fragile coastal ecosytem. "No mangrove, no seafood," he declaims. "It's real simple." So begins a floating seminar in which Davidson describes for his captive audience the destructive onward march of "Florida's fastest growing species, the condominius giganticus," and also lists some of his many environmental credentials: past president of the Florida Keys Audubon Society; expert witness in state and federal hearings on marine resource management; reef preservation consultant to the U.S. Department of the Interior. By the time his pink-skinned passengers get to the coral barrier reef ten miles from the dock, they may have forgotten they came to snorkel. That's okay with Davidson. "The only hope for saving the good stuff is to get to the kids before they have jobs in construction," he says. "No one comes back on that boat without having absorbed some serious and important information."

Another favorite theme in Captain Ed's seminar is the superiority of Biscayne National Park to the far more popular John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park immediately to the south. Last year 1.5 million people visited Pennekamp; 12,000 rode along with Davidson. The twenty miles of reef at Biscayne National Park are in better shape, and snorklers on the Reef Rover will rarely see another boat. Davidson likes to remind visitors that Miami is the only American metropolis with two national parks. Yet Biscayne is comparatively unknown, often bypassed by tourists in favor of the Everglades. In six years as concessionaire, working with a series of college-age helpers, Davidson has tried to reverse that pattern, singing the praises of his park's 44 mostly uninhabited islands, and especially its coral reefs. "Most national parks are built around some central geographical feature or concentrated resource," he notes. "Here the primary resource is invisible because it's underwater, and the only way to get to it is by boat." Not only does Biscayne National Park contain a generous chunk of the outer barrier reef that fringes the Gulf Stream for 200 miles, but also a proliferation of beautiful patch reefs, nowhere else so healthy and well preserved. If you don't look toward the north - home of Mount Trashmore, the giant county garbage dump - or toward the south - where the twin smokestacks of Turkey Point nuclear power plant rise above the flat horizon - you can imagine the Keys as they were before man littered them with K-marts and Kwik Stops.

If not for Ed Davidson's efforts, this stretch of Biscayne Bay might look very different. He has spent the past decade helping lead a successful fight to save nearby North Key Largo from commercial development, and, together with his fellow Audubon activists, pursuing one of the lengthiest environmental lawsuits in the country. For years Davidson has pounded podiums at public meetings, challenged hundreds of zoning variances for new construction, and raised funds for environmental candidates and causes. He has sued developers on behalf of silent Keys residents such as the wood rat, the Schaus swallowtail butterfly, the cotton mouse, and the American crocodile, and has been countersued for slander and libel by those same developers. He traversed Monroe County in a canary-yellow blazer and a borrowed Porsche to run for commissioner in 1982, losing the battle but helping further his message: Keys residents must find a way to control their own growth, or else risk destroying the things that brought them here in the first place.

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Sean Rowe