Posted by: floridanature | July 7, 2008

In Full Exhale on a Paleo Reef

Capt. Victoria guides her boat carefully out of the canal cut into the ollitic limerock of Stock Island, headed for a rare place where ancient reefs and mangrove islands conspire to create an Other World.

I haven’t seen Victoria for three years, but her sensibilities are so closely attuned to my own that it seems that just yesterday I was standing next to her at the center console, headed out into the Gulf, anticipating most anything. We’ve done some cool things together over the years, and it’s always come back to the water, that great magical swatch of turquoise that ebbs and flows around the archipelego of the Keys.

The islands here in the Gulf backcountry mimic the “spur and groove” configuration of the Atlantic reefs, berms of limerock and mangrove with gulleys of sand between them. The leeward gulf keys are less known and far less visited than those of the windward, Atlantic shore, and that alone makes them immensely attractive to me.

With us today are Susan, a publisher of a lifestyle magazine in the Keys, Christian, an attorney specializing in maritime law, and Michelle, my friend from central Florida. Christian’s the newbie, flying here from Seattle to join the board of Reef Relief.

I too have been invited on the board, and last night, we were at a party with other Reef Relief folks, including Sir Peter Anderson, the Secretary General of the Conch Republic.   Key West is still that kind of place, where wonderful farces such as this not only are tolerated, but actually celebrated, as rich as any mythology of place ever was.

I spent Christmas eve on this strange island once, shooting pool in the Green Parrot bar with a black Rasta guy, dressed in a Santa suit, dreads and all. Then early the next morning, while all of Key West was sleeping in, I headed out for the mangroves with Victoria.

Safely out of the canal, Victoria trims the tabs of the motor and pushes the throttle forward, and we are skimming over water as transparent as air. We zoom towards the bridge carrying the Overseas Highway, and once under it, we all howl like wolves, letting our voices reverberate in the concrete tunnel. Victoria’s into having fun, no matter what she does, and that’s a quality I greatly admire. Once a very good poet traveled with Victoria into the backcountry, and then came back and wrote a poem “Rounding Ballast Key” about her and the experience.

Out of the bridge, we glide across the shallow hardbottom, aiming for a clutch of offshore mangrove keys. Victoria’s been a wilderness guide here for 34 years, and it fits her perfectly. As we approach the mangroves, she throttles back and we cruise around the edges at idle speed so as not to disturb any of the wading birds that nest here. Victoria grew up in Key West, and points out where she once had a tree house on the island, riding out here at age ten in a boat her dad built for her.

Ospreys are overhead, and I notice their plumage is much more vibrant than the ones I know back home. Our boat spooks a large southern stingray, and it swims away undulating its wings like a giant underwater bird. Rays fascinate me, and I remember spending some time once off Big Pine Key at night when the full moon was so bright that we could actually see a school of spotted eagle rays as they glided under us.

Today, we head for the “Mermaid Pool”, a little tidal creek inside one of the mangrove islands. Playing the straight man, I ask Victoria if the mermaids will be here, and smiling, she says: They’re always here when I’m there.

We are inside the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, which stretches to the west and north of Key West , up into the Gulf of Mexico. There are hundreds of such islands here, from a few square yards to many, and while each is defined by the arching prop roots of the red mangroves, they all have their differences, too. Michelle and I have scuba dived a number of times off Key Largo, and Susan dives down here. She tells me she now sees the lion fish out on the local reefs, a saltwater aquarium import from the Pacific. It’s a beautiful animal, but its loaded with neuro-toxins and its sting can pack a powerful punch.

Inside the tidal creek, Victoria noses the boat into a natural hurricane hole where we tie off to a mangrove. On the bottom is the berm of limestone that was a paleo- coral reef, and today the top of it is covered with a hardbottom community of sponges and bryozoans and algaes in the form of little feathers and trees.

We slip easily over the side of her boat with our mask, snorkels and fins, taking care not to disturb the water. We know better, but Victoria tells us of folks who simply like to announce their food chain preeminence by splashing loudly into tidal creeks and onto reefs. “ How would you like it if someone splashed into your living room unannounced?” Victoria’s an amazing person, tenacious as hell but also gentle enough to care about the consequences of our visit. “We’re guests out here,” she says, smiling. “So we ought to be polite about it.”

typical hardbottom community

As soon as I’m in the water, I head down a side creek under low hanging mangrove branches, a place too tight for a boat. The Spanish were here 400 years ago, and the Calusas long before them, but none had the otherworldly ability to see underwater as we do today.

It is quiet down here of course, the only sound that of the one the snapping shrimp makes as its flicks its tail in a series of repetitive clicks. I hold my breath and swim to the 15 foot bottom, past the tips of the prop roots covered with blue and red sponges, down to the old paleo reef itself. The antenna of a large spiny lobster waves at me from a burrow, and a queen angel fish flips her body sideways as if to show me her bright colors. Nearby is a mound of star coral, and I look closely at the flower-like indentations each polyp has created for itself.

I resurface and see the juvenile versions of many reef fish hiding back under the prop roots, watch as a school of mangrove snapper barrel through. I look down at the bottom and see a bright red starfish. I think of the poem Tennessee William once wrote when he lived in Key West: “I want to go under the sea in a diving-bell/And return to the surface with ominous wonders to tell.” I’ve gone under, except without a diving bell or even a tank this time, and have found myself in solution with all that is righteous and true–perhaps even ominous.

Down I go again, and this time, the underside of the earth the mangroves are growing on opens up like a large organic cave. I poke inside as far as I can and see a basket sized hole letting in a bright ray of sun, a sort of natural skylight. I weave my way through a side branch of the creek, periodically descending to see what might be hiding down in the old reef. Susan is following, while the others have taken another channel, leading who knows where.

I take my head out of the water and remove my mask. Key West is only three miles away but the raucous sounds of Duval Street might as well be on another planet. There is peace out here, just as there is back on the trails I know at home, and for this, I am thankful.

Susan and I fin back towards the others, and we climb aboard Victoria’s boat and she hoses us each down with fresh water. It is wonderfully exhilarating, and I realize the stimulation has nothing to do with the cold water. I feel myself finally breathing fully, inhaling the scent of sun-warmed mangrove and ancient paleo reef and the camraderie of a day well spent in a wild and natural place. This is the sea-driven geography and the heart-driven people that poets write of.

When I finally exhale, it is deep and gloriously free of any of the nervousness of the human-built world. I keep the memory of it close by and—with me now—it skims over the turquoise water as if skating on glass, returning on a falling tide driven low by the rise of the moon.

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