Posted by: floridanature | November 19, 2009

The ‘Great Blue River’: Its Job Is To Flow, Transporting Life—and More

I have been scuba diving for years now, and the mysteries of the sea that have come to most captivate me are not the large sharks or the sea turtles or even the giant rays that glide through the water like prehistoric birds. Instead, it is the tiny coral polyp and the great castles of limerock it builds for itself.  

It is for this reason I often go into the ocean at twilight, just as the polyp—looking like a tiny anemone—emerges from its scup in the star and brain and elkhorn coral to feed. It does so by capturing plankton, specks of plants and animals that ride oceanic currents.

Once a year, by late summer, these same corals will also bulge with great promise in the full blackness of the night. That promise is realized as an annual spawn in which eggs—or packets of eggs and sperm—push up from each polyp until they pulse at the surface.

And then, when nature plays a secret chord, the eggs and packets burst at once from the reef, as if fired by a volley of tiny militia. The sea around me will be filled with new life, and these tiny miracles and all they portend will float away with the current until the precise moment when the egg transforms to animal and forever sinks to the bottom, where a new reef will be born.

Corals have been building reefs like this for nearly 400 million years. But, as usual, us land mammals are just now catching on. It wasn’t until the early 18th century that a French scientist discovered  coral wasn’t a plant at all—nor was it a rock, as some believed. Indeed, it was a very complex animal that  was so delicate it could be distressed by a change of a few degrees, or by a few milligrams of toxins.

It is great irony that just as we are now learning about our corals,  we are also in jeopardy of losing them: Reefs in the Florida Keys and offshore Southeast Florida have been declining in health over the last 20 to 30 years because of human impacts–from nutrient loading to ship groundings to overfishing.

There is, of course, some good news in that we’re also learning to repopulate ailing reefs with grafts of live coral. And with a new awareness of how upland pollutants find their way downstream to the shallow reefs, we are trying to improve the water quality that sustains the coral animals.

This knowledge is critical since the reefs here underpin an economy that—according to a Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission study—results in $4.3 billion a year in tourism and fisheries. Other benefits, such as creating an underwater limerock berm that keeps our islands from washing away, are difficult to compute, but are no less real.

As for context, it helps to know our reefs occupy less than one half of one percent of our oceans here on this “Blue Planet.” Yet, they nurture the great majority of animals which must spend time there feeding, breeding, resting and hiding.

In Florida,  coral reefs and the currents that affect them have been woven into written maritme history from the very first: Explorer Juan Ponce DeLeon paid close attention since they affected navigation—and could also provide food. DeLeon also “discovered” a strong current that surged out of the Gulf of Mexico and, after confluxing with other powerful oceanic drifts, became the “Gulf Stream.” This Stream could be used to carry galleons and corsairs up the Florida coast, and sent them back to the Old World. As a diver, I sometimes rode this current myself on “drift dives” off W. Palm Beach, twitching my fins in its three knot current to steer, not needing to do much else.

The icon of Key West literary history, Ernest Hemingway, once wrote of taking his boat out into ”the great blue river” to fish for marlin and swordfish. “Papa” may not have seen a coral reef in its annual nocturnal spawn, but I’m guessing he understood the sways of the currents and tides very well. He surely saw the way both the terrestrial keys—as well as the reefs—were sliced into “spur and grove” formations because the upstream currents had surged through them for so long. The knowledge of that was unmistakable, etched deeply into the dry limerock and offshore corals.

And now, there are those politicians and oil industry shills who would allow near-shore oil drilling in the Gulf and the Florida Straits. They argue new sources of domestic crude will make Florida more prosperous, and of course, keep us “nationally secure.” This is a terrifically bogus argument since it doesn’t even begin to tell the full story. All the modern technology in the world won’t keep destructive storms from plummeting rigs or tankers. Nor will it resolve routine mishaps that will spill crude into the water. The potential for disaster is great—with a reality that can economically devastate  Florida. In this scenario, we would become less stable, and our vital natural maritime system would crumble.  “National security”—which in the Big Oil-Lewis Carroll Delusion that squanders more finite fossil fuel—would be rendered less, because our domestic economy would be trashed.

The great blue river of a current will wash—as it always has—across the Florida Keys, and northward, along the southern Florida coast. It will be strong and sure, and no slick political rhetoric will dilute its energy. Whatever enters this current will be transported by it—including crude oil. Our complex reef system, already under great stress, will suffer yet a new insult, one it’s unlikely to survive.

To argue an economic case *for* drilling requires a full telling of the larger truth. It’s a truth that explorers and scientists and writers have known for centuries: What is upstream always flows down.



  1. I’ve read a fair bit of Hemingway’s life through biographies and such. And I’d like to believe he would be on the side of the conservationists with as much as he spent in the wild, whether in Florida or Idaho.

    And you’re dead on about the upstream junk flowing downstream. You can rebuild Disney if it falls apart, but once the reefs, rivers, and lakes have disappeared they are gone forever.

  2. Thanks much for your input. As you may know, “Papa” also spent a lot of time fishing in the “great blue river” when living in Cuba, near Cojimar, so am figuring he knew which way the water flowed, and what it carried with it !

    Also, excellent point about the loss of physical theme parks vs. our natural systems here in Florida. Would love to see that on an “entrance exam” before folks cross the border, as tourists or otherwise.

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