Thursday, December 3, 2009

Keys Please

The job market is a pretty dismal place right now. That is, unless you don’t mind “wading through mud and water, working from boats or kayaks in close proximity to crocodiles, snakes, and under the Florida sun in remote areas of the Everglades and Florida Bay.”

You can imagine my excitement then, when I read the job description for the field technician position at the National Audubon Tavernier Research Center.

In 18 years as a Florida resident, I never once made it past Miami into the famous waters of the Keys. So when I accepted the job in Tavernier after leaving the mountains of Wyoming, I felt the swelling anticipation of adventure. I’ve done and seen many things both stateside and internationally. Not that I’m hard to impress, but it usually takes a large perspective jolt to get my adrenaline flowing. I had no idea I was about to experience a slough of “firsts” within five days of arriving.

There is no other place in Florida quite like the Keys. Driving south on highway 1, I noticed signs that read “Crocodile Crossing next 6 miles” and intersections appropriately named Ocean Blvd, Conch Court, Pelican Place, and Reef Road.

Only two days after moving in, my roommate, Adam Vila, took me out on his boat to go spearfishing. Since then, I haven’t bought meat from the grocery store.

The following Monday, my first day of work, I had to be at the office by 5:00 AM. We drove out to an airport where a helicopter waited to take us out over the Everglades to one of our sample sites.

When the pontoons landed on the water, my supervisor, Michelle Robinson and I jumped out of the chopper and immediately sunk three feet into sediment. At the site Michelle explained the process and purpose of our job. Every day for 8 months out of the year we set up 6 nets at various sites to catch fish.

These fish are the food source for the spoonbills and wading birds of the Everglades. Coupled with salinity and water depth tests, we can compare bird populations with relative fish population densities and determine how the two are related.

It sounds simple, but the job is extremely demanding. Often, we are up at 2:30 AM and on the road by 3:00 to get to these remote locations before sunrise. My first week was nothing short of brutal, logging a total of 19 hours of sleep for 5 days. Still used to the freelance schedule of going to bed at 1:00 and waking up around 8:00, my body could not handle the predawn wakeup-call. Before last week, I don’t think I’ve ever actually thrown my alarm clock against the wall. I am still slowly adapting and thankful to be tired by 11:00.

While the hours are tough, I couldn’t ask for a more scenic office. On the way to work we see fish jumping, pods of dolphins playing, incredible cloud formations, crocodiles basking in the sun, and hundreds of birds.

I do feel that I’m starting to go a little crazy though. I have noticed that while I’m setting up nets or collecting fish, my mind travels to strange, disturbing places. Yesterday I caught myself conversing with mangroves in Spanish. Today, “The Good Ship Lolipop” and Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait,” cycled on repeat in my head. They mysteriously lodged themselves in a dark corner of my mind, impossible to dislocate like a popcorn kernel at the base of a tooth, almost driving me to the point of insanity. I think scientists need to look further into the effects of sleep deprivation and its parallels to bad music.


  1. I'll give you sympathy for your tough job, if you'll do the same for me. I had plans to canoe in the swamp filled by the recent rain, especially after yesterday's summer-like weather. However, late this morning, Old Man Winter began pile driving the temps and it's below 50F and falling rapidly.

  2. I work in front of a computer all day. But I enjoy it.

  3. Wow! What a life you have! Putting up with the negatives seem minor to the experience.
    What fish I am seeing above? The tail looks like a parrot fish but not the mouth.
    Can't believe you get to see so many spoonbills at a time. My son Daniel's band, The Plainfield Project, has released their CD and are working on another. Their style is really starting to gel.
    You can hear 4 of the songs on either their Facebook of MySpace page, I forget which. They're doing some touring and have plans for more on the college circuit in the spring.
    If Ron and I make it back down to the Keys to snorkel, we'll get in touch.
    Ann Shahid

  4. These are beautiful photo's! It's good to hear you are working for Audubon - seems like a good fit for you. Sounds like an adventure! Thanks for sharing your view of the world.

    Watch out for those croc's and snakes!

    Valerie Bickell

  5. Hey Matt - awesome move down to the Keys, lots of hard work but I'm sure you'll love it. Keep up the good work!

    Thom Andresen - Kanapaha Warrior