Saturday, December 25, 2010

All You Need Is...

Aerial photographs taken in Everglades National Park

With Christmas tunes pulsing through the radio, nutcrackers poised at attention on the mantel, and 30 degrees biting at the windows, I am sitting by the fire at my parents' house in Gainesville, Florida. My two older brothers, aunts, cousins, and two dogs are in the family room snuggled up watching a movie. There are still a couple people missing by this fire, but that's okay. I have a full belly of warm chili, I'm wearing my favorite sweatpants, and I'm in such a peaceful place right now, thinking back on the year; not so much about what I've received this year, but what I've always had.

I am so grateful for such a solid support group, uncompromisable friends, and an indomitable family. With everyone already all buttered up on holidays spirit, it's the perfect time to voice my gratitude. 

So I would like to say thank you, for tagging along, for carrying me through, for pushing me forward, and for never holding back. Merry Christmas!

There's nothing you can make that can't be made
No one you can save that can't be saved
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time,
It's easy...
All you need is Love.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Burrowing Owls

Photographing owls is usually difficult, as they have wide territorial ranges, are primarily nocturnal, and they nest high in tree cavities. Burrowing owls, however, are diurnal and do most of their hunting and flying around a small open area. Since their burrows are fixed, it’s easy to predict where they’ll be a week from now or even 5 minutes from now. They prefer expansive grasslands where they can easily prey on insects and small vertebrates.  But, like most habitat-specific animals, their survival is greatly determined by the profitability of their landscapes. Dry, flat grasslands are valuable commodities in South Florida for agricultural use, golf courses, or new strip malls which leaves very little room for these ground dwellers. Now on the protected species list, their numbers are steady but they’ve had to make some serious adjustments to their living styles: owls on boats.

It’s incredibly rare to see images of these birds with their surroundings intact, usually because their backyards include golf carts or housing developments. You can imagine my excitement then when a coworker pointed these owls out to me in Homestead, and all around them tall and lush grassland. My first instinct with wildlife photography is to grab the long lens because it’s hard to get close to wild birds.  I’ve seen so many photographs of burrowing owl portraits though, that I wanted something different, something new. I immediately started making plans to create another Gator Cam-type series of images.

My first setup, a hideous thing which the owls wouldn't go anywhere near.

Birds are tricky. Unlike reptiles, they actually care if a foreign object is staring at them in the face. I found this out the hard way and my first attempts failed miserably. Worried that I would frighten the owls, I stopped the project and went back to the drawing board. I visited them several times, watching their behavior and trying to figure out how I could position my camera without scaring them away. 

Burrowing owl at sunrise with road cones marking their burrows.

It became obvious as soon as I acknowledged the owls’ affinity to the road cones, which were placed by their burrows so vehicles or people wouldn’t accidentally run over them. The light bulb nearly exploded over my head.

Cone-hide with camera lens partially exposed

Here I had a foreign object made of a pliable material that I could hide the camera in without the need of a tripod. Over the next couple of days I designed my road cone camera hide and made a trip out to Homestead to test it out.

With long intervals, it was frequent that they weren't looking at the camera

Attaching an intervelometer, I programmed the camera to take a picture every 30 seconds hoping they would occupy various parts of the frame over the course of a 5-hour session. While the camera fired, I sat and waited (hoping really) until my memory card filled up.  I quickly learned that burrowing owls move a lot more than alligators sunning on a log. I needed shorter intervals.

Every trip to the cone was a learning experience and I tweaked the setup each time. It felt like Christmas. I never knew what I would get, but I counted down the hours just the same. Over the last 6 months I have attempted to photograph these birds 19 times. Each effort consisted of a 5-hour and 2-hour block of continuous shooting every 5 seconds. Yes, that’s a lot of images, but it only takes one good one to make it count.

I put this video together to show you just how much character these beautiful birds have. They are so completely neurotic it's comical, but how could you blame them? With coyotes lurking, stray dogs sniffing, and raptors soaring above, you've got to keep those bright hypnotic-yellow eyes peeled. 

I have set this video to follow the theme of an owl who has lost his love and is now waiting for her to return. I give you the Owl Cam. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

New Website Launch

I am proud to announce the new website for Mac Stone Photography! Visit the link to see the new features and online galleries of images and movies. Some new features include a multimedia section with videos and slideshows, a cleaner display of larger images, and prints can now be ordered right from the site.

I am not a programmer by any means so I needed to use an online builder that was dummy-proof. I don't throw out too many endorsements, but I have to say that using Square Space to build my site was the best decision I could have made. I am so humbled by this experience which has taken a little more than 3 months to complete. As easy as it was to use, I still called on the help of the very talented graphic designer, Hannah Dillard. She helped with all facets of the design phase and tolerated my constant nitpicking, even on Friday nights. 

As we move into the new year I will be constantly tweaking and modifying the page to fit the direction of my photography. I hope you enjoy it and please tell me your comments or concerns. Thank you for all your support!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Field Work

Erin Woods, Adam Chasey, and Michelle Robinson with gear before loading up the helicopter.

If Audubon at Tavernier Science Center were a religious organization, our patron saint would be Edward Murphy. Not the goofy king of blockbuster sequels, but the aerospace engineer famous for the phrase “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” We subscribe to this idiom as a way to cope with all the frustrations of field work. I have found that it’s much easier to blame the cruel and perverse universe for the failed engines, flat tires, lost boat plugs, silent alarm clocks, lightning storms, and the vulnerability of myself, my crew, and all of our equipment than to accept personal responsibility.

In fact, it’s a general rule of thumb that if you are comfortable while working in the Everglades, you’re probably not being very efficient. By the nature of our job, we are required to be constantly wet, overheated, sweaty, and bug-bitten; all during the early hours of sunrise. 

Cotton is certainly not the fabric of my life. Now I wear clothes with embedded bug repellent made from fibers that are SPF 50+ and fast-wicking so I don’t stay wet for more than 10 minutes in the Florida sun. My pants are tear-proof and can be buttoned to three quarter length or zipped off into shorts. My hat has pockets. That’s right, my clothes are complicated. What's worse, is that even my vocabulary has changed. For fear of offending my counterparts I wouldn't dare call a black vulture a buzzard, or a laughing gull a seagull, and the plants growing in the water I now must refer to as submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV). Oh, and I don't take sharp turns anymore, I negotiate them. 

We acknowledge the sacrifices required of getting to spend 10 hours working in one of the most wild places in the country. A few close calls with lightning storms or curious crocodiles seems like a small price to pay. In spite of the tough conditions, we find ways of enjoying ourselves. Recently, I've started a subtle mental terrorism campaign on my coworkers. When dropping them off at their sites, I will start humming or whistling an annoyingly catchy song just loud enough so it gets stuck in their heads for the whole day. I find Chumbawamba's hit single "Tubthumping" a powerful weapon in my arsenal.

Field work, with all its idiosyncrasies is difficult and demanding at times but the rewards are constant and overt. We traverse all kinds of environments and wilderness to get to our sites and I count on the fact that each day will be a new adventure with a new set of challenges. Just to give you an idea of what we go through, or rather, what we get to go through, I have compiled a video of outtakes from the field. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Beauty in the Chaos

Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park

Five years ago in the Ecuadorian amazon, I learned that rainforests were extremely hard places to photograph. Due to the mottled light patterns of a harsh sun, a dense understory, and an overwhelming abundance of life, it's difficult to extract the order from the disorder. Although we have no rainforests in Florida, the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park is as close as it gets to a visually chaotic landscape.

I met up with fellow Florida photographers John Moran, David Moynahan, and Paul Marcellini this weekend to undertake such an endeavor. All accomplished nature photographers, I figured with our powers combined we would come out with at least a few images worthy of the sweaty hours spent sloshing through the blackwater.

Photography is usually a lone venture. Most of us like it that way. But occasionally, it helps to be surrounded by others who share the same passion. It's also nice to know you're not the only one walking blindly through erie bodies of water holding hissing alligators and inconspicuous moccasins. "I'm not sure if it's power in numbers, or stupidity in numbers," as John put it so eloquently.

From left: John Moran, David Moynahan, and Paul Marcellini

For three days we shared ideas, techniques, body odors, and mosquito bites while exploring one of south Florida's gems. However daunting the task or thick the going, it is my greatest pleasure in life to constantly seek out the beauty in the chaos.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Everglades

As of today, it's been one year since I landed on this island. When I accepted the job with National Audubon back in October of 09, I was en route from having spent an unforgettable summer working in Wyoming. I loved life like a reckless child back in sagebrush country and I couldn't imagine leaving it behind. I didn't know if I was going to like the Florida Keys; I didn't know if it would speak to me the way the A Bar A Ranch had. It was a difficult transition to make with only weeks between kicking off my cowboy boots and trading them in for sandals. I can clearly say now, that my heart wasn't ready for the move for many reasons. The first month was tough - emotionally and physically. Slowly, the Keys took me in and the Everglades started working on me, wedging its way into a corner of my heart. One thing I've learned since coming here is that it takes time to develop a meaningful relationship. Love doesn't come easy and certainly not without its sacrifices and compromises. But, if our channels are open, we can receive the ultimate gift and reap the countless rewards of a love shared.

So, to an equally rewarding and inspired future, happy anniversary, Everglades.

The Everglades from Mac Stone on Vimeo.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bringing One Home for the Swamp

Or,  I guess, it's more like bringing TWO home for the swamp.

As many of you know, I'm working on a large scale project regarding swamps. Or, as I like to call them, America's redheaded step children. Historically and currently, our swamps have taken the backseat when it comes to the PR of American landscapes. Viewed as mere blemishes on the land, they have carried the scarlet letter of haunted wastelands and general impediments to civilization ever since our ancestors arrived from Europe. It seems that so much of the public disdain for these vital ecological areas comes from negative publicity and the lingering hangover of our manifest destiny mentality.

My goal is to give a new face to swamps. I want everyone to paddle through the braided channels of a cypress slough. I want them to seek out the blackwater like they seek out the ocean. I want our swamps to have a second chance at winning back the respect and adoration of the public.

Received a Highly Commended from the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the year contest this evening. 

So, today is a small step in that direction. This evening at the Natural History Museum of London, England, winners were announced for the 2010 BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest. Tens of thousands of images were submitted from all over the globe to compete for top spots in several categories. One of my images taken during a stint working in the Francis Beidler Forest in South Carolina was awarded in the category Animals in their Environment. I am so honored to be among the commended artists, but more importantly, I'm thrilled for the chance to bring the beauty of this landscape to millions of viewers. Follow this link to see other images from the competition. 

I have known about my placement in this competition for quite some time now and have been itching to tell you but was under strict instructions not to mention anything until the 21st. Officially and legally, the cat is out of the bag.

Received Highly Honored in the Windland Smith
Rice International Awards 

As if it couldn't get any better, I received one more bit of good news. The Windland Smith Rice International awards in conjunction with Nature's Best Magazine notified me that another one of my images taken in South Carolina placed in their contest as well. Just as competitive, this contest receives over 20,000 images worldwide and the winners have their images framed and hung on the walls of the Smithsonian for five months. Not only will these images help to put the Francis Beidler Forest on the map, they will be my catalysts to changing public opinions of our beloved swamps.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My Apologies

A male goldspotted killifish (Floridichtys carpio) in full breeding colors.
This guy was about an inch and a half long.

Following the blog titled “Silence of the Fish” I received many emails and comments offering condolences that I spent my summer rummaging through piles of rotting fish. Well, sort of. More than a few of you said in so many words that this was my punishment for getting to work in the Everglades, and I that deserved all the nauseating hours as if it were some form of penitence. Perhaps karma is at work here, and just in case, I’m going to clear my record.

While the Day 2 fish are the fun story to tell, there’s another truth I’d be remiss not to mention. Clown gobies, rainwater killifish, flagfish, and sailfin mollies are some of the most beautifully colored and intelligently designed animals I’ve ever worked with. I’m in awe of how intricate and simplistic they are in their form and function. How can the prey base of an ecosystem, the bottom feeders, be so elegant and yet so unfortunate? It just goes to show that a lot of time has been put into building this web of life; a lot of natural selection, and millennia of adaptations.

So, this post will be my homage to the bottom of the totem pole, the unsung heroes of the Everglades. 

Diversity is beautiful.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sing it Loud!

Double rainbow over the Everglades

We were so close to calling our helicopter pilot yesterday and telling him to meet us at 9:00 AM instead of 7:00. Sometimes, all I want is another hour of sleep, to ignore the buzzing alarm which sounds at 4:00 AM for our helicopter sample days. Then I realize how much is at stake. This morning mother nature summoned the whole congregation and belted out to the heavens. How fortunate we are to be surrounded by such unpredictable beauty.

Torrential rains over Shark River Slough

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Florida Forever 2011 Conservation Photography Calendar

The 2011 Florida Forever calendars just arrived and they are BEAUTIFUL! It is such a privilege to be among the 11 other nature photographers from around the state to be selected for this project. The calendar highlights 12 potential project sites for Florida Forever from around the state. Flipping through the pages, you get a real sense of the diversity of natural areas at stake. With enough public support, the Florida Forever program will remain a priority and we will have the chance to conserve and protect our natural heritage. The calendars make great stocking stuffers and gifts for friends and family as we come into the new year. Help spread the word of awareness and share the beauty of our fragile state!

Florida Forever 2011 Conservation Photography Calendar with cover by David Moynahan 
at Dickerson Bay.

If you would like a calendar, feel free to use the ordering system below, you do not need a PayPal account to do so. 

Florida Forever 2011 Calendar

I was assigned to the hardwood uplands of Key Largo and had a wonderful time exploring and photographing this rare biome. A unique feature of this calendar, a caption below each photograph explains the ecological and social importance of each site and what is required to save it from development.

My photo in the calendar is of the endangered stock island tree snail found within
 Crocodile Lake Wildlife Refuge. 

Monday, September 20, 2010

Silence of the Fish

Heather Schorge lays out a board of rainwater killifish (Lucania parva) at the Tavernier Science Center

Biologists would make good serial killers. Not of the Jack the Ripper variety, but something more of a methodical, curious, and scientific brand like Anthony Hopkins’ character in Silence of the Lambs. Not because we enjoy killing people or animals, but because we enjoy studying them in great detail when they're not so squirmy. I’ve noticed a severe disconnect exists with biologists, like a synapse jostled loose which keeps separated the icky squishes and smells of dead things from the clean cut living world. We all know these people. They’re the ones who contemplate boogers - the ones that seem to originate in the frontal lobe of brain, and upon removal, essentially clear your sinus problem - they also pick scabs, covet long ingrown hairs, and with wide eyes, pop zits onto the bathroom mirror. Yes, they might wear a suit and tie to work, but they can’t wait to examine the chunk of earwax that tumbles off their shoulder onto their desk. 

An anatomy professor, my sweet little mom is a shining example of this double agent lifestyle. She may be pulling out one of her famous corn bread pies from the oven in her disarming apron, but just behind her warm smile and delicious baked goods rest eight pig hearts hardening in the freezer next to the Flintstone’s Push Pops. Things that would make an ordinary person's skin crawl are and were a topic of conversation at our dinner table, if not the center piece - quite literally actually, as my brothers and I have all been sewn up on the kitchen table from various injuries. Growing up, it was not uncommon for her to bring up stories during a meal about her newest cadaver. My dad, an OBGYN doctor, would ever so hypocritically gag, changing the subject to c-sections or something more appropriate like venereal diseases. Neither of which, I might add, went very well with meatloaf.

Clown goby (Microgobius gulosus) swallowing a rainwater killifish (Lucania parva) just before dying. 
We have to measure and weigh both of them, even when partially digested.

While this sort of environment could easily damage a young child, it only helped to develop my high tolerance for gross things. One day, my mom brought home a bloody pair of cow lungs attached to a rubber tube to show me how they expanded and contracted when she blew on the other end. Fascinated, I immediately carried the soft, heavy pluck over to my next-door neighbor’s house. Hiding behind a buttress I rang the doorbell and laid the bloody heap on their welcome mat. When the mother, Wee Ching, answered the door, I blew into the tube and shared with her one of the many miracles of anatomy. Not so impressed by the pulsing gob of veins and cartilage, she slammed the door screaming something desperate in Chinese. It’s always been like this. I try to bring others to the threshold of my biological discoveries only to have them shut the door in my face.

In elementary school I was chastised for my dirty clothes. Not for the difficult stains, but for the wriggling lizard’s tails and daddy-long-legs bodies (which I meticulously separated from the legs) my mom would uncover in my pockets. Or the time in middle school when I was nearly grounded for borrowing her kitchen knives to dissect a toad, carefully compartmentalizing its organs in Tupperware containers in the fridge. Coming home from Honduras, I risked customs and smuggled my insect collection into the states, only to be scorned for the breaking the law. However, now, the colorful bugs are proudly displayed in our living room. And recently, my roommate in Wyoming complained the numerous sandwich bags of dried animal scat I collected were health hazards and general female deterrents.

A rotting tarpon head sits out near the scrap wood and water hose. One of my coworkers' treasures
from the field, this will be sure to rest on a mantle somewhere.

When I came to Tavernier last fall and stepped foot into the downstairs lab at Audubon, I finally found that long lost asylum where other like-minded explorers came to uncover secrets of the natural world. Shelves lined with vials of fish and other animals floating in formalin led to freezers stocked to the brim with birds, snakes, and anything else you might find in the Everglades. Jackpot!

A woodstork head has found refuge in the auto garage. 

In a biologist’s office, empty space is valuable real estate to put maps and skeletons of unfortunate creatures. The more exotic and rare the artifacts, the more accomplished the biologist. Who needs a metal paperweight when you can safely stack your documents under a monkey skull? These little treasures aren’t restricted to the lab or the offices either. When going to wash off your boots by the hose, make sure not to step on the massive tarpon face, which has been decaying for a good part of the year. Oh, and if you need some brake fluid for the truck, it should be on the shelf in the garage right next to the preserved woodstork head.

Michelle Robinson measures some day one goldspotted killifish (Floridichtys carpio) 

This summer I had the chance to put my so-called seasoned tolerance to the test. We are in the field eight months out of the year. Four of those months, then, are dedicated to processing the data in the lab. Data, in this case, means dead fish. And processing means thawing, identifying, measuring, weighing, and counting. We study the fish populations in terms of seasonality to determine population densities in relation to water depths and salinities. Some days we come back with forty fish, some days we come back with thousands. No need to worry though; these minnows are the prey base for the wading birds and they fornicate more than rabbits.

A typical summer sample board of over 400 rainwater killifish waits to be processed.

Since starting in November of 2009 I had been warned about summer in the lab. Horror stories of stifling temperatures and ungodly smells. Mountains of juicy Gambusia (mosquito fish) and slimy eels, their skin peeling off like burn victims. Yes, it would be an unforgettable summer. Upon thawing my first site and opening the Ziploc bag, I nearly vomited. I was struck with the same disbelief as when driving down the interstate and the lingering aroma of a paper mill wafts into the air conditioner. How could anyone get used to this wretched stench? I tried everything. I wore a surgical mask, when that didn’t work I sprayed the inside with lavender perfume which proved more caustic than the dead fish. I tried breathing through my mouth but my nose started to hurt after the second hour. Eventually by the third week, olfactory fatigue set in and by mid July I was eating chips and pizza at the lab table, as if the fish were my dinner guests.

The first sheepshead minnow (Cyprinodon variegatus) is a Day 1 fish.
The others that follow are varying degrees of Day 2 sheepshead minnows. 
If only this blog were scratch and sniff. 

The summer sample months of April and June prove the most unnerving to sort and i.d. When we go out into the field we have two days of sampling. The first day, the fish are fresh and recently dead and we quickly put them on ice to preserve them as well as we can. By the second day, however, the fish we missed the first day have been exposed to the blazing sun, warm water, and crabs, which enjoy picking at their stomachs. Day two fish, as they are called, exact their revenge by taking the form of scaly globs and we must pick through the masses to find their severed heads and tails.

Thawing a fish popsicle. It's hard not to try and give these little
guys voices and names with all those frozen expressions and personalities.

While this may sound miserable, we find ways to enjoy ourselves. My favorite prank is placing a day two fish on the rim of someone’s Coke, primarily Erin’s, because she never notices until the last minute. Eighteen years have passed since dumping the cow lungs on Wee Ching’s doorstep, and I’m still the biologist I ever was. This time, however, I can put it on my resume. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

5 Hour Soul Energy

A bottlenose dolphin breeches the water in the Florida Bay. 

I've never been good at sleeping. I'm not an insomniac, just sometimes my mind kicks into 5th gear around 1:00 AM. This last Wednesday, wide awake at four in the morning, I dreaded the 5 AM wake up call for sample day. After three months of office work, getting back into the field with an hour of sleep proved a poor decision. I made plenty of mistakes and took severely longer than usual getting back into the swing of things. Tired, frustrated, and overheated, all I wanted was my bed.

Just when I had thrown in the towel, day dreaming of air conditioning, our massage chair, and jersey sheets, I spotted a pod of six bottlenose dolphins. The previous week, Luis Canedo taught me how to summon nearby dolphins simply by giving them a playground. Trimming up the motor and revving the engine, I created the largest wake possible behind our 17' Mako. Immediately, the dolphins changed directions and began drafting our boat, jumping and spinning in the waves.

Lucky, lucky, lucky. I have no idea if I'll ever get this close to a wild dolphin again.

For twenty minutes adrenaline took over and I felt as alert as ever. The high lasted until 2 AM that night as I edited the photos. Who needs energy drinks when you have the Florida Bay in your backyard? It just goes to show that even on the bleakest of days, nature can find a way to inspire, enrich, and awaken the soul.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Is it Worth It?

The modern digital photographer has thousands, if not tens of thousands of images stored on their hard drives. I'm one of the latter. Before adding another twenty or thirty photos to the vault I ask myself, is it worth it? Will I use this photo? The very idea of unpacking my camera bag, changing lenses, composing, exposing, and working the subject until I get the shot is sometimes enough to trigger a complacence so grand it can only be mistaken for arrogance. "Oh, another barred owl? I've got one of those."

It seems like such a simple task - pulling out a camera, pointing, and shooting, but laziness is a devout polygamist and married to any number of excuses. The light is wrong. I don't want to get my camera wet. It'll be gone by the time I'm ready to shoot. The camera will just be a burden to bring along. My brand of indolence tends to walk hand in hand with familiar places. Once I've made a substantial portfolio of a particular location, I become increasingly picky as to what I will shoot. This blatant hubris never seemed so clear to me until last week when a friend, Garl Harrold, called to report he found a juvenile southeastern five-lined skink and would hold on to it so I could take pictures. I stammered on the phone, trying to be polite while dropping subtle clues that he shouldn't have gone through the trouble for something so common as a skink. "No really, Garl, you shouldn't have gone through the trouble..."

When I came into work the next morning, a water bottle containing a small lizard was sitting on my desk with a note from Garl. It sat there for half the morning haunting me, whispering to me, now you owe it to him, Mac. As we all know, guilt is a formidable force. Even laziness, with its posse of vindications, is no match for a guilty conscience. With heavy steps I carried the skink down to the lab and the gears started to turn. Suddenly, I had an assignment. Placing it on a piece of porcelain I used a strobe to blow out the background and hold fast to color. During the ten minutes of trying to keep the wiggling reptile on the porcelain, the once burden became a challenge, and the common skink evolved into an other-worldly creature. So excited by the outcome, I immediately rushed home to upload the image onto my computer.

I owe it to Garl for rekindling my artistic wonderment of nature, which is the whole reason I started photography. Now, the first thought isn't "is it worth it?" Instead, it's, "will this be fun?"

A Southeastern Five-lined Skink (Eumeces inexpectatus) shot in various positions on porcelain 
and merged into one frame. 

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Happy Labor Day Weekend!

Labor Day sunset off the Florida Bay in Islamorada

I can't think of a better way to spend Labor Day weekend than watching the Gators win, however sloppy, their first home game. The only thing that could top that of course would be a smooth paddle under a vibrant sunset. Behind me, from the balcony of a bayside home, a family yelled over a bull-horn "Happy Labor Day weekend!" to all the passing boats. I guess I wasn't the only one enjoying the wonderful view.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Road to Restoration

When I picture South Florida development in the early twentieth century, Pixar’s Toy Story comes to mind. Specifically that scene where the twisted neighborhood menace, Sid, blows up his toys and then haphazardly puts them back together. The result, a tangled mess of limbs and appendages painfully trying to pass as functioning toys. Throughout the carnage, his parents, the supposed voices of reason and control, are nowhere to be seen. Looking at a map which highlights all the canals and modified waterways of South Florida, early Floridian pioneers' lofty goals were not so far from the misguided endeavors of our animated friend. And you have to ask yourself, where were Florida’s voices of reason in all of this?

It’s no mystery that the hydrology of the state is completely off-kilter. In fact, the state of Florida is now spending hundreds of millions of dollars to right the wrongs of unabashed development along vital wetlands. A complex mosaic of private and public lands lead from the headwaters of Lake Okechobee down to the southern tip of Florida through what was once called “the river of grass.” These little puzzle pieces are more than just parcels of land and obstructions to water flow; they represent interest groups that run the gamut from Native American tribes, to farmers, to generations of families. Difficult doesn’t even begin to describe the immensity of the challenges that the state faces to restore the Everglades. Little by little, however, South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) is starting to tackle the problem of inadequate freshwater flow into the historic watershed.

To break it down as simply as I can, freshwater was diverted away from South Florida in order to drain what would become fertile land for agriculture. This water would then go either to the cities or out to the ocean. Losing a significant amount of freshwater would then allow saltwater to creep in and destroy habitat for wading birds, fish, and plant life along the coast. Our studies with National Audubon are to prove this shift and thus shape policy to get more freshwater back into the system. More freshwater means more aquatic vegetation, which means more fish, which then means more birds.

Map courtesy of SFWMD shows the C-111 canal and its proximity to Taylor Slough. 
The green area represents Everglades National Park.

One of the major canals that we are concerned with is called the Aerojet Canal, aka the C-111. In the 60s Aerojet dug the C-111 in order to ship massive space shuttle engines (21ft in diameter, too large for trains) out to Biscayne Bay and then up to Canaveral. Just before it could start manufacturing the engines, however, NASA pulled the contract and went with a smaller, less expensive engine, leaving South Florida with this canal. The C-111 is important for Everglades restoration because it draws a significant amount of freshwater from the ground and diverts it away from its historical path along Taylor Slough.

Last week, Tavernier Science Center was invited to go out to the C-111 spreader canal project site to see what three years of planning, 25 million dollars, and our research was going towards.

Workers spread concrete in 50ft sections along the C-111 spreader canal project.

SFWMD exploded a hole in the limestone bedrock to build this pump station. They have to drain the
water in four foot increments then patch the leaks until they get down to the 11-foot thick concrete base
which they poured while completely underwater. 

Project manager Sam Palermo, gave us a tour of the site and explained how the spreader canal project would redirect water from the C-111 and spill over into Taylor Slough. Two pumps bring water (100,000 gallons per minute) from the C-111 down the lined channels into the retaining cells instead of rushing out to the ocean. SFWMD would then backfill the remaining C-111 canal in order to stop it from draining surrounding lands. The idea seems simple enough, although water management in Florida has never been an easy task. Sam, with years of experience improving the headwaters of Lake Okechobee, states that it's taken a long time to get the project through legislation so they've had ample time to work out the kinks. 

A map of the Areojet waterway and pump station shows the beginning of the second phase of construction.

We are all very excited and optimistic to start noting the hydrological changes once this project is completed in July of 2011. If this program succeeds, it just might be the impetus to trigger more large-scale projects farther north. I am amazed at how much money and time it costs to undo the ill-conceived plans of Florida’s corporate expansion, but hopeful, because at least we are spending the time and money.