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A Canary in the Coal Mine
Ever since I was a child (my DW thinks that I still act like a child sometimes), I’ve wanted to visit John Pennekamp State Park in Marathon Key, Florida. Besides being a beautiful example of a coral reef barrier island; one of many such islands in the Forida Keys, it contains an underwater state park.
While there, you can visit the off-island coral reef by scuba/snorkel-diving or going out in their famed glass-bottom boat. Millions of people from all over the world have marveled at the beauty of the reef, making it a must-see for visitors to the Florida Keys. Or, at least it once was, IMHO. More on that in a moment.
My DW and I were driving back up from our stay down at the Bahia Honda State Park. Intending to drive all the way up to the Fort Lauderdale area, I grew tired behind the wheel and decided to try John Pennekamp. This is usually impossible to do without a reservation made well in advance of any visit, just like Bahia Honda Park. We were lucky and got one of the few remaining camp sites. Having done that, we quickly went down to the office and made reservations for the next day’s glass-bottom boat tour.
I still remembered the beautiful photos of the reef and its residents from my childhood. National Geographic had done a pictorial on the reef way back when was a little kid. I recalled the colorful fish and many varieties of coral captured by the Nat Geo’s photographers. I had promised myself that one day I would go there. And now was my chance.
The well-maintained boat left the harbor and motored out to the reef area, where a ranger began explaining what we were seeing. What I was seeing did not match up with my memory of the life that had once populated the reef. Underline ”once populated the reef.” Since that beautiful article was published some 40 or 50 years ago, the reef and its denizens have fallen on hard times.
Although the ranger-guide tried valiantly to describe what we were looking at through the glass-bottom of the boat, and through his obviously rose-colored glasses, as a beautiful example of a Caribbean reef, noting the various types of fish and other sea life, there was, in my eyes, an obvious shortage of COLOR and variety and amount. I remembered many more types and number of fishes, sea anemones, crustaceans and—most notably—corals.
The many fan, brain, staghorn and other corals that gave the Nat Geo-portrayed reef much of its fantastic colors were missing. Most of the coral we saw that day was dead and broken, lying pale and scattered on the floor of the reef. After being questioned about this—by me—the bane to all things docent (docent; a person who acts as a guide in a museum, art gallery, or zoo; get it? I’m so witty, or as my DW measures it, half-witty)—the ranger admitted that coral reefs were under attack around the world, dying back—known as coral bleaching—from just a few degrees of temperature change and the carelessness of mankind. As an example of the latter, our ranger pointed out a large, 1 meter diameter brain coral—looking just like its namesake—that had its center smashed in by a careless boater’s anchor. The national park service estimated that the coral was somewhere around 750 years old. It was all very sad, at least to me.
Careless boaters and divers aside, the damage we witnessed that day had, IMHO, little to do with boaters or divers. Again, IMHO, it had to do possibly with pollutants in the water, or, even more likely, elevated water temperature. “OMYGOD!” Some of you probably just whined, “He’s going to preach to us about global warming!” Well, yes and no.
First, the facts: just a few degrees of warming, experienced over a relatively short period of time, can lead to coral bleaching. If, in fact, the warming continues over an extended period of time, coral just dies. Fact: Ocean temperatures worldwide have increased, with some “hot spots” warm enough to cause coral reef bleaching and die-back. As to why the temperatures are rising, I’m not going to beat what should be a dead horse by now; whether its nature or mankind or both that’s causing the earth’s temperatures to rise, the fact is that they are. As for whether these temperature changes are short-term or longer, as the title of my yet-unpublished best-selling novel states, It’s Only a Matter of Time before we know for sure.
As for why we should care about coral life, just stop to consider how much more damage would occur from cyclones and hurricanes if we didn’t have coral reefs and barrier islands protecting our shorelines. And as for my title for this piece; “A Canary in the Coal Mine,” as most of you know, canaries were traditionally taken into coal mines to warn the miners when the air was becoming too dangerous to breathe. Good air, live canary, bad air, dead canary. So what is the coral telling us?
For further reading or viewing entertainment and edification:
And, for those of you who would like to throw your whole selves into this problem:
Please feel free to comment. I’d like to hear your views.
Till next time,