A Surfer's Lament: R.I.P. Beloved Beach
In 2004 I landed a job as an editor at Florida Sportsman and bought a house near its offices in Martin County, Florida, about an hour north of where I grew up in West Palm Beach. Getting me to move there didn't take much arm-twisting. It's right where North America's most biologically diverse estuaries abut some of the world's most important sea turtle nesting beaches. Just offshore, reefs provide food and shelter for more than 530 species of marine life: corals, sea turtles, snapper, grouper, eels, and lobster. I can take my boat to work via the St. Lucie River, leisurely winding my way through mangrove rookeries, and even catch a snook dinner on my way home. And as a surfer I find that the nearshore reefs provide yet another enticement: consistent and shapely waves roll in off several of the few natural surf breaks in Florida.
Yes, the quality of life here is incredible, though since I arrived I've spent more time fighting to save my environs than actually enjoying them. I moved just months after Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne made back-to-back landfalls right near my new home. Besides being a very wet storm that flooded Lake Okeechobee and choked regional estuaries with algae-laden lake water, Frances generated massive swells. Condos built on the dunes prevented the beaches from migrating landward, as they would naturally, so a good deal of beach sand was swept away. Martin County, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and the Army Corps of Engineers decided to "fix" the beach, mostly for the benefit of condo owners, through what's called a beach nourishment or renourishment project. Such an endeavor costs millions of dollars and involves the use of massive dredging barges to vacuum up from the seafloor about a million cubic yards of sediment, which then gets bulldozed onto the beach. It's anything but nourishing.
What is nourishing, to me at least, is the surf, sublime and inviting. When the swirling waters of the Gulf Stream are close to the beach, groundswells in southeast Florida look like spinning sapphires. I have the distinct pleasure of sitting on my board in the water, sharing a lineup not just with other surfers, but also with birds, turtles, porpoises, and fish -- even sharks. The first leatherback turtle I spot each year tells me spring has arrived. Greens and loggerheads are year-round companions. But after the dredge came to Martin County, it was harder to spot turtles underwater or, for that matter, my own feet while sitting on my board. When the dredge sailed off, a fellow surfer turned to me and said, "Thank God, the Death Star is gone."
Not all sand is the same. Beach nourishment typically involves shipping in sand from offshore or trucking it in from somewhere inland, and if that sand is either too fine or made of fragile shell fragments, problems arise. Breaking waves resuspend fine sands and pulverize delicate carbonate shells, turning them into mud. Clear waters turn chronically murky, and currents sweep fine sediments over the reefs, where they prevent sunlight from reaching corals, which rely on photosynthesis for energy.
Proponents of dredge-and-fill projects frequently point to the "restoration" of turtle-nesting habitat as a justification for dumping foreign sediment on the beach. The fact is, nesting loggerhead females don't like these fake beaches and tend to crawl back into the ocean without laying eggs. Loggerheads may soon be listed as endangered. What's more, massive sand dumps decimate the sand fleas, clams, and amphipods that feed surf fishes and shorebirds. And then there's the surf: all this added sand changes the slope of the seafloor in ways that almost always mess up the waves for surfers.
What's so unfortunate is that there are better ways to keep natural sand on our beaches. For example, technologies exist that enable sand to bypass man-made inlets and jetties in order to maintain the natural flow of marine sediments. Expensive dredge-and-fill projects give oceanfront landowners a nice big beach, but the environment and all those who rely on it for their livelihoods and for pleasure suffer. An economist with the Heritage Foundation, Ron Utt, described the practice as "bottom-up subsidy for wealthy beachfront property owners."
My parents are avid hunters and anglers. They taught my sister and me wing shooting and fly-fishing, but they also taught us that no matter your skill level or stature, you are not a complete outdoorsperson unless you demonstrate the character to sacrifice time, money, and possibly more to protect the places you love as well as your right to enjoy them. It was on my surfboard that I first ventured to the front lines of the fight against unsustainable coastal development and harmful, misguided attempts to protect real estate at the expense of the environment and taxpayers.
Fortunately, an ethic like the one my parents avowed is growing in the surfing community, fostered by grassroots organizations such as the Surfrider Foundation, which was founded in 1984 by a few surfers looking to protect water quality and maintain healthy beaches in California. Now the group has more than 50,000 members and 80 chapters worldwide. In Florida, Surfrider is led by one of the most stellar examples of surfing character, Ericka D'Avanzo, who happens to be my wife.
I met Ericka about four years ago through fishing buddies in Long Beach, New York, near where she was living at the time. She first visited me in Florida in 2005 in the middle of Martin County's dredge-and-fill operation. That project screwed up our surf break for a couple of seasons, and water clarity has still not recovered. The sand dump created a "perpetual time-release of mud," according to Hal Wanless, the chairman of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami. Every paddle out now requires a 150-yard sprint across a deep, filthy, shark-infested gully. We never worried about sharks when the water was clear.
Instead of taking Ericka to a mud bath, my friend and Florida Sportsman colleague Frank "Fritter" Bolin, who passed away just two years later, drove us up to a secluded little reef break in St. Lucie County called Walton Rocks. The surf was chest high and clean, shimmering in translucent green. Spanish mackerel were leaping everywhere, tarpon rolled, and every few minutes a turtle would check out Ericka. She thought she'd died and gone to heaven. But then around that time St. Lucie County, too, began rebuilding the dunes with inland mud in front of its condos and on the beach itself, down to the high-tide waterline.
After a few more visits, in June 2005 Ericka moved down here to be with me. She spent the better part of her first year in Florida working as a volunteer with Surfrider's Treasure Coast chapter to make St. Lucie County remove what mud hadn't already washed into the ocean. It was a race against the clock: get the mud out before the next turtle nesting season and before any more of it wound up on the reefs. The efforts of local surfers were bolstered by concerned officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, as well as by the editors at Florida Sportsman who worked to expose the harmful effects of these projects, and eventually the county agreed to remove the mud. But not before we lost our water clarity.
Most shark attacks occur in turbid water, and there have been several bad incidents since Martin and St. Lucie county beaches were "renourished." George Burgess, who directs the Florida Program for Shark Research, now advises that swimmers and surfers be more cautious in local waters. Ericka knows from fishing with me that each spring the tigers, bulls, and hammerheads follow the turtles into the surf zone and stick around all summer to feed on them and whatever else is around. Come fall, they switch to a diet of migrating baitfish and turtle hatchlings, and in the winter, they, along with spinner sharks, feed on Spanish mackerel. Ericka will not surf with me near our home at Stuart Public Beach, and she will not paddle out at Walton Rocks unless there are offshore winds and a smooth swell -- conditions that don't roil the lingering, foreign sand too much. With our busy schedules and the rarity of those conditions, we don't surf together nearly enough.
Although most experts agree that moving away from the shoreline is the only long-term way to save Florida's most valuable assets -- its beaches and reefs -- property-rights advocates stand stubbornly in the way. Surfing has taught me lessons in fluid motion that make the rigid dogma of Florida's development-driven politicians seem all the more foolhardy, especially given the threats posed by global warming. We need to come up with fair ways to relocate beachfront properties before violent storms or rising sea levels claim them, or before we find ourselves living like the Dutch, behind seawalls outfitted with pumps that run around the clock -- without beaches, reefs, sea turtles, or idyllic surf breaks.