A couple of weeks ago I went to Crescent Beach and St Augustine to meet with Neil Armingeon, the Matanzas Riverkeeper. Before sunrise, I set out by myself in my kayak and was in the middle of the river by the islands and sea grasses before the sun came up.
Though it was not dramatic once the sun was in the sky, it was touching how the light gently lit up these delicate plants and revealed their subtle colors. At the ends of the islands, there were beds of grasses that provided a great environment for fish and other creatures.
The water on the Matanzas is so pristine compared to most water in the State of Florida. It was difficult to find pollution. Instead, I saw the biofilm that is important for the health of the ecosystem..
It was amazing to see how the surface tension held the biofilm together and enabled it to stretch and create translucent planes between the edges of the grass and the water. It looked so fragile, like a bubble on the verge of popping.
When I first saw this water at the edge of the grass beds, I thought it might be polluted because of the bubbles and oil-like film on top. Later, I learned this is likely the same biofilm as in the image with the grasses, only more concentrated. It was the first time I have encountered this much film. When the water is too sick, it cannot support much biodiversity. Sticks and leaves are completely broken down in rivers like the Caloosahatchee, and brown and orange water is left in their place or green slime takes over. Not here.
As I was kayaking back to the launch, I saw several osprey fishing in the river. It was incredible to watch. They spread their wings and looked down into the water with a penetrating gaze and even stopped flying and hovered before they went after their prey.
This is the fish camp where I launched from on Crescent Beach. The night before I introduced myself and told them about the river project I was working on. They were very accommodating and friendly. This whole community values the river and its cleanliness and their ability to catch healthy, fresh seafood here. They live more in harmony with their water than most places I have visited in Florida, and old traditions carry on.
After my kayak trip, Randy, the student who is working with me, and I met with Neil, the newly appointed Matanzas Riverkeeper and former St. John's Riverkeeper, and Zach from St. Augustine Ecotours. Zach is a genius at finding dolphins and has studied them extensively. He told us dolphins feed along riff lines, where the incoming and outgoing tides meet and confuse the fish. Dolphins are very intelligent and realize riff lines make excellent fishing grounds. The Matanzas actually has four tide cycles every day, which keeps its water flushed and clean.
When we were docking, we saw several roseate spoonbills along the shore fishing among the oyster beds. Though these oysters aren't harvested for human consumption, as they are too close to the marina and the city and sources of pollution, there are very healthy oyster beds nearby. All oysters provide a valuable function in filtering the water, which is one of the many reasons it is so important to preserve them. Seeing spoonbills fishing right by the marina was a very encouraging sign as to the health of the river.
The most serious issue they are facing in St. Augustine is sea level rise. St. Augustine and Miami are ground zero for this right now. Neil took me to where A1A was washed out by a storm and the Sumer Haven River was filled in by sand leaving many boats stranded with no access to water. Further along the shore, where the road used to go, a series of houses were left with no access and on the verge of falling into the Atlantic. Apparently, people still live there.
The last place Neil took us was to the Matanzas Inlet, where it connects with the Atlantic. There are many dunes along the river here, and the terrain provides a great environment for gopher tortoises and other wildlife.
Before we headed back home, Randy and I stopped at Princess Place. This 1500-acre pristine preserve is located at the confluence of Pellicer Creek and the Matanzas River. Adjacent to the preserve is the Pellicer Creek Conservation Area with many marshes and wonderful places to kayak. The county just agreed to build tourist-ready cottages here, which has raised some debate as to the potential footprint eco-tourism will leave . More worrisome are plans that have not yet been approved to build 900 homes along Pellicer Creek, which would significantly impact the watershed.
At the confluence of creeks and rivers and along creeks themselves e is where I have frequently witnessed pollution build up. It is often where I find green slime and other troubled water since the current is weaker and the water is more stagnant.
The 23-mile Matanzas River is one of the last best rivers in Florida. According to Neil, they never have algae blooms. There is no industry along this river and St. Augustine is the only city in its watershed. Across the world, oyster reefs have been destroyed by 90%. This area still boasts healthy beds in many places. It would be a crime to allow this river to suffer the same fate as many waterways in Florida. The Indian River Lagoon was as clean as this in my lifetime. It is important for development to be well managed and sustainable and planned in areas that will not impact freshwater creeks that feed into rivers and estuaries and are important contributors to the health of such important ecosystems.