Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Year End Roundup… Already?

Stepping Stones
Master Naturalist

Holy Moly! What an astounding year we’ve had in South Florida! It seems like events began in September of 2017 when Hurricane Irma passed directly over Marco Island and never quit. During the next 14 months, the surprises just kept on coming, with no apparent end in sight. Let’s take a look at what we experienced, both good and bad.

The anticipated impact of Hurricane Irma demanded mandatory evacuations even into parts of Naples. Fortunately, the storm surge was not as severe as originally expected but damage was done. The national media made it sound like there was nothing alive within a 100-mile radius of Marco while the local media was proclaiming that we were “Open For Business” days after the event. Tourism was definitely affected for months by the negative press.

Along the shoreline the hurricane caused major erosion issues. Not only were barrier islands flooded, it happened during sea turtle hatching season. Throughout all of Collier County 1,635 nests were recorded along the coast. Of those nests only 743 produced hatchlings. In comparison 2018 saw 1,595 nests along our waters and 1,399 produced babies. Even though nearly twice as many nests hatched this year, those new babies were swimming right into the heaviest concentration of red tide we have seen in South Florida in decades. The result: two horrific seasons for loggerheads and green sea turtles.

Ahh… two words above that drive children shivering under their covers… Red tide!

This is the common name for a worldwide phenomenon that is an algae bloom and occurs naturally off coasts. The growth of this bloom depends on wind directions, temperatures, the salinity of the water and the nutrients found there. The production of “brevetoxins” from this bloom will kill marine life. Northern Collier County suffered far worse red tide conditions than Marco Island did… we dodged a bullet. Even further north in Lee and Sarasota counties, conditions were much worse.

Along Lee County beaches nearly three tons of dead fish were cleaned up, a fraction of the one hundred tons cleaned up along the entire coastline. That’s just along the beaches. Fishermen reported to me that the offshore conditions were more horrendous. “You can’t drive your boat more than ten feet without bumping into something dead out here.”

In addition to fish, sea turtles, manatees and dolphins have paid the ultimate price for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nearly fifty dolphins have washed ashore, mostly in Lee and Sarasota counties. More than five hundred fifty manatees have died in 2018 and more than 20% of those deaths are attributed to red tide. Sea turtles, more than three hundred are known dead.

This bout of red tide has been around since October of 2017, making this the fifteenth month. Even though the bloom seems to be subsiding, guess when this toxic killer usually raises its ugly head? Yep, in the fall.

As mentioned, Marco Island dodged a bullet. Even though the red tide did make it to our shoreline we were spared the heavy concentrations that we saw further north. There were some good results here because of this.

Two weeks after Irma passed over Marco, baby dolphins began appearing in the Marco River and surrounding areas. In all, four of our local females produced new calves. The great news is that they are all alive and reached their first birthdays. As for this fall, which is our typical dolphin birthing season, seven new calves have been seen in the area. For two of those new moms, this is their first calf. You know what that means? There are more grandmothers in the area! We are seeing our third generation of bottlenose dolphins thanks to the Dolphin Explorer’s research study.

Ospreys are busy preparing their nests for the upcoming mating season, as is the new pair of bald eagles now nesting on the island. The new camera at the eagle site makes it fun to watch their progress if you are here or hundreds of miles away.

The 1,000th Burmese python was captured by the team of hunters in the Everglades this year. I understand that these snake specialists will soon be allowed into Everglades National Park to take care of business. Why? That’s where the pythons are! Closer to home, this invasive species is becoming more common in Collier County so be careful out there. I have seen tracks, big tracks, several times at the Marsh Trail, just off U.S. 41, south of San Marco Road.

Gator babies are hatching this time of year as well as crocodiles. Birds are singing, but it seems not as many. When you see an egret or heron fly by you, stop, smile and watch. Enjoy that sighting while you can.

So, it was a very interesting 2018, to say the least. It sounds like too much negative happened, but it all needs to be calculated on that “asset/liability” sheet.

The most positive point that I have realized over these past 14 months is the strength and resiliency of the human spirit. Those who can help, do. Those who need help are grateful. I’ve also realized that events like hurricanes and toxins provide a cleansing to nature’s systems. Those that can survive, do. Those that can adapt, do. Congratulations to all of the do’s.

Bob is a Naturalist on board the dolphin study vessel Dolphin Explorer. He is a member of the Florida Society for Ethical Ecotourism and is the author of two books. Bob loves his wife very much!

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