Looking at Our Barrier Islands Through New Eyes, SRL/Indian River Lagoon


Looking out to the Atlantic Ocean through and old black mangrove that was exposed by erosion of Bath Tub Beach,  2009.
Looking out to the Atlantic Ocean through and ancient black mangrove that was exposed by erosion off of Bathtub Beach.. (Photo 2009, JTL)

There have been many times over thousands of years that the ocean has broken through Hutchinson Island and flowed into the Indian River Lagoon off of Sewall’s Point. Most recently, in 2004, after hurricanes Jeanne and Francis.  Also in the early 1960s, at Peck’s Lake*, on Jupiter Island.  But of course we “repair” the areas and “put them back”…for a little while anyway….

Peck's Lake breakthrough 1948, Jupiter Island. (Ruhnke Collection, Thurlow Archives, from the book "Sewall's Point," by Sandra Henderson Thurlow.)
Peck’s Lake breakthrough ca. 1960, Jupiter Island. (Ruhnke Collection, Thurlow Archives, from the book “Sewall’s Point,” by Sandra Henderson Thurlow.)

I have been fortunate the past few years in my river photography to see the island by air in my husband’s airplane; it never ceases to amaze me that Hutchinson Island, as all barrier islands, is really just a ribbon of sand….

So, of course Mother Nature comes  through….

Sand piled hight at Bathtub Beach, 2014.
Sand piled hight at Bathtub Beach. (Photo 12-10-14, JTL)

Bathtub Beach is an area that Nature seems determined to reclaim soon. Yesterday, as many, I drove to see the “State of Emergency” claimed by Martin County at Bathtub Beach.

Looking to the ocean....
Looking to the ocean….(Photo 12-10-14, JTL)

There was a young couple that had scaled the piled protective sand and I struck up a conversation with them.

“Hi, I’m Jacqui. This is amazing isn’t it?”

The young man replied: “Yeah we came yesterday, and the waves were 10 to 12 feet!” The water was all the way up to this fake dune. Look, you can see the sand is still wet.”

Former Wentworth house, Bathtub Beach, 2014.
Former Wentworth house, Bathtub Beach.  (Photo  12-10-14, JTL)

“Wow,” I exclaimed. “Yes, I have seen this before. It’s incredible. You just have to wonder if one day the ocean will come through so hard she takes it all. This would be terrible for the people who live here…”

The response from the young man?

“Well, at least the river will be cleaner….”

I was amazed to see how far the river culture has expanded, and perhaps the values of a younger generation…

Rather than get into a political conversation with a nice young couple just here to explore, I said how nice it was to meet them, and ran down the sand pile in my high heels to get to my car before I got a ticket.

Wormrock at Bathtub Beach 2009.
Wormrock at Bathtub Beach (Photo 2009, JTL)

At 50 years now, I have known our beaches since I was a kid walking around on the worm reef catching fish with a homemade net, before we knew that was “bad” for it. During my youth, the older generation began to really build on Hutchinson Island, which was not such a good idea either….The same goes for the low areas of the Town of Sewall’s Point, across the Indian River, where I live and sit on the town commission. These areas are very vulnerable. It’s a problem.

So how do we deal with this “realization,” that we have built on Mother Natures’ front line? Do we retreat, as in war, knowing we will never win, or do we harden our areas reinforcing the shoreline and our homes as long as we can? Do we spend millions of dollars putting concrete seawalls and dredged sand on our shorelines that will surely eventually wash away and each time, not to mention it covers and destroys our “protected” off shore reefs and sea grasses?

These are the difficult questions, and if we follow the model of South Florida that has been dealing with these issues of sea level rise, and just the “normality” of living on a shifting sandbar that God wants to roll over on itself like a conveyor belt, every few hundred to a thousand years, we have some big problems ahead of us. We can reinforce our shorelines and raise our houses, but in the end, Nature will win. In our short lifetimes, we may not see the “grand change,” but our children and grandchildren will.

For instance, the photo at the beginning of this blog is an ancient black mangrove with a hole in it looking towards the ocean. These mangroves are exposed during high erosion because Hutchinson Island is rolling over on itself. This is called “transgression.”

To repeat, much of the construction on barrier islands happened before people fully understood that these places are particularly volatile.  The clues have been accumulating for decades: beachfronts are thinning, storms regularly swallow dunes and send sand flowing to the far side of the island…  Slowly, geologists and government entities have realized  that the very nature of barrier islands truly  is to “roll over,” typically toward the mainland, as waves and weather erode one side and build up the other. Barrier island ecology is not fully understood; there are many theories. It is complex, but some things we understand now…

Thus when the erosion is greatest, the remnants of an ancient mangrove swamp on the ocean side of the island can be seen….Kind of bizarre isn’t it?

What do they say? “The only constant is change.”

Yes, times are changing, the climate and the oceans are warming; no matter the reason, this has happened before. Our job, as it always has been, is to adapt. But in the world of money, real estate, and ad-valorum tax values to governments—along the Indian River Lagoon, this may never occur, until the ocean is truly upon us…

Ancient swamp on ocean side....
Ancient swamp on ocean side…..(Photo 2009, JTL)
view towards Sailfish Point...2009
Northerly view of Bathtub Beach and exposed ancient mangrove swamp….(Photo 2009, JTL)
Today even with high erosion the ancient mangrove swamp is under the sand. You can see one sticking up...
Today even with high erosion the ancient mangrove swamp is under the sand. You can see one sticking up…(Photo 12-10-14, JTL)
This photo that I found pn Nyla Pipes Facebook page. The view of ocean action along the Atlantic Coast is very telling....
This photo that I found on water/river activist Nyla Pipes’ Facebook page. The view of ocean action along the Atlantic Coast is very telling….


NOAA, Coastal Hazards: (http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/hazards/natural-hazards/)

Barrier Islands: HOW STUFF WORKS: (http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/conservation/issues/barrier-island6.htm)


*Originally, I wrote” 1948: as well as “1960” in this blog post as the years that Peck’s Lake opened. Due to communication with my mother, historian, Sandra H. Thurlow, I have changed my blog to say only “1960s.” She believes there was an error in a  photograph used in her book, “Sewall’s Point,” in that the photo she used in her book said 1948 but she now, after seeing old shared photos from John Whiticar, thinks this date is incorrect. Please read below:

Peck’s Lake Inlet        

The photograph of a wash over at Peck’s Lake in Sewall Point on page 19 is identified as “1948” because it an 8 x 10 print in the Ruhnke/Conant Collection we purchase had that date written on the back.

Year later I began to suspect this was in error.

The clincher was a group of photos that John Whiticar came across that were obviously from Ruhnke which included the washout I had labeled 1948 with others that were obviously from the 1960s because of a flower farm in the background. There were also photos of the drowned trees and Ruhnke family photos of a visit to Peck’s Lake.

A Nov. 11. 1963 article in the Stuart News about Inlet worked said, “Also in April of this year the Martin County Commission passed a resolution asking the Corps of Engineers to take action to insure the boating public would always have as safe an inlet from the ocean as was available at that time through the storm-opened Peck’s Lake Inlet, closed by the Corps this past summer. 


12-30-14 I received the numbers on costs from Martin County for beach re-nourishment over the years; I am adding the list here as a photo so I can share it with  comments on this blog:

Beach Renourishment Numbers from Martin County 2014.
Beach Renourishment Numbers from Martin County 2014.




30 thoughts on “Looking at Our Barrier Islands Through New Eyes, SRL/Indian River Lagoon

  1. HI Jacqui, thank you for this. I didn’t know those stumps at bathtub beach were mangrove , wow , I was out there in 2008 or 2009 and thought ‘ what are these ? and where did they come from? I have only been here for 15 years and I am shocked every time I go out to Bathtub beach , I remember what it looked like in 2000 , even in 2004 prior to hurricanes and it hasn’t looked like that since, no matter what they do . Again it seems sad and it seems all for naught and I always wonder why anyone would build on a sand bar. Being from California , where people have build in dry river beds and low lands and on the sides of mountains that burn each year , when the rains come and they eventually do like now after long spans of extensive drought, the river beds fill and the houses in the dry river beds are washed away and the houses on the sides of the mountains that have nothing to hold the dirt on them slide down the mountains . It just seems like people don’t think before they build things about nature and how it moves and changes and how we have to as well.

  2. That’s interesting, Jacqui, about how nature herself makes dramatic changes. Now, we have to delve more into the horrendous, profit-driven changes made by the relentless growth of man’s drainage machine. It sucks out inland ground waters and dumps them “to tide.” Big Ag caused 500 BILLION gallons to be wasted last year, while our politicians offer nothing but empty promises and phony generalizations.

    Shall we blame nature for man’s self-serving follies?

    1. That is a good question Karl as “man” is part of nature, however, we are able to reason and know right from wrong innately as far as I am convened—-man’s drainage machine is a mistake that needs to be fixed….

  3. As leading coastal scientists will tell you, you can have big Oceanside buildings, or healthy, natural beaches. But you can’t have both.

    On another note, my my how quickly government throws tax payer dollars (sand) on the beach to protect the fortunate few, yet won’t spend nearly enough to make real change in the Everglades and the estuaries, to benefit the masses. Isn’t that something?

    1. Good comment Mike. I think part of this issue is that the monies for beach “re- nourishment ” come from the state and federal gov’t so we don’t “feel” it on a local level. The same thing was happening for years with flood insurance—when it was subsidized. Now that that support is fading, things are shifting…As we lose this support on a local level and feel the rising prices of flood insurance (here in SP sometimes 25,000 dollars if in a V or AE coastal zone…)
      it changes the entire picture. Sewall’s Point and Hutchinson Island are in for some rough days ahead unless of course one is independently wealthy. And there is nothing wrong with that. You live knowing if Mother Nature takes your stuff away you just rebuild and bring it back. The other option is after these house “go” many years from now—not to rebuild in these areas. Property rights must be dealt with….in time, the federal government will no longer be able to support any of us, rich or poor… This is a reality.

    1. Thanks very much. I will contact county and get a breakdown too. I know JI taxes itself– like 16 million. Crazy. In any case I have no idea where MC even gets this kind of money….SP is almost going broke and we are supposed to be “affluent…”

      TCPALM: The county has added sand to beaches from the north county line south, past Stuart Beach, three times since 1995, and plans a fourth restoration this winter. This spring, it also added sand dredged from St. Lucie Inlet to beaches in the adjacent state park and Hobe South National Wildlife Refuge.

      The county pays its local share of beach projects from the general fund, plus a municipal services tax paid only by Hutchinson Island residents.

      Total cost: $26 million

  4. November the beachs foam up a lot.I believe this is because the lagoon no longer neutralizes all the acid. After summer rains have washed acids out into the ocean it dissolves the calcium sand in violent wave action and away it goes.Millions of tons of it. The shores of the lagoon need to be restored to the way they have been for tens of thousands of years.

  5. I also believe the algie that contains the calcium only grows in fresh or brackish water. If corals and other cretures that build calcium formations could be brought back this could help protect your beachs from erosion.

  6. This is my theory as to why our beachs erode—The bottom of our lagoon is acid,If you pour calcium sand it will not stick to the bottom but will spread out and hang just above the bottom over a large area. The bottom of our ocean is calcium.When all the acids wash from the spillways and rivers into the ocean they will not stick to the calcium bottom but will hang just above until they work there way to shore and violent wave action forces the 2 togather causeing massive erosion spreading the beach sand miles from shore.

  7. There is much circumstantial evidence to my theory but it all adds up.There was no beach errosian all summer of sand they put on beach last spring. In November (as usual the foam starts) Now millions of tons are all gone.Many times when you go offshore fishing the water is cloudy 15 miles out. Most importantly is how if I put a few buckets of sand a week in a small moveing stream it will erode a hole 7 foot deep.(There is much more but I will save it for the book) Of course the hole will be jam packed with feeding mullet.It would be a good project for some collage or university or maby Harbor Branch.

  8. When I was in Jr. High a boys dog ran after him to the bus jast as the bus driver hit the gas.The boy never rode the bus again but every morning for the rest of the year he would come out and shake a stick at the bus driver and yell YOU KILLED MY DOG.I do not waunt to be like him because I realize this will not bring about the change that is needed.I will admt sometimes I do feal like shakeing a stick and saying you killed my lagoon and then blamed other people and it was NO accident.

    1. Perhaps it’s just a story…but that bus driver should have made things right as best as he could have with the boy. He should have taken responsibility/some action to make things better — like bringing the boy a new puppy even. Too often, people walk away without taking responsibility (i.e. cleaning up the mess made by large polluting industry/corporations). It is their responsibility. We are all that boy with the stick!

  9. The bus driver was a woman and the boys name was Clifford Trask. She allways drove like a bat out of hell. I remember the bumps but(I don’t think) nobody new what happened– except maby Clifford.

  10. I am not so sure large corporations are to blame. Calcium chloride is a metallic salt just like aluminium sulfate. A guy at work told how someone he Knew was attracting fish using calcium chloride.This might exsplain why fish come around after storms have churned sea shells. I just came back from the river and pelicans were diveing as far as you could see. I allso saw a porpus jump in the air as if it was just for the joy of living.

  11. We have a fresh water run off called Turkey Creek here in Palm Bay. I have put calcium sand and sea shells in many spots so fresh water runs over them. The algie that grows and breaks off has created quite a food chain. Billions of menhaden minows feeding has attracted many large white pelicans. These white pelicans hut togather swimming side by side and dipping there beaks in the water to sift out menhadden minnows.I hope the fresh water run offs that people now curse where you live will one day soon be considered a great treasure.

  12. We have a fresh water run off called Turkey Creek here in Palm Bay. I have put calcium sand and sea shells in many spots so fresh water runs over them. The algie that grows and breaks off has created quite a food chain. Billions of menhaden minows feeding has attracted many large white pelicans. These white pelicans hunt togather swimming side by side and dipping there beaks in the water to sift out menhadden minnows.I hope the fresh water run offs that people now curse where you live will one day soon be considered a great treasure.

  13. Today at a spot just south of sebastion inlet there is a place where the coquina shells are comeing back. Half buried in coquina shells I found a foot long conch.It was obvious she was up to something.Did she come all the way to shore to have her babies in the newly forming coquina formations.Every creature in the lagoon has a story to tell.A story of how they survived for thousands if not millions of years.

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