I was on the Army Corp of Engineers Periodic Scientist Call this past Tuesday. These are excellent calls and one learns quickly the difficulties and the burdens of water management for our state and federal agencies in the state of Florida. I have participated in the calls as an elected official for the Town of Sewall’s Point since 2012.
This past Tuesday, something was said that struck me. Mark Perry, of Florida Oceanographic, reported something to the effect that over 600 acres of seagrasses inside the St Lucie Inlet are now “sand bottom.” Six hundred acres….
I went home and asked my husband that night at dinner…”Ed could it really be six-hundred acres? The seagrasses dead?”
“Easy.” He replied. “Just think of when I lived at the house at 22 South Sewall’s Point road when we first got married in 2005, and we’d walk out with the kayaks and there was lush seagrass all the way out ….well that’s gone–its gone all around the peninsula–you can see this from the air.”
Ed took some aerial photos the day after this conversation. Yesterday. I am including them today.
—-So it’s true, 600 acres of seagrasses are dead in one of the most bio-diverse estuaries in North America, the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon or southern IRL —for many years, as many of us know, confidently cited as not “one of,” but rather, “the most diverse…”
The Army Corp has been releasing from Lake Okeechobee this year since January 29th, 2016. We are only in June and there is more to come. Yes there is…there is “more to come” from us. There has to be. Because we are losing or have lost —everything.
Please compare the 1977 photo and then the 2012 map to photos taken yesterday. Please don’t give up the fight to bring back life to this estuary.
I have been told, that this Yiddish expression, used usually during a toast, means “to life!” I can’t say that I really understand the full essence of the word, as I am not Jewish, but I like the saying very much, and find myself exclaiming it all the time.
After all, life is good, isn’t it?
The story I am going to write about today, is one I have been wanting to write about for a very long time….it is the story of my struggle with the ethics of keeping marine mammals in captivity.
Off the bat, I must say I am “not for such”…and the movie “Blackfish” was horrifying, but due to one very personal experience I have had, for me, there are exceptions….
First, I must go back…
In 2008, my husband Ed and I had only been married three years. After talking to friends who had had a good time at Sea World, we decided to visit Discovery Cove in Orlando. We were the typical clueless “tourists” and we looked forward to “swimming with the dolphins.” At the time, I did struggle a bit with the idea of marine mammals in captivity, but it was years before I became so wrapped up in the St Lucie/Indian River Lagoon movement all all that comes with it, and honestly, at the time, I did not give it enough thought. I was just happy that I finally had a husband….
Once at Discovery Cove, Ed and I dressed in wet suits, and along with about twelve others, including young children, were introduced to our dolphin; she was just beautiful; her name was “Natasha.” She seemed happy and did what her trainers asked her to do. She kissed each one of us, “talked” to us, and took us for a short “ride.” The time was short, but indeed, we all felt as though we had bonded with her…
About half way through the show, Natasha was told to jump simultaneously with another dolphin. She jumped high and her body arched over the pool. Then I heard the slam of two bodies hitting hard and knew something had gone very wrong…Natasha and another dolphin had collided!
Natasha died there in the water as the Discovery Cove crew scrambled to get children and adults out of the pool. There was no explanation. They were trying to keep things in order. We went home. I was numb, and felt a sense of guilt and of anger…..
The next day, I pulled my “elected official card,” calling Sea World to get information; I got nothing. I was furious. I swore to myself that “never again” would I attend such a show, and “never again” would I support Sea World’s “Discovery Cove.”
Fast forward four years…
I had matured as an elected official and wife; I had become very involved in the river movement through the River Kidz of the Town of Sewall’s Point; and, I had become a volunteer in the marine mammal department with Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.
Then came September 1st, 2012.
On September 1st, a call came in to all volunteers. 22 short finned pilot whales had stranded at Avalon Beach, in Ft Pierce, just across from the east side of the Indian River Lagoon. It was a weekend. Ed and and I sped up there meeting throngs of people from the public that had gathered. The state agencies of NOAA, Florida Fish and Wildlife, and FAU/Harbor Branch all came, but it was the public that was there first,and it was the public that shone that day— carrying bucket after bucket of water to cool the ailing whales’ skin, and covering them with towels to abate the hot, hot sun…
It was a scene I will never forget, as the huge mammals lost their lives to the elements in great writhing agony, with the public watching on in a dreadful sadness…many of the whales expired naturally while others had to euthanized —-these whales, once beached do not return to sea, beaching again, and again, and again, if they are returned….
The social bonds of pilot whales are one of the strongest in nature, and they stay together at all costs, even if it costs them their lives…strandings are thought to be caused by sickness or disorientation, but no one really knows. Families die together, never apart.
The most touching of all was that there were five calves that day. Four were juveniles and one was probably only a few days old. Their parents did not live and the whales had not the skills to be released…
After great thought, NOAA (http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/) made the decision to place the four calfs in the Harbor Branch ambulance and take them to the institution’s facility. The small whales were carefully nursed and cared for day and night, one died but the rest made it. They were later officially deemed “unreleasable,” by NOAA and then transported to Sea World— the only facility fitted to care for the animals.
I have to admit I was happy for them when the took them away to Sea World. I was happy that they didn’t die. I was happy that they had each other no matter how horrible the past few days had been. I was happy that human beings have a heart and that I had witnessed it on the beach that day with strangers that suddenly were working together for a common cause…..
I did think about Natasha that died at Discovery Cove—but…..
Fast forward to 2015….
I receive a phone call. “The pilot whales are performing at Sea World. ” I am sent pictures. Their names are the same are as they were when named by the public that day…. I am happy for them. I am proud of them. I am a hypocrite. I can’t help myself. I choose life—I do. With all its complications, with all its imperfections….
One of the great things about living in the town you grew up in is watching people you know “grow-up,” and be recognized for their contributions to the Treasure Coast community.
One of these people, for me, is Mark Perry, who I have known since my earliest memories. Today, Mark is the Executive Director for Florida Oceanographic Society, (http://www.floridaocean.org), the epicenter in Martin County for education, protection, and advocacy for the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon. He has been leading the organization for 35 years…
Mark is older than me. I was born in 1964, and I believe Mark is about ten years my senior. When you’re a kid, that’s “a lot.” But it’s just enough to for constant admiration “from younger to older.” I have been admiring Mark Perry my entire life…
Mark, his brother Chris, and his parents Clifton and Mimi Perry attended St Mary’s Church as my family did and does today. I first met Mark at St Mary’s…I was probably 3 or 4 years old.
As I grew up, I remember my parents talking about the “older kids” in the youth group getting to go on a canoe trip down the Peace River, chaperones, sleeping bags, marshmallows, etc….It was the 1970s….I wanted so badly to be older and get to do the “cool” things the older kids did, but I was just a “kid,” and had to stay home…
Over the years, my parents kept me abreast of the Perry family and what was always most interesting to me was Mark’s journey with Florida Oceanographic, an organization his father helped found in 1964 that was originally located in my childhood neighborhood of St Lucie Estates, along Kruegar Creek, in Stuart. I often visited there on my bicycle.
Over the years I grew up, moved away, attended University of Florida, lived and worked in California, Germany, and Pensacola, and when I came home in 1997 to Stuart, to continue my teaching career, Florida Oceanographic had expanded from that neat place I saw on my bicycle to become the showcase institution it is today–-An organization that symbolizes the love and fight for the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon-and the life of Mark Perry.
Tonight at FAU/Harbor Branchs’, “Love Your Lagoon” gala, (http://www.indianriverlagoon.org/Love-Your-Lagoon-Dinner-.html) Mark Perry will be honored for his St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon work. It is the foundations’ fourth annual, and those who preceded Mark in being honored are: 2012, Nathaniel Reed; 2013, Bud Adams; 2014, Alma Lee Loy.
Mark follows in big footsteps, and he has filled them, “completely.” Thank you Mark Perry for a lifetime of admiration, respect, and guidance in our love and fight to save the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon!
This symposium consist of one full day of presentations, and poster displays, and is then followed by a day including “public meeting and interaction” going forward. The symposium is a collaboration of many, but is led by beloved, Dr Dennis Hannisak of Harbor Branch, who specializes in seagrasses and has written many valuable publications on the subject. (http://www.fau.edu/hboi/meh/mb.php)
Nonetheless, the past four have been consistent and coincide with the recent crisis and super-bloom “crash” of the Indian River Lagoon’s northern and central seagrass health, and the 2013 “lost summer,” from devastating polluted releases from Lake Okeechobee on top of canals C-23, C-24 , C-44 and C-25 in the southern lagoon.
Since that time, there has been a public outcry for research, funding, and understanding. These symposiums provide an incredible opportunity for the scientific community, government agencies, youth, budding scientists, and the public to collaborate sharing knowledge and questions regarding our treasured and ailing Indian River Lagoon. Harbor Branch, founded by Steward Johnson and Edwin Link in 1971 is the perfect place.
The overview for the symposium states:
“The Indian River Lagoon (IRL) Symposium is the result of a multi-institutional, multi-agency effort to provide a forum for discussing IRL science and its application to management of the lagoon. The symposium is open to scientists, decision makers, students, education and outreach professionals, and the interested public. The intent is to help facilitate better communication among these groups so that the gaps between research and its application can be narrowed.”
Kudos to the Harbor Branch and to the steering committee and to the public. Together, may we inspire each other, and our government to “Save our St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon!”
•Jeff Beal – Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission
•Patti Gorman – South Florida Water Management District
•Dennis Hanisak – Florida Atlantic University
•Chuck Jacoby – IRL National Estuary Program/St. Johns River Water Management District
•Sea McKeon – Smithsonian Institution
•Mark Perry – Florida Oceanographic Society
•Chris Wilson – University of Florida
•John Windsor – Florida Institute of Technology
Last Sunday, I had wanted to go to church, but there was a different lesson in store for me that day…
At 8:01, Steve Burton, the head of FAU’s Harbor Branch Marine Mammal Rescue Team, sent out a call to its trained volunteers: “A kogia (pygmy sperm whale) had beached itself at Stuart Beach, less than five minutes from where I live in Sewall’s Point. I texted that I would be there, and the morning took on that surreal experience that goes along with meeting on land, our deep water friends from the sea.
“Ed, let’s go!” I called to my husband down the stairwell. We put on warm clothes, grabbed every bucket in the house, and in silence, drove the jeep over the bridge on the other side of the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon.
In 2012, a call like the one this morning came in. Not one, but twenty-two pilot whales had beached themselves along Avalon Beach in north Ft Pierce. Like a war scene, their bodies flailing in the breaking waves, Harbor Branch, NOAA, St Lucie County Fire Rescue and police, the Florida Wildlife Commission, and concerned members of the public, did all they could to save these protected marine mammals. Five calves were saved; the rest did not make it off the beach being humanly euthanized, moved, and studied for disease giving clues to their stranding.
Apparently these creatures have such strong social bonds, they will follow their sick family leader to shore, even to their deaths. A bond that serves them in nature most of the time…..
The whale this day was a pygmy sperm whale, not a pilot whale, but both are deep divers and rare to see.
Within minutes Ed and I arrived: it was very windy, and the surf was kicked up. Florida Wildlife Commission officers, and Martin County fire rescue and lifeguards were at the scene waiting for Harbor Branch, NOAA and a veterinarian to arrive. (People come as far as Vero and Boca to assist in such rescues.)
On the beach, I nodded at the officers—–they saw my Harbor Branch shirt.
I immediately filled a bucket with ocean water and slowly poured it over the whale to keep its skin moist in the hot sun. The whale was about 10 or 12 feet long; female: a thousand or so pounds; with a pink belly, and grey-black “smooth as plastic” skin; her head was blunt and beautifully shaped—I remembered how I’d read that the US Government studied deep-sea whales to derive the shapes of World War II submarines….Her blow-hole was off centered on the top of her head, an adapted nostril; her eyes were low on her body and small; barely open…Originally, she was on her side, breathing heavily. These whales can dive more than 1000 feet.
I leaned down, slowly…
Looking in the eye of a whale is something that is a lesson in and of itself. They are intelligent, and look back at you, like a dog, or a person. They know you are there. I sensed no fear in this whale, only total exhaustion.
She had scrapes and abrasions all over her body from coming in the harsh surf. Usually these whales are seen alone or in groups of five or six in the deep ocean. Scientists don’t know for certain, but it is believed they dive over a thousand feet to catch squid and they even sequester the ink in their own bodies using it too as a way to escape and confuse predators…sometimes they just float like logs in the ocean, and as a boat approaches, they submerge. A lot is not known about them.
Over the next few minutes, Ed and I met some of the others already there. The press arrived. Throngs of people gathered.
The couple that had found the whale at 7AM, while walking the beach, the Sopkos, were visiting from Cleveland. He, a steelworker; she a caretaker. They were so interested and wanted to do all they could to help. Making a 911 call to save a whale was not what they had expected that morning…They stayed the entire time, helping in any way they could.
Once all of the authorities and the veterinarian had arrived, it was decided to take the whale into the Harbor Branch ambulance, but she was too uncomfortable, and would not be carried, so the work up was done right there on the beach. It took hours. The veterinarian was excellent– Dr Kilpatrick, from Vero. His compassion showed as he determined the whales’ vital signs. She was not well and her breathing had become stalled and labored. The vet explained that heart problems are commonly seen in these whales. This is being studied…
He also explained that, pygmy sperm whales do not have a good record of survival once beached. In a majority of instances when they have been put back out to sea, they beach again, and again, and again, sometimes with sharks waiting in the waves.
Their bodies, usually “weightless” in sea water, feel the full force of gravity once on land. Their internal organs are under tremendous pressure. The animals are literally collapsing under their own weight.
Another hour passed……..
During the scene, Chase Franco, 14, was next to me, a student at Jensen Beach High School. Chase is affiliated with the fire rescue team. They allowed him to take part.
Over time, all had been done that could be done for the ailing whale. The call was made to euthanize her to put her out of her agony.
On my knees, there next to Chase, whom I know from him being a bag boy at Publix… The tension was thick. Having been through this before in Ft Pierce that awful day, I braced myself.
Others took the position to hold the whale; long time marine mammal volunteer, Jim Moir, held her tail; he encouraged us to softly speak to the whale and warned us they sometimes fight.
I looked at Chase. Although he is an avid fisherman, this was different. To see him now faced with the whale’s impeding death was unsettling. We held tight.
“Help me.” I said, to myself….”Help me find something to say to this young person….”
Chase looked at me, his big blue eyes questioning…
I started speaking….
“Chase, as you know the whale is going to be euthanized. It is sick. This is always difficult. This is what I try to do and maybe you can do? Concentrate, give the whale part of your energy, and know you are receiving some of hers…think about all of those wonderful years under the sea, blue light, and friends… Happiness, hunting, and survival. She had a good life; now it’s time to let go….but she will be with you, always….”
Chase closed his eyes. He concentrated….
No one spoke….
The whale had not taken a breath for minutes; her eyes were closed in peaceful repose; she did not fight.
Chase finally looked at me, glassy blue eyes reflecting blue ocean and blue sky…He understood.
We carried the whale to the Harbor Branch ambulance. Some people fought back tears. It was another whale of a lesson…a lesson that only our friends from the sea can give…
After a recent tour at FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, along the Indian River Lagoon, in Ft Pierce, I will never look at my kitchen sponge the same again…..
It has been a great pleasure to serve on the FAU, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Foundation Board for just over a year, and at a recent meeting we were able to tour the famous “sponge storage vaults for cancer reasearch” deep within the inner chambers of the university. I had heard about these sponges for decades but had never seen the 3500 specimens that are shared with visiting scientists from all over the world, “face to face.” World scientists visit HBOI because the collection is unique in the world.
Today, I ‘d like to share just a little about what I saw and learned.
From areas as remote as 3000 feet deep in our world oceans come these specimens! And some may just may hold the cure for certain cancers, malaria, tuberculosis neurodegenerative disease, bone density improvement, and inflammation….
Walking through the many rooms/cooled vaults of the collection was mind-boggling; our guide was Dr Sheri Pomponi who had collected many of the specimens herself. (http://www.fau.edu/hboi/mbbr/).
Other scientists who assisted us on our tour were Dr Amy Wright, Dr. Peter McCarthy, and Dr Esther Guzmán. The entire presentation was way over my head, but basically I learned that sponges and other deep-sea life do not have such easy lives and participate in a type “chemical warfare” down there vying for survival in a very tough environment.
For instance, a sponge or sea fan like creature may produce chemicals that remarkably allow them to adhere to hard corals, “like bone.” Many can also produce other chemicals, for instance to “taste bad” to predators so they are not eaten…. Amazingly, the chemicals these marine creatures produce to survive can be applied to human survival.
According to Harbor Branch:
“Natural products are inherently bioactive, and most researchers feel that the structures have evolved over time to provide exquisite biological activities. Humans and organisms such as sponges, soft corals and bacteria share similar biochemistry and compounds that might have one use in sponges might have totally different use in humans. Researchers at Harbor Branch can take advantage of the similarity in biochemistry to develop medicines useful in the treatment of human diseases.”
While at the tour, Dr Guzman was actually showing through computer technology how certain chemical compounds from sponges were killing (attacking) cancer cells. “Of course the key is not killing too many other “good” cells at the same time,” she said.
This was like an “Ah-Ha” moment for me. “So some sponge cells kill other cells…even human cells? Like trying to adhere to the coral? Hmmm? The applications? Similar biochemistry? A process better than chemotherapy?” I wondered. Fascinating.
Anyway, the whole thing, taking place right here along the Indian River Lagoon, was incredible and actually a lot of fun because my friend Nancy Higgs who sits on the board with me kept joking over and over again:
“Jacqui, It’s Spongeville! You can write a blog! Spongeville! She and I laughed as we walked deep into the vault, but then suddenly we were very quiet. ”
Wow, maybe the cure for cancer is right in here….” we looked at each other in amazement.
Like I said, I will never be able to look at my kitchen sponge the same again…
Although the Martin County Health Department reports that Vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria found in the waters of the Indian River Lagoon, is not truly a “flesh-eating bacteria,” in rare circumstances it can cause horrific blisters, limb amputations, and even death.
The naturally occurring bacteria is not well understood, but a study published in The Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology in 2004 regarding a study in Barnegat Bay, New Jersey states:
“V. vulnificus population dynamics are strongly correlated to water temperature and although the general trend is for V. vulnificus abundance to be inversely correlated with salinity, this relationship depends on salinity levels. Irrespective of temperature, high abundances of V. vulnificus are observed at 5 to 10 ppt, which thus appears to be the optimal salinity regime for their survival…”
This “ideal salinity level” is particularly noteworthy as during the rainy summer months salinities in the Indian River Lagoon lessen, due to polluted freshwater run-off and canal discharges. This situation is exacerbated in the southern lagoon if there are releases from Lake Okeechobee, as there were during the “Lost Summer” of 2013.
People are exposed to the bacteria through an open wound or through ingesting raw seafood, especially infected oysters. Cases occur though out the US, but according to the Center for Disease Control, Florida, Texas, and Maryland report the highest number of cases annually.
Contracting an infection from “vibrio” is extremely rare, and in fact, most people exposed to the bacteria may show no signs of infection at all. Others might experience mild effects such as diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain. However, for those who have weak immune systems, chronic liver disease, or other serious health problems, the vibrio can strike very quickly and be fatal.
In 2013, Florida Today reported that Florida averages 50 cases, 45 hospitalizations and 16 deaths annually, most from the Gulf Coast region, according to the Florida Department of Health. They also report that Brevard County, along the IRL, where Melbourne is located, has had 32 cases of Vibrio vulnificus infections since 1993.
Within the past year, two very serious, but non-fatal cases were reported in Melbourne, in Brevard County; and one fatal incident was reported in Ormand Beach, Volusia County, along the Halifax River, which is connected to the northern Indian River Lagoon, north of Ponce Inlet. Ironically, these central and northern IRL areas are the same locations where there have been high dolphin and manatee mortalities as expressed in NOAA’s 2013 “Unusual Mortality Events,” (UME).
As far as the southern lagoon, it was recently reported in Scripps Newspapers that two FAU/Harbor Branch scientists had found Vibrio vulnificus here as well.
This is unsettling, but to be expected, as this bacteria was probably here when I was 5 years old growing up in Stuart, every summer, full of scrapes and cuts swimming around in the warm waters of the lagoon. We must keep our perspective. Thousands of people have contact with Florida’s waters and the Indian River Lagoon and yet few become sick.
Martin County Health Department Director, Klaretta Peck, stated in a press release to Martin County elected officials this year:”
“I am writing today to share some information with you regarding Vibrio vulnificus. As you may have heard, some news media outlets have taken a sensationalistic approach to this issue, going as far as reporting unconfirmed cases, which can cause unnecessary alarm to the public. There are no recent cases of Vibrio Vulnificus in Martin County and though vibrio can cause blisters and lesions, is it not a “flesh eating bacteria” and should not be referred to as such.”
This is reassuring, nonetheless, at the height of summer, a Sewall’s Point mother called me, as I am a town commissioner. She was worried by what she had read in the papers and asked me if I thought it was alright to take her three-year old twins swimming at the Sandbar.
American Society for Microbiology: AEM Journal: “Effects of Temperature and Salinity on Vibrio vulnificus Population Dynamics as Assessed by Quantitative PCR”
Mark A. Randa, Martin F. Polz, and Eelin Limhttp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC520858/#!po=85.4167)