THE WATER HERE is dark. The color of black tea, or even coffee—on first encounter it can look dirty or even foul. It isn’t. The water of multiple, major rivers flows into the bays defining the Forgotten Coast. It is tannic for the most part—tinted dark by chemical processes inherent to the decaying of vegetation—it is rich with organic matter, rich with the stuff of life.
The color of the water is testament to the biological productivity of an inland Florida to the north—and the effluent of that productivity flows down and out, meeting the fluid of the Gulf in places like Ochlockonee Bay, Apalachee Bay, Apalachicola Bay. It is in stark contrast to the clear water of the popular Gulf beaches to the west and south. On my first encounter with it, on a warm day in April when the sun shined bright and blazing overhead, I could tell that rivers flowed here into the sea and I could appreciate the resulting (inevitable) biologic abundance from a heady perspective—but I did not want to swim in it, or even put my feet in it.
Dark water contributes to the relatively untouched and pristine nature of this place. Faced with the choice of building their houses (or inclusive resort communities) on the edge of water such as this, or on the clear coast of Pensacola, Panama City, Clearwater or St. Petersburg, people inevitably chose to build and develop next to the beaches whose scenery is the stuff of old postcard photos. The beaches of the Forgotten Coast are simply less inviting. Who knows what could be lurking in that water the color of Coca Cola? An alligator? A shark? Some other monster of a child’s nightmares? (These “other monsters” exist and are often hidden—they’re called stingrays, and do indeed hurt like bloody hell.)
The richness of the biota of the estuaries of this place is legendary. Before the BP Oil Spill in 2010 scarred much of the most productive beds, just one small area, that surrounding the small, charming town of Apalachicola (pop. 2,231), produced 90% of Florida’s oysters. For a state surrounded by ocean, known for its seafood, and containing 20 million souls, this is a sizable production. The saltwater fishing just off the coast is legendary. Redfish, speckled trout, bluefish, Spanish mackerel, and the prized Tarpon all make their homes here in surprising abundance. Driving along US-98 near Apalachicola one afternoon I chanced to witness a massive Tarpon just a few yards offshore feeding and breaching like a whale.
Inland, the protected (or managed) lands of St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge, Apalachicola National Forest, and Tate’s Hell State Forest, encompassing over 900,000 acres, provide valuable undeveloped habitat for species as diverse as Alligator, Black Bear, Bald Eagles, Whitetail Deer, Grey Fox and Gopher Tortoises; and as rare as the Whooping Crane, Red-Cockaded Woodpecker, and once (years ago), the legendary Florida Panther. The protected, inland lands of the Forgotten Coast also comprise a critical section of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a fact I’ll explore further in a later post.
The paradigm exhibited here might be a universal one; perhaps an example that could lend hope to conservation efforts around the world. Many ecologically important and productive areas share similar characteristics with the Forgotten Coast. The Amazon River Basin is one of the most biologically diverse and productive regions of the world. Its rivers are tannic, its climate is hot and humid. If given the choice, most Brazilians would live close to the beaches of Rio or Recife, not next to a river full of strange fish and other beasts obscured by water that looks like coffee. This quality of both the Amazon River and the waters of the Forgotten Coast of Florida, may be a factor in slowing, even limiting development, long enough at least for other more structured and formal conservation efforts to be implemented. Saved by the grace of something “undesirable.” And the Ospreys rejoice.
Will Burcher is a former police officer and current author of “The GAIAD,” a story of ancient secrets not quite forgotten and the positive power of global perspective. He lives and works in Colorado, USA.
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