Mermaids, Manatees, and Seagrass Meadows
There is a reason people come to Florida; the water. The Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, the mashy wetland of the Everglades, and the unique freshwater springs are some of the most beautiful and unique waters in the world. Water unites us all, weaving its life-giving forces through animals, plants, amphibians, invertebrates, fungi, insects, humans, and all creatures of this planet; water becomes an equalizer by necessity. In Florida, the water sprouts something so unique that it has become a subculture unto itself. Before theme parks or shopping malls unapologetically drained the swamps and marshlands, people from all over the world came seeking to witness the wonders of this landscape. Described by conquistadors as clear water bubbling from cavernous openings on the forest floor. The first people to have come across these glass-like waters must have felt as though they were at the portal of the spiritual world or were stepping into a mystical experience. Like jewels protected behind the coastal shrublands, swamps, and pine forests, Ponce De Leon, a Spanish colonizer, spread the rumor that he had found the Fountain of Youth in the springs of Florida. These water sources are still wrapped in mythologies, wonder, awe, and the story of ecological tragedy. Some stories tell of a pool of water in which the viewer can see a significant vision. One might see their own face, as Narcissus did, or a vision of the future, or see something that clues them into what is currently unfolding around them. If one were to peer into the luminous waters of the Florida springs today, attuned to the landscape, one might see reflected back at them the current state of our collective health on this planet.
Falling in Love
Around the age of five, my head was full of the myths and wonders of water. Growing up in Florida, swimming is embedded into the culture; it is ritual. For most of my life, I was a connoisseur of various water experiences. From glistening pools, sparkling springs, shallow lagoons, water parks, deep black waters, and vast wave-crested oceans, all of them awakening ageless water stories embedded deep within my psyche. Their characters and creatures were palpable to me. Mermaids, cosmically connected dolphins, therianthropic selkies, and their secret underwater worlds felt like my origin, where my spirit lived.
Watching Jacques Cousteau on a small black and white television after a long day swimming in the briny ocean, collecting shark’s teeth and seashells along the linear coastline, and reading all of his books, I knew I wanted to saturate my life in the salty waters of the sea. The mysteries and allure of water have fascinated humans throughout history. Evidence of this curiosity can be seen through the various inventions that have attempted to bring us closer to viewing what lies in the vastness of the underwater world. A 4th-century legend points to one of the forefathers of this endeavor,
“a very fine barrel made entirely of white glass,” Aristotle wrote in the book Problematic, describing how Alexander the Great had created an early version of a diving bell. There are several visual depictions of the actual apparatus and its use, but one stands out. A large 15th-century tapestry made by Belgium artisans in the city of Tourney, titled Maturity of Alexander the Great ( Maturità di Alessandro Magno). The tapestry depicts various stories from the life of Alexander, but the top right corner of the tapestry is the most unusual. We see a ghostly face emerging, as though it is an apparition from the heavens, there appear to be small wisps of clouds all around the face, but on closer inspection, they seem to depict breaking waves and fish. Alexander’s torso is surrounded by a blue frame to represent his vessel, and this vessel is attached to a boat with chains, an earthly grounding. Juxtaposed with the rest of the tapestry, this depiction is otherworldly. His face is so serene and meditative; that it captures the essence of the universal human awe of witnessing the underwater world.
The scene transitions, almost hinting at life’s watery origins, with seagrasses and corals melting into the helmets and hair of soldiers in a land-based scene slaying what looks like small hairy men with large animal-like faces embedded in their chests. A modern point of reference might be quarter-size Chewbaccas from Star Wars. This leaves me wondering, what seemingly mythological species have vanished as consequence of conquest without note or fossil? The only point of reference to these depictions is an article about the tapestry that refers to this section as the “Slaying of the Blemmyae.” Also known as Sternophthalmoi or "Chest-Eyes,” they are legend to be a tribe of headless people with their faces set upon their chests. The depiction of their deaths by the hand of men seems to echo the theme of colonialism worldwide. A loss of species and cultures in the name of conquest. And our ambition to tame the sea to see what is myth or reality has driven us far from using tubes of cane grass to breathe in the sun-lit shallows or to enter into weighty diving bells.
Around 1878, Hullam Jones and Phillip Morrell, are attributed to simply altering the bottom of a dugout canoe or a row boat, depending on the stories you read, and outfitting it with a glass viewing box for personal use in Silver Springs, one of about 900 freshwater springs in the state of Florida. This alteration inspired the glass bottom boat, eventually attracting millions of tourists to the state, specifically Silver Springs, to satisfy their desire to see what lies underwater.
What lies underwater?
It is 1988; I am five years old and sitting in an underwater theater; aquatic colors dance and move in watery rhythms across the floor and faces of the audience. A giant glass view frames a group of floating sequined-tailed mermaids performing underwater acrobatics in the crystal clear waters of the Florida aquifer. Their post-modern tails undulate while they occasionally take turns sipping air from a floating flower. Bubbles fill the foreground, but the contrast of dark, creviced and shadowed walls of ancient fossiliferous limestone steal the illusion they are trying to create. This spring and her geology are somewhere between 28 to 34 million years old, and these so-called mermaids have collectively only been swimming here for about 75 years. The Mermaid Show at Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida, is one of the oldest surviving tourist destinations of international acclaim. It is a very “American” way of highlighting the power and wonder of one of the world’s largest-producing freshwater springs, with women in sea shell bikini tops and glittery mermaid tails to be viewed in stadium-like seating. As their show unfolds, the only thing missing is sparklers on an apple pie.
For my 5-year-old self, I remain dubious. Their tails were what gave them away, lacking the inevitable algae, barnacles, or symbiotic parasites I thought a mermaid tail should have based on my observations of other large fish, whales, and even conch shells. As an adult, I see now that the entertainment in this scene was framed through the patriarchal lens of heterosexual men. They were not there to engage an audience in the magic of nature or to urge anyone to protect or honor the springs with a renewed reverence as their watery home. They were there to bring tourists in, to be the cheerleaders on the sidelines, to be the dancing girls in a commercial for Florida, and were selected much as 1960s airline stewardesses were. The mermaids at Weeki Wachee are more like Selkies whose pelts and moon-time rituals have been stolen by men to enslave them in domestic and exploitative work while slowly forgetting who they are. Much like the springs themselves as they have endured urban development, containment, and a flood of toxic chemicals.
The idea for the mermaid show belonged to a man from Valdosta, Georgia, named Newton A. Perry. Perry was known for his swimming ability, his underwater stunts, and his showmanship in the underwater realms. His famous stunts included actions like riding a bicycle or eating a banana underwater. He began the underwater show in 1947 at what was then called Weekiwachee, the name given by the native Seminole group; some say it means “little Spring,” while others say “winding river.” Perry was among many who pioneered the great Florida attractions that brought people to the state. These original attractions have become sort of a subculture unto themselves. There is a nostalgic movement found in film, books, articles, social media accounts, and even tours in which people seek the essence of what is known as #OldFlorida. You don’t have to look far to see evidence of this; stop for a quick bite to eat or a coffee, and you might find on the table a paper menu placement that is a reprint of an old Florida tourist map with “famous” roadside attractions from Weeki Wachee Springs to Miami’s Seaquarium. A large part of having the Florida springs on that famous map is thanks to Newton Perry. It seemed he spent most of his life creating shows and attractions that brought tourists, media, actors, and even movie producers into the state. All of which significantly impacted Florida’s ecology as we know it.
Perry helped find locations for filming movies, such as a series of Tarzan films shot in the Silver Springs area. During filming, a species of rhesus monkey was introduced in the area as ambient “extras.” Little did production expect that years later, the monkeys would still be in Florida today. Originally six rhesus macaque monkeys were released for the filming of Tarzan Finds a Son in 1939. Now in 2022, there are over one thousand, and they have been spotted over one hundred miles from the original location where they were released. There was a movement between 1984 and 2012 to capture and sterilize the monkeys, but permitted trappers were selling them, mostly to laboratories for testing. Some were successfully sterilized and re-released into the Florida landscape. Animal rights activists were outraged when they learned that these animals were being sold for laboratory testing and permitting stopped. A quick Google search today reveals the monkeys are spreading the HSV virus rampantly amongst each other and, of course, endangering any humans who might have contact with their urine, feces, saliva, or be scratched by one of the animals. The population is growing, destroying the native bird populations, and the threat of human transmission of the fatal herpes B virus is a real public health concern. But the monkey seems to have an emotional pull on locals; boat captains regularly feed them and claim the monkeys keep them in business as tourists come to see them. I think Newton Perry would say, “exactly.”
Mermaids aside, Weeki Wachee Springs is thought to be the most productive aquifers in the world, producing about 168 million gallons of water daily. The spring keeps a year-long temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit, which attracts a different, more threatened kind of mermaid, the Florida manatee. Legends say that sailors used to think manatees were mermaids, vaguely seeing their tails and backs emerge out of the water. Even if one is to watch a manatee today, they often break the water’s surface covered in a wig of seagrasses. I suppose sailors and conquistadors who made the reports also suffered from poor nutrition and rum consumption and were probably riddled with ailments and fears that altered their perceptions. Christopher Columbus wrote on January 9th, 1493 a report of seeing three “mermaids” swimming near what is now the Dominican Republic. He describes them as “not half as beautiful as they are painted”, which leaves modern interpretations of his writing to indicate that what he saw was a manatee. The West Indian Manatee, also known as the sea cow, is drawn to the emerald waters of the Florida springs due to the year-round 72-degree Fahrenheit temperature. In winter, it is common to find manatees huddled together in springs and canals, staying warm and grazing aquatic grasses in parts of the State. Their bodies bobbing up and down in the crystal clear waters, the sun reflecting off their elongated greyed backs and illuminating their deep slashes and wounds from boat propellers. Sadly, it is rare not to see big scars or open wounds on the back of a wild manatee. It is one of the ways scientists can identify them as individuals, like a name morosely written across their skin.
More recently, the manatee population has been declining, not just because of speeding boats, their propellers, or being trapped in fishing nets, but because of local conventional agricultural practices. The manatee is starving to death because the simple seagrass they eat is disappearing, thousands of acres at a time. There are about 60 seagrass species in the world, and 7 of them occur in Florida. Shoal Grass (Halodule wrightii), the first species to take root in disturbed areas. Manatee Grass (Syringodium filiforme) is the second most common grass and is favored by manatees. Turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum), the most common seagrass favored by turtles. Widgeon grass (Ruppia maritima) which is widely distributed throughout the world and is thin and thread-like in appearance. Star grass (Halophila engelmannii), which is one seagrass that can grow in deeper waters, up to 47 feet. Paddle grass, (Halophila decipiens), whose leaves are oblong and paddle-shaped. Lastly, Johnson’s Seagrass (Halophila johnsonii), an endangered species that only got recognized as a separate species around 1980, singularly occurs in a unique estuary called the Indian River Lagoon. According to Seagrass-Watch, there are about 2.2 million acres of seagrass meadows in the State, and two of these meadows are the largest found on the North American continent. Why is seagrass important? These aquatic wildernesses provide more than manatee food; they provide vital habitats and nurseries for many animal species. In nature’s way of showing us duality, this ecosystem also provides valuable food sources, especially for local birds. In a report by the United Nations Environment Program, Out of the Blue: The Value of Seagrasses to the Environment and to People, they warn that we are losing “equivalent to a football field of seagrass every 30 minutes” worldwide. The report also estimates that seagrass meadows produce about 10 liters of oxygen per 1 square meter on an average day and that one hectare of seagrass sequesters 830 kilos of CO2 emissions per year; the example they give is the equivalent to an average annual individual car use. Another data set from WWF (World Wildlife Fund) reports that these meadows capture carbon 35 times faster than tropical rainforests. Although the meadows only make up .2% of the planet’s seafloor, they absorb 10% of the ocean’s carbon yearly. Seagrasses are an incredible ecosystem that stops erosion and filters chemicals and nutrients before entering other waterways, much like the cilia of our own respiratory system.
Yet annual blooms of macroalgae, formed with the help of pesticides, herbicides, lawn fertilizers, sewage drainage, and the main culprit, large-scale agricultural chemicals, are accelerating the loss of these important grass species at an unfathomable rate. The blooms form a mat at the water’s surface blocking vital sunlight that seagrass meadows require for their life processes. These macroalgae also shift oxygen levels in the water, creating anoxic and entropic conditions, meaning that oxygen is depleted and that other aquatic life begins to die too.
In 2021, 1,100 manatees died in Florida, a historical record never seen before. Prior to that, the largest die-off was related to a red tide event that happened in 2013, with a then-record number of 830 manatees killed. Images floated around the media of dead and emaciated manatees with the contour of their rib cages exposed and protruding. The 2021 deaths mainly occurred in the Indian River Lagoon. Formed after the rise and fall and sways of water and land, this lagoon settled as we know it today just after the last glacial melt. Ocean was captured between land formations and created 156 miles of North America’s most biodiverse estuaries. It boasts about 2,100 species of plants and 1/3 of the nation’s manatees. At present, 53 species in the Indian River Lagoon are listed as endangered or threatened. Like any species on our planet at this moment in time, the major threat is the loss of habitat. With seagrass species declining in the waterways, the entire ecosystem network, from algae to people, is critically threatened.
I have swam and snorkeled in many seagrass meadows, not realizing how amazing and life-giving they were. In shallow sun-illuminated waters, the ribbon-like blades gently sway in unison, creating a hypnotic interplay of light and movement. It is evident that within this bed of dancing grasses hides an entire city of activity. Watching carefully, suspended at the surface of the water, my body parallel, my face submerged with mask and snorkel, I peer in to see what lies underneath. Small camouflaged fish reveal themselves as they ride the rhythms of the grass, as though tied to the meadow by an invisible string. With my stillness, more large fish reveal themselves, and just in front of me, an otter dashes into the water from the banks. Its fur repelling wetness as it sleekly glides through this aquatic scene, busily consorting with the grasses and then jetting up to the surface, leaving behind a cloud of silty bottom. Extending my hand down to allow the sway of the grasses to fold over my fingertips, they feel slippery; their grassy blades host a myriad of species, from algae and epiphytes to mollusks. It is thought that seagrasses evolved from the land back into the water about 100 million years ago. They are the only flowering aquatic plant and even produce pollen. Their flowers are not large and showy like those of tropical rainforests but humble, discreet, and easily missed by the untrained eye. Although pollen is distributed amongst the flowers by water movement, this is not considered their most successful way of reproduction. The watery plants are dioecious (individual plants being male or female), and the pollen must reach distant and small female stigmas. In 2022, researchers wanted to learn about the genetic diversity of seagrass meadows and collected samples in one of the largest meadows in a World Heritage site in Western Australia called Shark Bay. The meadow expands over 49,000 acres, and it would make sense that scientists would think they would find the most genetic diversity in such an expansive area. However, as they were testing, the DNA samples kept appearing to be the same. Moving across the meadow, each sample continued to be an exact match. It turns out that this seagrass meadow was, in fact, one plant that had spread via its rhizomes over an estimated 4,500 years. It is now considered the largest plant on our planet.
One thing about seagrass is that it can be cultivated and planted, much like other plants.
An aquatic restoration company in Florida, Sea and Shoreline, has been working to restore seagrass meadows by hand. One of their most successful projects is in the Homosassa River, just a little north of Weeki Wachee and the mermaid show. Restoration of seagrass requires planting individual grasses by hand, a very labor-intensive process. Many restoration groups collect seagrass fragments along coastlines and propagate them in aquatic nurseries, much like a reforestation organization would. Once the seagrass is large enough, the individual plants are often attached to something to help it stay submerged as it takes root. I’ve seen many techniques, from hand threading grasses into small squares of burlap fabric, to seedlings in weighted biodegradable sandbags, then transported to the replanting sites and laid or pushed into the sandy bottoms. I even saw a group that created “bird props” that stand out of the water and encourage birds to perch and poop just above the restoration site for the best natural fertilizer. The most successful seagrass restoration projects use a pioneer species to stabilize sediment, prevent erosion, and then bring in the other species to fill in the gaps and soon overtake the pioneer species and allow the natural order of the ecosystem to take over and finish the restoration.
Seagrass meadows release about 80 percent of their biomass annually, like a deciduous forest, leaving masses of floating leaves referred to as wrack. The Sea and Shoreline trialed an effort to harvest the wrack from their restoration sites and bring them to groups of manatees as perhaps a mere snack. Local media coverage shows the company bringing laundry-sized baskets of seagrass and dumping them into turquoise waters as a group of manatees slowly approach to chomp the offering. However, a manatee eats about 88-100 pounds of seagrass per day, and this effort only seems to provide a temporary solution for a small number of manatees, with the long-term solution being truly held in the hands of policymakers and radical changes in land practices.
Heading south from Homosassa, along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, we pass through briny estuaries and salty marshes trimmed with wind-blown, blonde coastal grasses and eventually arrive at the mouth of the Weekie Wachee River. Heading inland along the same route manatees take, the water narrows and snakes with walls of shrubby undergrowth spilling into the water as the tall brushy, fan-like heads of sabal palmetto trees stand overhead. The open breeze of the ocean is gone. The water shifts from tea-colored and tannin soaked to blues and greens. The sounds of birds in the surrounding canopies, along with the vibrations emitted by insects, command a silence. Puttering along, the thick greenery thins in places and gives way to docks and back porches. Sometimes giant oaks swing out over the water, holding piles of Spanish moss and other epiphytes. In a short time, you arrive at an area called Hospital Hole. Circled by an audience of palms and woody trees, the green to turquoise-colored spot is favored as a winter gathering spot for sea cows. Called Hospital Hole because it is believed that injured fish come here to heal before returning to the ocean, and it has a 140-foot-deep sinkhole believed to be an extinct spring.
As manatees gently hover in the shallows of Hospital Hole, people outfitted in the latest breathing apparatuses and dive equipment, certainly advanced from Alexander the Great’s diving bell, are exploring underwater clouds of hydrogen sulfide and the sculptural formations of ancient limestone. One of the deeper inland diving experiences, this hole is favored by divers year round. From above the water, the cavern appears as a sudden darkening, but underwater, you can see the gradual opening into the earth, as walls of chalky oolite, irreverently graffitied with names and love vows, cascade downwards into blackness, like a gateway into a portal. Florida is in fact, the home to one of the world’s most extensive underwater cave systems.
Growing up in this landscape, you became attuned to the various water worlds and their levels of safety. One warning that became embedded in my nervous system was to always be on the watch for alligators and aquatic snakes, and in the ocean, drag your feet to not step on the back of a stingray triggering its reflex to “barb” you in the leg. Sometimes springs are shallow and bright with light, and their sandy bottoms constantly release crystal-like bubbles, providing a clear and champagne-like swimming experience. Other times you can swim down direct to the source of the spring and feel the force of a massive amount of water coming out of the earth against your body. At Alexander springs, the springhead is deep, and the before-mentioned experience, along with the increased darkness, could make one feel acutely aware of how we are just specs in a vast unfolding universe. The spring doesn’t perceive us as we voyeur into the inner workings and underbellies of this unique geology. Our bodies are no different than a seasonal leaf to be tossed in with the rest of the wrack. However, we are felt by this planet as the salinity changes, as nutrients run in excess, and the aquifer becomes depleted, affecting the flows and heartbeat of these springs. That is when an ecosystem “sees” us. Otherwise, the reality of these ancient features is embedded in deep geological time, something that we can only start to piece together. Perhaps that is why so many divers want to see what lurks in the darkness of these underwater caves and are even willing to risk their lives to see what mysteries wait to be discovered underwater.
In my 20s, I completed a PADI Open Water Diver Certification. Part of this training took place in springs. Getting acquainted with swimming in the open water with what felt like the equivalent of a space suit was far from my childhood ideal of sprouting specialized features such as gills in our necks, or webbing between our hands and toes, or developing exceptional lung capacities so that we could glide effortlessly within the aquatic world. Instead, I felt like a foreigner in the very place I was born. Columns of bubbles constantly streaming from each diver, and occasional mishaps with fins would stir the bottom and diminish visibility. I knew these waters were meant to be explored as lightly as possible, but the group of divers I was now a part of were scaring away the very things we came here to observe. As we practiced signaling to each other with our hands, it became clear that the dive master was not here to show us the seagrasses, manatees, or otters; he led us deep to the bottom of Ginnie Springs to peer into the entrance of a black hole. His flashlight illuminates a sign with an iconic grim reaper image and words that read, “Prevent your death and Go no Further,” a common sign at the entryways to many of the intricate underwater cave openings. Florida has the highest death rate of cave explorers; according to reports by the National Underwater Accident Data System and the National Speleological Society, the number of deaths in Florida underwater caves has surpassed 300 since 1970.
My fourth dive in the unique submerged caves of Florida took me to what geologists call a karst window or a karst fenster, where a hole opens to expose an underground river. Named by settlers, Devil’s Den, it appears to be a hole in the ground that one might fall into, much like the cascading grasses that drape down over the strangely deep blue-colored water. The name is derived from the frequent rising smoke-like vapor that rises from this cavernous opening. A narrow set of stairs descends down into the cool cave water. This cave is a mystery, with rumors of its prehistoric use ranging from ritual sacrifices to being a sacred burial place. According to archaeological surveys held by the University of Florida, there were prehistoric animal remains found in the cave that dates from the Pleistocene Age (2 million to 10,000 years ago) and are currently stored at the University. So many animal remains are at the bottom of the den that the hole is often referred to as an animal trap. There are fossils of extinct mega flora, some of which can be seen frozen in the limestone walls of the cavern. Other remains found included some human but also extinct animals such as a mastodon, saber-tooth cat, a Megalonyx (Jefferson’s ground sloth), and so many more listed in a 1974 report by Dr. David Webb titled Pleistocene Mammals of Florida. And here I was, like a geological time traveler, kneeling at the deepest part of this watery prehistoric graveyard, surrounded by the fossils of extinct flora and fauna. Perhaps this is what we seek when exploring the depths of the earth, from deep seas to dark caverns; we want to know the story of the Earth, to piece together where we came from, how we got here, and where we are going. Ironically, the diving class was here to perform a technique called the Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent or CESA. It is a technique employed when one has run out of air and must make a quick ascent to the surface while continuously exhaling. The irony lies in the fact that we were practicing saving our lives while plants and animals lay in their aquatic graves, a metaphor for the age of the Anthropocene.
With unceasing urban development and sea level rise, the Florida aquifer is in trouble; springs are dying, freshwater is receding, and salt water is intruding. The places I describe and share with you are no longer what they were; it’s reported that algae are washed off of glass bottom boats daily, and the once surreal-like crystal waters are now murky and unrecognizable.
Looking through archive images in various collections from universities and historical societies, I saw several images of fishermen in Biscayne Bay, (the coast of Miami) dipping bottles in the ocean and collecting fresh drinking water from submarine springs. There were several active freshwater springs jetting up thousands of gallons of water daily. Even downtown Miami, where now a giant retail store sits, used to be a springhead that flowed down to the bay. Nothing of that remains today; the only flow is the stop-and-go traffic to Biscayne Blvd. But grab a quick breakfast at a local Cuban cafe, Enriquetas, and you might find a glimpse of Old Florida laid upon every table; a pop color placemat with a map of old Florida boasting illustrations of mermaids, manatees and monkeys as icons of things to see and do throughout the state. It is as though the settlers of this land looked into the wild and mystical waters and saw not the biodiversity and life support systems that inspire awe and reverence, but instead, they saw themselves separate and in a position of power to exploit the land for their own economic survival. Not knowing their fate, our fate would be inextricably linked with that of the land and waters. It took almost 25 million years for Florida to emerge from its watery origin and be what we know today, and now Florida will sink back underwater for what seems like much-needed rest. I hope when it reemerges that it awakens to a different political world, one in which we see the planet as a living sentient being, where we can swim amongst the seagrass meadows not as tourists, not as separate observers, but as equally valued participants in this wondrous ecosystem.