Text and Images By Chad Anderson
Vast stretches of azure blue waters thinly vail a dark secret. It’s been happening ever since the melting of the Wisconsin glacier some 12,000 years ago, but now occurs at a hastened pace and with a new cause. Meanwhile, Margaritaville plays, tourists stroll, and wading birds perch on mangrove shores as the slow pace of everyday life in the Florida Keys continues. Scientists, government entities, and even the public are coming to a grim reality. Change is here. It’s not abstract, distant, or easily pushed aside but prevalent, pervasive, and imminent—and the evidence is everywhere. The vast stretches of post card blue waters are a result of recently submerged lands. Even the upland forests here can hardly conceal their ancient marine past. Just millimeters below the leaf litter lies weathered coral reef. One of the oldest permanent tidal monitoring stations in the United States is located in Key West, Florida. Without hyperbole, it states the bare truth. Nearly nine inches of sea level rise has occurred since 1913. That may not sound like much, but for perspective, the average elevation is less than four feet. This effect is amplified by the fact that the slope of the shoreline is near flat, imperceptible to the human eye in most cases. For this reason, a couple inches of rise can translate to hundreds of feet of land lost. In just a few decades the changes to the ecosystems have been staggering, rapidly shifting as the mangroves march inwards. Ancient buttonwoods stand like tombstones of a once proud forest. At times, mangroves, the most halophytic of all flora, can’t keep up the pace.
Despite the dark cloud that looms, the will of the natural world to persist is evident. Sometimes defying logic, somehow dozens of rare and endemic plants and animals persist. This area is a fascinating experiment in island biogeography, an amalgamation of flora and fauna from the Caribbean and North America set alone to genetically diverge for thousands of years. So many species are unique to the area—the Key deer, the Key Largo woodrat, and Lower Keys marsh rabbit, to name a few. The entire existence of some plants and animals on this planet occurs on only a few acres. Even the habitats themselves are globally imperiled, especially those that prefer to be salt free—the tropical rockland forests, dominated either by pine or broadleaf trees. Conservation minded folks and government agencies have fought tooth and nail over the years to protect these places. Because of the uniqueness of the area, nearly sixty percent is protected as conservation lands of one form or another, including some of the oldest National Wildlife Refuges in the country. These areas were set aside for the American people; some of those by Teddy Roosevelt himself. Victories for conservation are hard fought and seldom won. The resiliency of the species and progress made here is a legacy that should never be forgotten.
The implications of rising oceans are almost paralyzing – imagine coastlines of large cities like Miami underwater in the not so distant future. During times like those, will we remember the Key deer, marsh rabbit, and the rockland forests? It’s hard to say what the future will hold. But like cave men painting on the walls, as nature photographers we can tell stories to those who come after us. Using our images, we capture the rare characters and places which still remain before their chapter is over and a new one begins, as the forests return to oceans and those special places become fertile ground for new marine systems to take hold. Photographers have the unique ability to freeze time and capture light for others to see, experience, and imagine. For this reason, we hold a unique role in pivotal times of change such as this. Just as the volcanic ash plasters tell the story of Pompeii, so too will our nature photographs – even those which seem trivial at this time. For nearly all of the species and habitats in the Florida Keys, there will likely be no hope of migration or relocation. Conservation photography has taken on a fairly limited definition in recent years. Remember every time you press the shutter you are capturing and forever conserving a portrait of a species or a rare moment of light across a landscape. Scientific journals, museum specimens, stories, and photographs will be all that remain after the ocean reclaims land; in my opinion, none of these will communicate and truly conserve what was once so rich and deep, in a way that all can understand, the way a great photograph can.
Chad Anderson is a Florida Keys based conservation photographer and biologist. Chad is inspired and humbled by the natural world and the opportunities he has had to experience the many special places that still remain. He is honored to capture beautiful landscapes during surreal moments and observe wildlife in their element. Chad seeks to constantly expand his photographic medium wherever new opportunities, techniques, and landscapes might be found. See more of Chad’s work at www.ExposingFloridaPhotography.net and https://www.facebook.com/Chadsnature