|A Great Bay|
|Written by Jim W. Harper -- BT Contributor|
Miami’s signature waterway is more of a jewel than even we realize
In all the world, there is only one Biscayne Bay. It is Miami’s front yard of blue glass, a river of seagrass.
It is hard to overstate its value, beauty, and diversity. Matt Damon’s house on the bay just went on the market for a cool $20 million, and that’s just a drop in the bay’s bucket of thousands of high-value properties. Add in the world’s busiest cruise ship center, the skyscrapers of downtown, and Vizcaya, and you start to see the green in this blue oasis.
Downtown Miami is visible from the bay’s northern and southern extremes. It floats on the bay like a formation of crystals.
The 35-mile-long bay is remarkably clean, much more so than Chesapeake or other American bays. A great mystery of Biscayne Bay is how a metropolis was built on top of it without killing it. The bay is teeming with life in a literal octopus garden.
What other city in the world has skyscrapers that reflect turquoise waters dotted by dolphins, manatees, and spotted eagle rays?
The bay has been altered over the years, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Older Miamians may recall the days, decades ago, when authorities often prohibited swimming owing to raw sewage spills. Dredging tore up the estuary’s floor and created the many spoil islands that dot the bay today.
The northern bay’s main barrier to the ocean, a former peninsula, became an island with the creation of Haulover Cut. Perhaps the greatest change came from farther inland, as efforts to drain the Everglades altered the flow of fresh water into the bay. The mangroves along the bay’s shoreline were chopped down for development.
How did the bay survive it all? Perhaps because of its massive size, the forgiveness of ocean currents, and the leadership that secured its protection.
While not a traditional park, all of Biscayne Bay is protected. Two governing bodies split the bay into essentially two regions. The region south of Key Biscayne falls mostly within Biscayne National Park, while the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve covers the more developed northern section. The entire bay is an Outstanding Florida Water, meaning it has been deemed to have exceptional natural value.
Established in 1974, the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve is where most people meet the bay. It covers 67,000 acres of submerged land (dry a few thousand years ago) running between the mainland and the islands from Key Biscayne northward, mostly. A secondary portion lies in Card Sound by Key Largo.
he state-level Aquatic Preserve (it is part of the Department of Environmental Protection) has an annual budget of $18,000 plus salary for two employees, according to Pamela Sweeney, the preserve’s manager. That number is not a typo: To help preserve and protect Biscayne Bay, the state spends less than 0.1 percent of the value of Matt Damon’s house.
What? This economic insanity makes me “smad,” sad and mad at the same time. Donald Trump alone has invested billions in Miami-Dade County. Meanwhile, what is arguably its most valuable asset, Biscayne Bay, gets pennies.
Putting aside the tears in my eyes, let’s focus on the place that launched a thousand kayaks, the bay’s northern portion.
The Oleta River, inhabited in ancient times by the Tequesta Indians, rolls into the apex of the bay, and the bay’s shoreline, thick with towering red mangroves, reminds us of what the area used to look like. Gradually widening as it spreads south, the bay flirts with the ocean over a spit of sandy land. While thin, this beachy land absorbs the Atlantic’s waves and leaves the bay perpetually calmer.
Surrounding the bay is the greenest space in northeastern Miami-Dade. The bay’s bordering parks and green spaces previously reviewed in this column have received the highest rankings of any area in the Biscayne Corridor. Ratings out of a perfect 5 have included:
Oleta River State Park: 5
Haulover Beach Park: 4.5
Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay Campus: 4
Sandspur Island: 4
These ratings are no fluke. Remember, a view of the bay is worth $20 million.
While this area has regular boat traffic, it is generally quiet. Fishing boats line the marina in Haulover Beach Park, and some yachts park in the cove in between FIU and Oleta River State Park, which has a manmade, protected beach, excellent for swimming; the bay’s natural shoreline is more swamp than beach.
The bay welcomes small boats, but repels large ones. Its depth averages only a few feet, so kayaks and canoes are an ideal means of transportation. Wayward motorboats have left many, many scars in the seagrass beds. Covering most of the bay, these beds are exceptionally valuable ecosystems.
Aquatic Preserve manager Sweeney favors a kayak around the mangroves in Oleta and a snorkel by Sandspur or Pelican Island. My favorite bayside spot is within FIU’s borders, where I scattered my dog’s ashes. Surely the bay is home to many loved ones’ ashes.
This year the Aquatic Preserve teamed with local nonprofits to publish a new map for Paddle Out Biscayne Bay, a program of 20 kayak launches across the bay. (To view and download the Paddle Out map, click here.)
As for animals, Biscayne Bay has a permanent resident population of about 100 dolphins, and research shows distinct north-versus-south-bay subgroups. Seahorses and juvenile fish hide in seagrass beds near the shoreline. Bird life abounds; visit any bridge at sunset to watch pelicans diving for dinner.
Views of the bay are everywhere. One of the best views of Brickell’s skyline is from the Rusty Pelican restaurant. Without the bay, it would just be a row of buildings, but reflected in the bay, it becomes art.
Treat yourself: Play tourist one day and take one of the sunset cruises that originate at Bayside Marketplace. Instead of gawking only at the homes of the rich and famous, which derive most of their value from bayside views, look into the water and appreciate how truly outstanding it is. It lets Miami breathe.
Thousands of people drive over Biscayne Bay every hour without giving it a second thought. Don’t be one of those people. Give it many thoughts, because it has given you more than you will ever know.
Volume 12, Issue 8. October 2014
The Smithsonian honors a local documentary photographer
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