A Note from Dr. Todd R. Kincaid
Environmental problems are inevitably personal whereby individuals or groups of individuals subjectively internalize a given level of environmental quality. The decline of the underwater world is no different. My personal and visceral confrontation with underwater degradation occurred in the Florida springs. I am a Floridian, born and bred, and from my perspective, to be a Floridian is to be a lover of water. Some of my earliest memories are of springs and lakes and beaches distributed throughout the state. I began scuba diving in the Florida Springs at 11 and by 18 I had become an avid cave diver. I studied geology in college and while my classmates lamented their inability to see the rocks due to Florida’s flat terrain, I saw miles of it every week underneath most every river and a great number of farms from Tampa to Marianna, the whole of the northern half of the peninsula and most of the panhandle.
When I left Florida in 1994 to pursue my study of groundwater and caves, my memories were filled with images of the white Ocala limestone and cream colored Suwannee limestone comprising the walls of caves, some as large as the largest indoor arenas, and lining the spring basins to which they connected. In the daylight, the spring basins appeared cobalt blue because of the light refraction off of the clean white walls through air-clear water. The spring runs and rivers were lined with tall leafy eel grass leaving only narrow passages to swim through on the way to and from the caves. And the grasses, they were filled with all manner of fish and snails, and of course some alligators and snakes to make things interesting. These were the places where I had logged hundreds, maybe thousands of hours over the past several years passing the time on long decompressions after exploring and mapping caves.
I returned to Florida in 2001, just seven years after I left, to springs and rivers that were literally devoid of the images from my memories. In nearly every spring basin I returned to, the limestone was covered with black or green algae leaving the water green and putrid instead of cobalt blue and clean. The grasses were either completely gone or covered with algae themselves. Many of the spring runs were either choked with pillars of algae, dense mats of invasive weeds, or completely barren due to chemical or physical stripping performed in reaction to the overgrowth. My shock peaked on one particular day as I floated in the basin of my favorite spring and my then new wife struggled through the pillars of black and green algae wondering how I could have spoken so highly of this cesspool. All the while, I listened to a couple standing on a boardwalk overlook above my head made for the newly created State Park remarking about the beauty of the emerald green water.
It struck me at that moment that in the absence of historical perspective, “environmental quality” is left open to naive impressions that effectively strip the political will from efforts aimed at restoration. Unfortunately, the accuracy or relativity of such impressions somehow becomes beside the point for most people. Yet, in a world of shifting environmental baselines it becomes impossible to determine an objective level of environmental quality and negatinv even the best conceived efforts at environmental protection. Others have described the process as Environmental Generational Amnesia.
The underwater world is imperiled. It is degrading in very many places yet the causes of that degradation and the consequences to the associated ecosystems go largely or even entirely unseen. In most of those places there exists no baseline for what is pristine or even what is tolerable. Until such baselines can be established there can be little hope that effective local and focused conservation measures can be enacted. Beyond those imperiled areas, there remain however astoundingly beautiful and thriving ecosystems in our marine and freshwater bodies that are also largely or entirely unseen at least at the level needed to establish baselines. Project Baseline, our global community of highly skilled and passionate volunteer divers, our research vessel and submersibles, and the collaborations we foster endeavor to rectify this problem.