Lemuel Fernandez: Miami Service Project: Chicken Key

Student Bio

Photo by Annette Cruz/ CC by 4.0

Hi! My name is Lemuel Fernandez, and I am a Junior at Florida International University studying Biological Sciences. I was born in Cuba but raised in Miami.  My goal in life is to become a Physician Assistant and give back to a community that has given me so much. Through Finding Miami, I hope further to understand the history of this extremely diverse city in order to adequately provide quality healthcare to its residents in the future.


Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteering opportunities have been scarce. As a Pre-PA student, shadowing opportunities have been unavailable as most healthcare professionals have been using Telehealth or are unable to bring students into their practice due to the inherent risk of exposure for patients and staff. Fortunately, my class and I were able to volunteer with the Deering Estate and with the help of Professor Bailly and our TA Annette Cruz, we were able to participate in a unique experience and help clean up Chicken Key. This opportunity was very meaningful because it not only gave us an experience that many Miami residents don’t have a chance to experience, it also gave us a chance to help the environment. During the pandemic, because humans have been distancing in public and home whenever possible, life has returned to various places around the world. In Venice, canals became clear enough to see the marine life swimming around. In California, a coyote was walking around the streets of San Francisco. We need to be mindful of how our activities are affecting the ecosystem around us and take care of it, at the end of the day, it will come back to affect us too. This project allowed my class and I to make a small, meaningful difference by picking up debris on Chicken Key. At the end of the activity, we removed over ten trash bags full of plastic, glass, rubber, and even brought back a tire. Our effort may have saved an animal’s life.


Chicken Key is an uninhabited barrier island in Biscayne Bay, about one mile offshore from the Deering Estate. As a barrier island, it is prone to receiving countless amounts of ocean debris from nearby cities, especially South Beach. As a tourist destination, South Beach generates tons of waste, some of which is not disposed of properly and floats away to nearby areas such as Chicken Key. With spring break just ending, this excursion to help clean up the island was more important than ever. Not to mention it was a great way for us to disconnect from our daily lives and just take a minute to enjoy the outdoors and clean up at the same time. It was a win-win situation for us and the environment. As a Biology major, volunteering to clean up the environment was immensely important because if not removed, ocean debris can affect the ecosystem on the island and put the lives of countless animals at risk.

Where & What

At ten AM on the day of our excursion, my classmates and I, accompanied by our Professor and TA, set course for Chicken Key. As you look towards Chicken Key from the yacht turning basin at the Deering Estate, it seemed as if it would take us a full day to kayak out there. When I first got on the kayak, the first thing I though off was this is crazy. I wouldn’t classify myself as a confident kayaker; my only experience with kayaks had been on the beach in shallow waters, barely 10 feet from the shore. Our destination this time was about one mile into Biscayne Bay. I really thought that for sure I was going to be the first one to crash into the mangroves due to the current or wind. To my surprise, the water was not deep at all. Although there was a light breeze, the water was as still as glass, which made navigating towards the island a breeze. As we got closer to the island, I noticed how clear the water was; you could see the floor of the bay with ease, which definitely helped with the fear of encountering various marine species that call the bay their home. Undisturbed by man, the Watters surrounding Chicken Key were crystal clear. Unfortunately, the inside of the island told a different story.

Although Chicken Key is uninhabited by humans, the current coming off of South Beach carries countless of ocean debris towards the island. With spring break just ending, the amount of plastic and other debris on the island was plentiful. As expected, we found multiple pieces of plastic, glass bottles, liquor bottles. One thing that I was not expecting to find was shoes. I found several shoes and sandals, but never found the second shoe to complete the pair. Other classmates and I also found deodorant bottles, empty sunscreen cans, and even a tire; how it got there, nobody had a clue. After our search for trash was complete, we had a picnic and took a break to swim. The cold water felt great after spending time picking up trash.

As we made the journey back to the Deering Estate, we discovered a new path, one different from the way we arrived. We passed by an area in which sharks and manta rays frequent. Unfortunately, due to the low tide, we were unable to encounter any. We then made our way towards the channel that Charles Deering dredged in order to bring his yachts to his house. There, the water was deeper, waves got larger, and it became harder to steer the kayak. When the group finally reached the beginning of the channel, we took a break from paddling and allowed the current to bring us back in. Laying on a kayak and letting the current drag you was a very calming experience. It allows you to reflect on what really matters and forget about any problems which you may have. When we reached the estate, we unloaded our trash bags, took our kayaks and canoes out of the water, and stored them in their proper location for others to enjoy.


Pending Verification


Overall, the Chicken Key experience was amazing. Although public excursions are not being led due to COVID, I would recommend anyone to go whenever they get a chance. It truly is an experience that many people do not have a chance to do even if it is in their own backyards. We have developed so many areas around Miami that it really is amazing being able to go to an uninhabited island which has never been developed. It gives you a glimpse to what South Florida was like and would have been like if we had not torn down mangroves and built our cities over them. The only negative thing that came out of this was that I got sunburned. My face, arm, and legs were as red as a tomato and even began to peel, but it was still worth it. Aloe vera was my best friend for about a week, but just make sure to take extra sunscreen and reapply while you are on Chicken Key. Most importantly make sure that any trash that you generate while on Chicken Key is brought back with you; you wouldn’t want to contribute more debris when the mission is to clean it up.


Miami Museums: Miami Historical Sites: The Deering Estate. deeringestate.org/. 

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