Samantha Johnson is a Junior at Florida International University working towards a B.A. in Sustainability and the Environment with a minor in Marine Biology. She hopes to achieve not only one day a PHD but also a JD in Environmental Law and use these to make policies that will help the environment or to be involved in research that would promote this. In her free time, she loves to read and hang out with friends, but also loves to go to the beach and is extremely passionate about the environment.
I had the opportunity to volunteer with the Deering Estate located on the Biscayne Bay in Miami, FL. The Deering Estate is one of the few remaining Environmentally Endangered Lands (EEL) in Miami-Dade County. They are home to 8 different ecosystems including the beach dunes, Biscayne seagrass, hardwood hammock, pine rocklands, mangrove forest, slough, slough remnant, and the salt marsh. The Deering Estate also stewards 120 acres of pine rocklands.
While volunteering with them, we canoed out to a desolate island in the Bay called Chicken Key, where we helped with a beach clean-up. Chicken Key is a seven acre “mangrove island” and nature preserve located a mile offshore from the Deering Estate. It is surrounded by sandbars, tidal flats, and seagrass beds. It is also a bird rookery and is important to many different species of animals and an endangered terrapin species.
I was able to take part in this opportunity as part of my Miami in Miami class through the FIU Honors College. This class is all about seeing Miami through a different light than we may have thought about it before, and to connect with it on a higher level than just seeing it as a busy city.
This relates directly to my major and what I want to do in the future. As a sustainability major, it pains me to see all the single-use plastics that are left on the beach and all the litter that people leave wherever they go. I have been interested in the oceans and the environment ever since I was a child, and it deeply affects me whenever I see how we are affecting the environment firsthand. I want to either be in the research field or be an environmental lawyer in my future, and this experience just helped me to connect to the purpose of why I’m studying this for my career and helped me to refocus on what is important.
I connected deeply with this opportunity. I am a member of the Panthers Protecting the Ocean club here at FIU and we conduct beach cleanups a few times every month. It is a great opportunity to meet with people and clean up the environment and I enjoy it very much. However, in my free time, I love to spend time at the beach with friends as well or to just walk along it at home. Whenever someone goes with me, they always remark on how I pick up all the trash I see.
For years now I have been learning about the plastic pollution issue that we are facing. I have been taking environmental science classes since I was in high school, and experiences like this trip to Chicken Key just help to remind me what I’m working towards. It breaks my heart whenever I go to the beach and see all the pollution but being able to see it on an uninhabited protected island just made my heart break even more. We filled all the bags that we could during our time there, but there was still an incomprehensible amount of pollution on the island, and as disheartening as it sounds it just makes me realize even more why my major is important.
Where and What
We met at the Deering Estate at 10:00AM on October 6th, 2021. From here we walked to where the canoes were, and we then began our one-mile paddle out to Chicken Key. I was a little concerned because I don’t have a whole lot of experience canoeing, I typically prefer to be in a kayak. However, the girls I was with in my canoe had some previous experience as well and we were able to figure it out together.
We made a couple stops along the way and were able to canoe through a part of the mangrove forests and talk about why they are important to Florida and to the environment. We paddled the rest of the way to the uninhabited island after this. Once we got to the island it was evident why there are so many clean-ups being held here. There was pollution everywhere, you could see it from the moment we got to the banks. We spent some time to eat lunch and to swim in the water.
After this we began our cleanup. There were so many different types of debris, ranging from the tiniest microplastics, to bottle caps, to even shoes. I ended up filling up the whole bag that I had and was grabbing as much trash as I could hold as I was walking back.
Once everyone was gathered back where we started, we began our trip back to the Deering Estate. It was harder to get back than it was to get to Chicken Key because the winds had shifted and so had the tide. When we did get back, we had a slight debrief and loaded all the bags into the back of the truck of one of one of the workers, and then we emptied them into the dumpster for a job well done.
There were a few things that worked in our favor this day and some that didn’t
I think that the most challenging part was that we were canoeing a mile to Chicken Key, and that most people had never done this before. I know that there were many people who were worried about this excursion, but once they were out on the water, they were better. We were unable to go as two separate classes this semester, so both classes had to go this day. This was the hardest part for me personally because it forced me to come out of my comfort zone and be with people that I had never interacted with in the past. It typically takes me several interactions with someone before I am comfortable with them, and I didn’t have this opportunity beforehand. Also, since both classes went together, there weren’t enough canoes for there to be two people to a canoe like there is supposed to be. Most if not all the canoes (including the one I was put in) had to have three people in it, and this made for a challenge when trying to get the weight centered and for working together.
However, I loved that we were using reusable bags for this excursion instead of plastic bags that would produce more trash in the environment. Although I only filled up one, I walked back to camp with my hands completely full of everything else that I picked up along the way that I couldn’t fit in my bag. I spent most of my time picking up the microplastics this day because I know what impacts they have on the wildlife and the environment. It took me a while to fill my bag due to this, but I ended up walking through an area that had countless numbers of plastic bottles and other debris that helped me to fill not only the bag I was holding but others as well.
Overall, I think that this experience was very rewarding for everyone involved. I know that most of the people in my class are not STEM majors, and it was very interesting for me to see their reactions and hear their thoughts about what we were doing. It also helped me get out of my comfort zone to meet new people that I don’t have in my class, and I consider myself to be close friends with some of them due to this experience.
Bailly, John William. “Miami in Miami Destinations.” Miami in Miami, 26 Aug. 2020, miamiinmiami.com/miami/destinations/.
“Campfires Archives.” Deering Estate, The Deering Estate Foundation, 1 Nov. 2021, deeringestate.org/tag/campfires/.
“Conservation.” Deering Estate, The Deering Estate Foundation, 2 Nov. 2021, deeringestate.org/conservation/.
“Miami Museums: Miami Historical Sites.” Deering Estate, The Deering Estate Foundation, 7 Nov. 2021, deeringestate.org/.