Jose Villavicencio is a Senior working to complete a B.A. in Business Analytics at Florida International University. Jose enjoys the outdoors, and has a special place in his heart for the diverse ecology of South Florida. He one day hopes to use his knowledge in data and analytics to help respond to the climate crisis that threatens not just his home, Miami, but the rest of the world as well.
The Deering Estate is one of the most premier nature spots in all of Miami. With access to extremely diverse ecosystems, the Deering Estate provides a unique area where anyone who wants to can go and enjoy more than six unique biomes native to South Florida. The Hardwood Hammock, Salt Marsh, Pine Rocklands, and Mangrove Forests are just some of these biomes, along with the SeaGrass Beds and Slough Creek, the 450 acres of the Estate have it all. Despite the beauty and diversity, Deering Estate is still considered Environmentally Endangered Lands (EEL). This is why volunteering to clean up the iconic Chicken Key, which lies a mile off-shore, was so important to me. Chicken Key’s preservation represents an appreciation of the living organisms that call South Florida their home, just as I do.
I volunteered for the Chicken Key cleanup as a part of Miami in Miami, a class offered through the FIU Honors College. This specific volunteer session does not line up with my major, but it heavily relates to my passions. Despite the fact that this volunteer opportunity was essentially served to me on a silver platter, I threw my whole being into it. During the last two years, many aspects of Miami life have been disrupted. For the longest time, it was difficult for me to leave the house while still feeling safe and comfortable in public spaces thanks to covid-19. To combat this feeling of isolation and depression, I began to explore the many green spaces around Miami, eventually finding myself making regular trips to Key Biscaynes Bill Baggs State Park so that I could explore the ecosystems that thrived there. The connection I forged with South Florida wildlife over the past two years, without a doubt, allowed me to truly appreciate this opportunity for what it was, as well as allowed my love for South Florida ecology to blossom even further.
The enrichment this experience brought to me cannot be understated. Through and through, it was an amazing day and I will always be grateful to the Deering Estate for allowing us to access Chicken Key. The canoe ride that totaled just about one mile each way was an excellent opportunity to talk to my fellow classmates and hear what they hoped to accomplish on the island. It also helped us hone our camaraderie and teamwork skills, as we had to work together if we didn’t want to get stuck paddling in circles. Once on the island, we were debriefed and set to work, but not before taking a little dip into Biscayne Bay.
While it wasn’t required for the scope of our volunteer work, I brought my own mask to be able to swim beneath the waves and look at what Chicken Key really had to offer. Pristine sand bars and forests of seagrass had schools of fish curiously swimming between them, and as you swam closer to the shore, you got to see the shaded comfort of the mangroves that offered a plethora of sea life protection from predators. As for the cleanup itself, I tried to pick up as many small bits of plastic waste as I could. These tiny bottle caps or scraps of plastics are what cause the most damage, as endangered animals of all sizes can fall victim to eating them and choking.
Where and What
To start the day, we each organized ourselves into teams of three to make the mile journey. It took some messing around with it, but we were finally able to establish a system for paddling and communicating which way we wanted to go after a few minutes. Once everyone got the hang of it, we embarked on our way to Chicken Key. Upon our arrival, Professor Bailly gave us a few minutes to swim in the water and enjoy ourselves. I took this opportunity to explore the ecosystems beneath the surface of the bay, and what I saw was inspiring. While it may seem like a footnote to a day full of honest work, I believe that these few minutes of exploration allowed me to feel more connected and appreciative of the Island that we were about to clean up.
Once play time was over, it was time to roll up our sleeves and get to work, and boy did we work. Since the cleanup has become somewhat of a regular occurrence at Deering Estate, I tasked myself with focusing on the smallest pieces of plastic I could find. There were larger pieces of debris that we quickly identified, such as a buoy that had grown a nice layer of barnacles on it, and a huge lodged piece of a deck, or perhaps a piece of a boat that had floated off. Regardless of where it came from, we made sure to get it off of the Island. Not only did our efforts pay off in keeping the island clean, we also grew closer as classmates and as friends as we scoured the island for debris and trash. At the end of the day, we managed to amass a heap of over 20 trash-filled sandbags, including larger items and rope we managed to cut loose from the mangroves.
Since this was many of our first times taking part in an excursion like this one, there was definitely a somewhat steep learning curve. Canoeing was simple enough for me because I had been kayaking before, but I had never been in a multi-person kayak or canoe, so figuring out how to steer ourselves in the right direction was a bit of a challenge. There was also the issue of collecting the trash itself. While it may seem like a simple task, landing on an uninhabited island while being told what a pristine ecosystem it can be if it is cared for is a lot to chew on. It wasn’t until a bit into the project that I felt truly comfortable on the island and I was able to get into the tight spaces within the mangroves, or step into the murky water without being nervous.
As for what worked, there were possibly hundreds of extremely small pieces of plastic littered throughout the island. By really focusing on the ground beneath my feet, I was able to identify a myriad of these trash pieces just buried in the sand. Once I got the hang of it, I almost didn’t need to try to identify the trash, as I was able to make them out, even if they were partially buried. This was a truly enriching experience, not only for myself and my fellow classmates, but hopefully for the ecosystems and animals that rely on Chicken Key to thrive. This clean-up experience has helped elevate my love and appreciation for the naturalist pockets that can be found around Miami if you just look in the right places.