Jose Villavicencio is a senior at FIU studying business analytics. As a member of the FIU Honors College, Jose seeks to approach not only his education, but his day to day life with an interdisciplinary approach. While he is studying the science of data manipulation, his true passion lies within the dense, sprawling wilderness of South Florida, with the Everglades being his number one favorite spot to visit and explore. One day, Jose hopes to be right there on the front lines of the ecological preservation and restoration of the Everglades.
The Deering Estate is a public park whose land is owned and managed by the Miami-Dade county public parks department. This is quite the shift in status quo, as the estate’s original existence was to serve as a private residence, art gallery, and nature preserve for Charles Deering. What once played the role of an eccentric rich man’s estate, is now enjoyed by the public, with hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors each year. The Deering Estate is not just a nicely manicured park to have a picnic in, however. It also serves a critical role in maintaining
Why did I choose this service project, especially since I had already participated in a cleanup of Chicken Key just one semester prior? The answer is simple: I loved it so much the first time, I simply had to jump on any opportunity to get to canoe out there again. As the premier example of a coastal dune ecosystem, Chicken Key must be heavily monitored and preserved with the utmost care. Chicken Key is special because its warm shallow waters are home to some of the most unique and rare endangered species found in the Biscayne Bay. As a geographic descendant of the Tequesta people who lived in harmony with the ecology of South Florida, as well as someone who connects with and loves the biodiversity of our natural areas, I felt especially inclined to offer my services this time around. The experience itself was considerably different as well, since this time I was approached by the event organizer to become a lead team member and help with the organization and execution of this excursion.
Ever since I began my journey with Miami in Miami last fall, I have been increasingly interfacing with every natural aspect of South Florida that I could. The culmination of this natural exploration has led me to seriously consider re-thinking the next five years of my life and just throwing myself completely into the world of national and state parks. As a team lead for this excursion, I was able to get a glimpse of what that was like. We arrived at the Deering Estate about an hour before the others so that we could work with the park officials in getting everything organized and set up for the trip. On the surface, all I did was collect life jackets and oars into a big pile so that the participants could easily grab one when they arrived, but I’m never one to take things at face value. What seemed like a totally mundane and non-exciting task on the outside gave me flash-forwards, wondering how amazing it would be to do this on a daily basis.
Where and What
Once we were all set up and my main clerical duties as lead were taken care of it was time to wait patiently as our valiant volunteers arrived for the cleanup. Unfortunately, just a little under half of the individuals who committed showed up, so we were undermanned from the start. Nevertheless, quality always trumps quantity, and we had some troopers with us. After some icebreaker introductions, we paired up with a paddling partner and pressed onwards towards the island! The journey was not a long one, and the tempests were on our side as the ocean more closely resembled a thick sheet of smooth glass as we were gracefully gliding across the water. Upon our arrival we enjoyed a quick and energizing lunch as we prepared ourselves for the hot and sweaty task that laid ahead of us.
Cleaning up Chicken Key is no small task, despite the island’s square footage being on the lesser side. The main issue with beach and ocean cleanups is they are carried out with the main goal of reducing trash-related deaths of marine life, especially the rare and endangered kind that frequents the small coastal dune. This means that while larger pieces of trash are more unsightly and have a greater chance of altering how the physical environment grows, the smaller shards of plastic pose the greatest threat to the animals. Since we were undermanned from the beginning, we had no other choice but to slowly sift through every inch of the island in order to eradicate as many microplastics as possible. Still, this painstaking, thorough approach was probably the best way we could have done it, as it gave us the opportunity to slow down and shift our focus to the miniscule worlds that exist right beneath our noses and toes.
A free canoeing excursion to Chicken Key is exciting enough to keep one’s eyes glued to the glossy ocean, or the expanse of the sky, but all too often do we forget to change our pace and just take in all the little details that we miss. Chicken Key helped remind me of this. So while we were cleaning, that’s where I was focused. I was doing it for the myriad of hermit crabs, the little fish seeking refuge amongst the mangroves, and the birds who might mistake a shiny bottle cap for a succulent snack. It was truly humbling to see the scale of their world that seemed so tiny to me, yet it was everything to them.
The cleanup took place on February 19th, 2022.
As far as the physical cleanup went, we could have done things a bit differently. Our main issue was having over half of the signees not show up. This instantly put a cap on how much trash we were going to be able to collect, as fewer people meant fewer canoes for hauling the trash back. The small, intimate group setting was still fun, as it allowed us to get to know each other even better, so while we didn’t have the numbers, the individuals who did show up were eager and passionate.
This past year as a student in professor John Bailly’s Miami in Miami has taught me more than probably all of my other classes combined, because it taught me not how to set up a spreadsheet, or maximize profit. This class taught me about myself, and my home and all the delicate balances that keep it all together. This Chicken Key cleanup was especially transformative for me because I took with me the perspectives and intentions of an ecological protector. In a way, this cleanup taught me that the world is bigger than myself, and that whatever I choose to do should be in the pursuit of making that big world a better place for all living things.