Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mangroves, oysters and tidal currents

I spent an entire weekend on Chokoloskee Island (where I dream to retire one day). Mangroves and oyster go together well in this area of the Everglades known as the Ten Thousand Islands. The Ten Thousand Islands is a maze of mangrove islands and oyster flats that riddle the shallow bays, most especially prominent at low tides. While the bay can be a navigational nightmare for powerboats, it is loads of fun for fishermen in small paddle boats. Large fish stage themselves at the edge of the oyster flats, waiting for bait fish to run past on a tidal current or when the bait fish are trapped against a wall of oysters that halts the tidal current like a zealous traffic cop. Bait fish try to hide in the prop roots of the mangroves, and it becomes a common site to watch dolphin torpedo along the mangroves seeking them out. Shark are numerous, large black tips almost the length of my boat stalk fish in the shallow waters. That's under the surface of the water. Above the surface are the exposed oysters as the water levels decrease on an outgoing. What was once living underwater becomes exposed. Small creatures, like crabs the size of a newborn baby's thumbnail try to hide among the narly sharp oyster shells. And this is when the birds come out to feast on the oyster flat creatures. This is the time to be on Chokoloskee Bay.

The Ten Thousand Islands were born from the combination of minerals from the gulf stream and freshwater outflows from the Everglades, conditions that are perfect for oyster larvae. Oysters grow by attaching to the surface and do not move once attached. This is why they rely heavily on tidal flows to receive their nutrients. Food is brought in and waste is taken out. New larvae do best by attaching to an existing oyster shell that is firmly anchored. With that, oysters grow in number forming large colonies in shallow, tidal areas, such as Chokoloskee Bay, or mouths of creeks and rivers. With strong tidal currents, oyster flats become elongated and can make it difficult for a boat to pass through a narrow opening, especially at low tide.

From oyster flats come mangroves, primarily red mangroves. Mangrove seedlings do very well in oyster beds and can eventually take them over, as evident from the thousands of mangrove islands in the gulf. And if you can find logic in the confusing maze of islands in this area, it is that these islands are formed entirely on the whim of tidal currents and storm surges. It is within these islands that I learned how to photograph from my canoe.

The challenges are many. I do much of my photography from the canoe in two areas, Chokoloskee Bay and Biscayne Bay. While Biscayne Bay is soft and forgiving, Chokoloskee Bay is scratchy and irritating; my canoe has the ten thousand scratches to prove it. There is nothing more annoying than to hear the sound of a kevlar boat running across the sharp oyster shells. Like fingers across a chalkboard, only ten times worse. Unlike Biscayne Bay where I can lose attention to my surroundings and totally focus on a bird subject without caring for the well being of my boat, I must keep a keen eye on the waters of Chokoloskee Bay at all times. And with that, birds are often not as approachable as you would think. Hidden oyster beds serve as barriers as you attempt to float toward the birds that are feeding on an exposed bed. With the hard oyster shells all around, staking out is also very challenging and I often resort to sticking one foot out of the boat and into the shallow waters. But, it can be rewarding as birds take advantage of the exposed oyster beds that basically become a buffet table of marine edibles.

The oyster flats of the bay are not attractive and look like out of control mud. But there is something beautiful about all of it, especially with the prop roots of the mangroves and the reflections of the green leaves. A white bird (ibises are common here) contrasts against the dark muddy appearance of its surroundings. Surroundings are half the photo. The challenge to me is to create an image that has bird appeal; outstretched wings, interactions between birds, capturing and eating prey, etc. But, because I am enamored with the bird's surroundings, I also attempt to frame the birds so that the oysters are appealing as well. Not everyone can be as enamored with the oyster flats of Chokoloskee Bay as I am, but enjoy them as scenes from the Everglades you don't often see.


  1. Well you've just given me another place to checkout the next time I'm the States. Fantastic captures.

  2. My grandpa and I go cast netting for mullet every fall around Pine Island. He said that he had never been to Chokoloskee but was afraid to go because he didn't know if he'd want to come back:) Glad I found your blog!