On a gum-gray June afternoon, between thundershowers, my son and I are running a 17-foot skiff through the backcountry of Florida Bay. The wind has lain down, the water is silk. Suddenly, a glorious eruption: bottle-nosed dolphins, an acre of them, in a spree of feeding, play and rambunctious lust. From a hundred yards we can hear the slap of flukes and the hiss of blowholes. We can see the misty geysers, the slash of black dorsals, the occasional detonation as a luckless bait fish gets gobbled.
No matter how often I witness the sight, I'm always dazzled. A stranger to these waters could only assume he was traveling in authentic wilderness, pure and thriving. If only it were so.
It's easy, when surrounded by dolphins, to forget that the bay is fatefully situated downstream from the ulcerous sprawl of Florida's Gold Coast. Four-and-a-half million people live only a morning's drive away.
The river that feeds the backcountry is the Everglades, sometimes parched and sometimes flooded. Water that once ran untainted and bountiful is now intercepted and pumped extravagantly to sugarcane fields, swimming pools, golf courses, city reservoirs—and even the Atlantic. What's left is dispensed toward the bay in a criminally negligent fraction of its natural flow. The water isn't as clean as it once was, and it doesn't always arrive in the right season.
That the bay is sick is hardly a surprise. The wonder is that it has survived so long and the dolphins haven't fled to sea forever.
I fell in love with the Florida Keys by staring at a road map. I was about five years old. My grandfather was a storyteller, and my father was a sportfisherman, and I had listened to their exciting tales long enough. I wanted them to take me.
Outdoor magazines extolled the Keys as jewels or gems or a string of pearls dangling languidly from the continental flank. From the map I memorized the islands transected by U.S. 1. They had lyrical, funky names—Sugarloaf, Saddlebunch, Ramrod, Big Coppitt, Lower Matecumbe. To a boy growing up on the steamy, iron-flat apron of the Everglades, it seemed fantastic that an exotic undersea paradise existed only three hours away—maybe less, the way my dad could drive.
This I already knew: The Keys were surrounded by water—the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, Florida Bay—and the water was blue, by god. All you had to do was look at the map.
Except the map was misleading, as I discovered when we rode down the Overseas Highway, me in the backseat, my father and grandfather up front. The water of the Keys was beyond a map printer's blue; it was a preternatural spray of indigo, emerald, turquoise and violet. And the hues changed with each passing cloud.
Another thing I knew about the Keys: The great Ted Williams lived there! In certain sporting circles he was more revered for his flycasting than for his batting. Riding through Islamorada, I pressed my face to the window in hopes of glimpsing the legendary slugger. He was bound to be at one of the charter docks or tackle shops, grinning that newsreel grin, posing for snapshots next to a gaping 100-pound tarpon.