My Sanctuary Story: How I Found My Passion and Purpose in the Florida Keys
My dearest Florida Keys,
When I think of you, I feel light. Free.
I imagine myself floating in your turquoise, clear waters, exploring patch reefs and gliding alongside nurse sharks and southern stingrays. This experience happens often in my life now, thankfully.
I first moved here to the Keys in Sept. 2018 on a whim — after applying for a coral restoration internship on Instagram. Curious about scientific diving, eager to make an impact and unsure what my purpose in life really was, I didn’t know what to expect.
Back then, I had no idea how much our local economy relies on you, our sanctuary. I saw land and beautiful blue water as separate. Now, I realize how much these two ecosystems are connected as one. The land, when stewarded right, protects the ocean and the coral by filtering out harmful particulates and chemicals. The water, in turn, sustains countless fish and marine species that we depend on for food, recreation and beauty.
I often describe those who choose you, my Florida Keys, as having old sailors’ hearts beating in their chest, as I do. It’s a self-selecting crowd who chooses to live closer to the water than to a Walmart. But what we lack in traditional conveniences of society, we make up for in soul-nourishing beauty and opportunities to enjoy our natural world.
In economic terms, NOAA estimates that your coral reef provides about $375 billion worth of economic goods and services each year to the local community. I see it everywhere I look – from hotels and restaurants providing jobs because people come to see the reef, catch fish grown in the mangroves or enjoy a day on the water.
Barrier reefs like you, the one we enjoy in Florida, also serve as critical storm and flood protection, I’ve learned. They buffer wave energy and storm surge during hurricanes and bad weather – something that will become even more critical as climate change intensifies our storms.
Now, I hear you and the other sanctuaries have a big milestone coming up: the National Marine Sanctuary System turns 50 on Oct. 23, 2022! That’s 50 years of spectacular marine and Great Lakes environments and resources being stewarded and celebrated. These are national treasures, and I cannot feel anything but immense gratitude to our predecessors who thought to protect them for our enjoyment.
For me, the best thing about our sanctuaries is that they don’t exist to keep people out. Rather, they were created and are run as an invitation for people to enjoy them. When I think about you, my Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, I imagine boating, scuba diving, enjoying a day at the sandbar or just gazing out over your beautiful, blue horizon. I don’t think about being kept away; instead, I think about how you’re home, for me; how I’ve found so much of myself in your waters and along your shores.
Thanks to the National Marine Sanctuary System, you and the other special, spectacular sanctuaries strike the difficult balance between use/enjoyment and conservation. And, just as the national parks do on land, the national marine sanctuaries exist to hold these resources in trust for the American people.
Because of this critical, balanced use, people like me can find themselves immersed in wondrous, new places that help them #DiscoverWonder and that inspire them to #SaveSpectacular. As for me, in the four years and 200 dives since moving here, I’ve found answers to most of my big questions. More than that, I’ve found belonging here with you and a passion for ocean conservation that begins with your waters.
From the bottom of my very blue heart, thank you. Thank you for taking care of our wildlife, our community and our planet. I am forever grateful. Happy birthday.
Ocean storyteller and explorer