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Story Seven
When Crashes Happen
By MaryAlice Yakutchik
Blue Spring -- We're here in this spring run to marvel at manatees. The turkey vultures are here, it seems, to leer at us.

With ragged black wings spread wide open to collect the dappled sunlight, they sit hunched in bunches on the branches of a live oak, bare except for beards of moss.

"They're just waiting for us to make a mistake," Wes says, perched as he is in a tippy canoe and tightening his grip on the half-a-million-dollar camera he holds.

None of us can blame our expedition leader for seeming a little paranoid. Not after what happened late yesterday.

Cross winds had picked late in the afternoon, whipping along the oxbows of the river and grounding the flying inflatable boats -- or perhaps its more accurate to say "watering" them, as the flying boats were placed under tow, lashed to the sterns of the two houseboats as we continued to make our way upriver. Flying boat pilots Ron and Bob were keeping eyes out for a flat clearing of dry land along the bank where they could safely dismantle their boats' 60-foot fabric wings. Without wings, they'd be a cinch to tow. Now, however, the situation was precarious.

"It was broken already," Ron said gamely, chin cupped in hands as he contemplated his belly-up boat, bobbing in the chop of the St. Johns. "Now it's extra broken."


At 3:40 p.m., a gust caused Ron's boat to tip a wing into the tannic water, causing everyone on board the houseboats and skiffs to snap into action with ropes and lines. An all-out disaster was averted and everyone enjoyed a collective sigh of relief, however brief.

At 4:40 p.m., Ron was mouthing the words: "it could have been worse," when the situation did become worse. He watched his flying boat capsize completely. There was no saving it. The bottom end of the inflatable raft came up while the wing -- and engine -- went down, under the murky water.

"It was broken already," Ron said gamely, chin cupped in hands as he contemplated his belly-up boat, bobbing in the chop of the St. Johns. "Now it's extra broken."

He heaved a sigh so big that it was visible from where some of us stood on the upper deck of the Miss Jane, a full 12 feet away. He and Wes conferred: The only option, it seemed, was to swim underneath the flying boat and tie a line onto the frame to right it. This involved dismantling the wing; no easy feat on land, much less under water.

Jill wasted not a moment pulling on her wetsuit, checking her tank and regulator, and slipping into the river to help Ron. No one tried to dissuade her. As the foremost cave-diving woman in the world, she'd been in tight situations before and knew her limits.

"Alligators are the least of their worries right now," Wes said, with a wary eye toward shore.


"There's a rip current here," she announced. "Oh, yeah. There's a lot of current, about four or five knots, a bit too much to swim against."

Jill and Ron couldn't risk being tethered for fear of entanglement in one of the lines they needed to cut in order to free the wing of the flying boat from its frame.

Hammer in hand, Ron nodded to his dive buddy announcing: "There's absolutely no visibility." Jill grabbed a dive light from someone on the houseboat, and the two disappeared under the flying boat.

"Alligators are the least of their worries right now," Wes said, with a wary eye toward shore.

There was the sound of metal clinking metal, muffled by five feet of water. While Ron was loosening bolts and banging hardware in an attempt to de-assemble the flying boat, the rest of us had time to think about how the undoing of something invariably turns out to be far more complex than having done it in the first place. Draining wetlands for farmland or development is easy compared to restoring them for wildlife. Tearing down nature -- only to find out later that we have to rebuild it -- complicates things like nobody's business, no matter how noble the original intentions. Anybody at the Army Corps of Engineers would vouch for that.

"We're going to need a screwdriver," Ron said, surfacing. "And a fresh tank," Jill added.

Just before nightfall, the sunken wing was retrieved and the flying boat, finally righted. Despite that his craft was a shambles, Ron managed to crack a few jokes at his own expense; a $28,000 expense, no less. Jill replied by saying that she would be having a serious sense-of-humor failure by now.

Wes agreed, recalling the time he dropped his beta-cam in the water while filming in a cave in Mexico: "I went to sleep for four days after that; that's how I handle traumatic situations."

Now, on this morning after, Wes is in no mood to be tipped by a 1400-pound manatee; no more, I would venture to guess, than these Blue Spring manatees are in the mood to be hit by one more boat, even if it is only a drifting canoe.

As the coast continues to develop, the water requirements of people living just east of Blue Spring are growing. This spring-fed ecosystem, to be healthy, can't have its aquifer over-tapped.


It appears that 100 percent of the 120-plus marine mammals seeking refuge in the warm waters of this quarter-mile-long spring run sport a scar; indeed, many of them sport many scars. Their mutilations are evidence of collisions with humans. Some wounds are fresh and deep, clearly from the propellers of boats; others suffer more subtly, but suffer nonetheless. The ones that get caught in water control structures don't often live to tell about it.

The fact that they number in the hundreds is good news. This population of Indian manatee is rebounding, but the same can't be said for other places around the state. When Ranger Wayne Hartley started counting the Blue Spring manatees 25 years ago, he had only 18 to keep track of. Through the years, he's been able to positively identify growing numbers by their unique scar patterns. He names them all. Dade, for instance, now swimming under my canoe, is named for the heavily populated county on Florida's east coast, Hartley says, because he figured that such a "fantastically marked" (translated: heavily scarred) manatee had to be from somewhere that was big and boat-loving -- and getting bigger.

Although its claim to fame is as a manatee refuge, Blue Spring actually is a tightrope; it's ground zero for a balancing act being played out between the needs of society and the needs of the environment.

As the coast continues to develop, the water requirements of people living just east of Blue Spring are growing. This spring-fed ecosystem, to be healthy, can't have its aquifer over-tapped. So the state government calculated something called "minimum flows and levels" and targeted this very spring to be the first to have levels set for it. The levels are designed to target exactly how much water needs to be in the system to maintain its natural function as a spring that serves, among other things, as a sanctuary for manatees.

Wes is paddling over the boil of the spring, now, peering through the clear, warm water into a great, deep fracture in the rock below: "It is so beautiful," he says, leaning over the side of his canoe . . . as far . . . as he possibly . . . can . . . to capture some footage.

Ron made a prophetic observation before the flying boat disaster, one that would serve Wes well, right now.

"It's just little tiny movements that make a difference," the pilot said. "It doesn't take much to send it crashing."

That thought would serve all of us well: municipal planners, park rangers, permitting authorities, homeowners, developers and environmentalists, to name a few.


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