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St. Marks Recreation Area In Florida

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True Natural Habitat: St. Marks Recreation Area

Former Fisheries Biologist Discusses Texture Of History & The Essence Of Diversity  In Untouched Area Of Florida Nature

Former Fisheries Biologist Michael Hill Out On Apalachee Bay. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

Finding a sense of true nature where the habitat around is pure is a rare find. In Apalachee Bay right away from Tallahassee on the Gulf coast sits St. Marks Recreation Area, a nearly untouched vision of Old Florida in the outdoors. This might have been what the Spaniards say when they first sailed into Florida in the 15th Century. Former Fishery Biologist Michael Hill of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission explored these areas for 37 years. Only retired for two and a half years, he still loves to explore and show the area. Hill sat down with MRV: The  Buzz Editor In Chief Tim Wassberg on his flats boat in the middle of the bay to discuss biology, peacefulness and the evolution of history and geology.

The Buzz: Now, we're talking about biology. In this kind of sort of topography, what does biology mean to you and how it works specifically at St. Marks National Recreation Area?

Michael Hill: Well, I'm always looking all around. I'm looking at every bird that goes by. I'm looking for anything on the water to see if it's a fish or a dolphin coming up out of the water. I'm looking at the aquatic plants when it's clear and shallow enough that I can see. And since I've done this for so many years, I'm noticing a pattern. Just because I've been here before, it's like, "Oh, I've been here." I see it as change over time. And this is a really healthy area. I think I'd be really depressed if I would start to see this massive degradation down in, say, Saint Lucie County from the pollution that's going in there. It just breaks my heart. So I'm really happy to see such a healthy environment up here. And this is part of the national wildlife refuge in perpetuity. It's always going to be this good. And that's it.

The Buzz: Now, what's the history of sort of this area both in terms of marine, but also physical history, like you were talking about the Spanish, who would have come in here and seen what this looks like right now throughout most of the state..

MH: I mean, this has got to be what-- I mean, you don't see any high rises, or towers, or water towers. This is as the Spaniards saw it when they came up in the 1500s. This has had to be what they saw. And so it's just really rewarding to even imagine how-- what they came up with. They saw huge alligators, bears once they got inland, manatees. I mean, they thought the manatees were mermaids (laughing). They were out at sea way too long.

The Buzz: Can you talk about the waters here because the waters are so clear and yet they flow into different areas, and tidal pools?

MH: It is kind of clear today. But it's more tannin. I've seen it more clear. You know, we've got five major rivers that flow into Apalachee Bay. This is part of Apalachee Bay. And so whenever you get a good heavy rain, then the waters that are in the swamps bring in the tannins and give it a tea color. So it's not turbid where it's cloudy with silk particles. It just becomes more brown…more like tea.

The Buzz: The fishing, obviously, is very diverse. We’ve been catching rock sea bass. You told me a story when you were out here with your wife and daughter. They were catching reds, and then there was a shark which show how many species are around.

MH: I mean, even tarpon and sea trout, of course. [On that trip] we came up on a rock pile and I saw the mullet we're coming out of the water. Instead of a usual jump, lazily as they like to do, they looked panicky. And we got close enough that we could see it was a big school of 40-inch redfish. And we all threw in. We all hooked up at the same time. It was exciting. The drag was going. And so I had my hook straightened. My wife had her redfish in closer. She had a tougher rig, so she could reel it in. And a bull shark, about six foot, started harassing it and trying to bite it off of her line. And we dipped it up, released it, and then my daughter was about to be spooled. So I turned on the motor. I started following the redfish, which was going toward shore, and we started moving through [the flats]. I turned around, and that bull shark was following us. It was at least a six-foot shark. You could see the tail and the dorsal fin. And he was just keeping up because I wasn't going too fast. And we ended up fighting it for 40 minutes. We got into the shore, and then the shark attacked and knocked the redfish out of the water. My daughter [at that point] was in ankle-deep water, and I told her, "Hey, don't worry!" (laughing). So it was exciting. It was a good day.

A Rock Sea Bass Before Being Released On Apalachee Bay. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]
A Rare Pair Of Manatees Swimming On Apalachee Bay. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

The Buzz: We saw today how the tides can make boating here interesting. You really have to know what's going on. Can you talk about how the bottom works here?

MH: You know, this shoreline's been receding for thousands of years. We would definitely still be sitting amongst the cabbage palms and high ground right here [was that not the case]. And we're two miles from the shore the way it is now. So there’s exposed rock formations and limestone, and then of course oysters built up on those and built those up. And if it weren't for the storms, we'd have a lot more oyster bars here. So you do have to pay attention to the moon and the tides to get around.

The Buzz: There’s also a ton of wildlife. We saw an eagle today.

MH: On the upland, there's plenty of nesting sites. The refuge has at least a half a dozen eagle’s nests. There's black bear and lots of interesting snakes and salamanders that are up in the uplands. People don't think about them too much.

The Buzz: When you first started out, you told me you didn't think you were going to get into birding, and now you've really sort of educated yourself through and through about it. Could you talk about that and how that's sort of evolved here?

MH: It built up because I got to work outside, but where we happen to be it has really been that there's no development. And during spring migration, the birds are heading up north. They have just flown across The Gulf of Mexico, and they're just resting on the first piece of land [they see]. So you get to see birds just a couple of weeks out of the year that you never see, so it's always something new. You have to look up and look for it, but that's what's fun about the birding.

The Buzz: You told me your daughter's now majoring in biology, but can you talk about how, with biology and conservation, it has to be experiential? You have to go out and experience it.

MH: I think that with the advent of computers…we called them Pac Man machines when  I was in my 30s (laughing). But now, computers are so pervasive that it's easy to spend all your time at the keyboard. And to say that, "Oh, I've been here before," it changes every time…every season. Every day something's different out here. And the only way you can know and write about the system is to go out and experience it.

The Buzz: For you, what is the most interesting unique thing about this area of Florida? Because this is a hidden area of Florida that maybe a lot of people don't know about.

MH: Yeah, it's called the Forgotten Coast.

The Buzz: And that’s what drew you here.

MH: I already alluded to that you don't see the buildings. In all the rest of coastal Florida, it is a white, tall, massive concrete jungle. That’s what I like about this. You can be out here all day and not see anyone.


Tim Wassberg

A graduate of New York University's Tisch School Of The Arts with degrees in Film/TV Production & Film Criticism, Tim has written for magazines such as Moviemaker, Moving Pictures, Conde Nast Traveler UK and Casino Player. He enjoys traveling and distinct craft beers among other things.

St. George Island State Park

Make Sure To Stay At:

St. George Island State Park,  which offers miles of undeveloped beaches on a barrier island. The park offers ample opportunities for sunbathing, swimming, canoeing, boating, hiking, camping and nature study. Two natural boat ramps provide access to the bay for small boats.

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