Dedicated to the protection of birds, other animals, and their habitats through education and activism
Southeast Volusia Audubon Society, P.O. Box 46, New Smyrna Beach, FL 32170; president@SEVolusiaAudubon.org
In 1956, Ike was president, a gyrating Elvis Presley sang “Hound Dog” on the Ed Sullivan Show and Detroit was churning out shark-finned automobiles dripping in chrome. That year, 19-year-old Roosevelt Faison got a job piloting glass bottom boats at the Silver Springs attraction in Ocala, an occupation that he decided would be his lifelong career.
Faison, now 76, rises each morning, dons his crisp white captain’s uniform and cap, and makes the 12-mile drive to Ocala from his home in Fort McCoy, the town where he was born and raised. The badge on his uniform bears his name and the simple phrase, “57 Years of Service.”
Faison loves his job. He briefly contemplated joining the military in 1959, but has otherwise never considered any career other than piloting the famous glass bottom boats and sharing his knowledge with generations of Silver Springs visitors. He is a constant in a world that has changed dramatically over the decades — even the status of the park, which in October 2013 was incorporated into the Florida Park Service’s award-winning state park system.
Faison’s passion for the springs, his intuitive understanding of the complex relationships within this Eden-like place, like the connections between eel grass and fish and birds, captured the attention of Ed Lowe, chief scientist with the St. Johns River Water Management District.
Several months ago, Lowe participated in a meeting involving several state agencies and water management districts. The meeting concluded with a glass bottom boat tour guided by Capt. Roosevelt Faison
“Roosevelt went through the standard tour speech and then stopped and asked us, ‘What are you going to do about all the algae in the spring? How are you going to fix it?’” Lowe recalls. “I stayed behind afterwards and engaged him in a conversation. This man is a keen observer. He has an affinity for the springs. He appreciates the beauty of Silver Springs and has seen the changes that have occurred and he’s really concerned.”
Faison’s keen observations, clear memories and intuitive understanding of Silver Springs’ symbiotic plant and animal relationships inspired Lowe to organize a project to capture Faison’s recollections on film.
“We realized that Roosevelt, as an observer of the spring, could be a scientific resource,” Lowe says. “Many changes occurred before rigorous scientific study was going on in the ecosystem. Roosevelt was at the springs five days a week. He’s not just a casual observer of the springs.”
Capturing oral histories of area springs is a small but important part of a larger program to protect and restore these natural treasures. The District launched a Springs Protection Initiative in late 2012 that combines science, projects, planning and regulatory programs to reduce nitrate loading and protect spring flows.
The Springs Protection Initiative builds on years of work with other agencies through various programs to increase knowledge and understanding about the region’s springs, while also working to protect springs systems. Ongoing work includes collecting flow and water quality data at springs, protecting spring flows and working with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to develop rules that limit pollutant loadings into springs and basin management action plans to meet water quality targets and natural systems goals.
In September 2013, Gov. Rick Scott announced that $37 million in 2014 will be spent statewide to restore springs. Of that, $20 million will be dedicated to help Silver Springs, where projects include eliminating more than 700,000 pounds of nitrogen pollution per year going into the springs and redirecting treated wastewater to be reused on golf courses. The projects also will reduce groundwater withdrawals by up to 1.5 million gallons a day — leaving more water in the aquifer and providing increased flow at the spring.
While springs protection must be based on sound science, Lowe explains that anecdotal evidence shouldn’t be discounted. Stories from longtime Floridians can help scientists achieve a greater understanding of an ecosystem’s historical transformations and perhaps the underlying causes of those changes — a kind of institutional knowledge through proxy.
“In the realm of science, there’s a reliability gradient for different kinds of evidence,” Lowe says. “Measurements made to strict scientific protocols are on the high end of the reliability scale while photographs, video, written observations and personal observations carry less weight. However, you can learn things from those observations that measurements will never reveal.”
To that end, Faison recalls that when he joined Silver Springs in 1959, the bright green eel grass glowed with an effervescent intensity in the crystalline water. He noticed that the grass began turning brown in the 1960s while the park was undergoing improvements. About the same time, algae began coating the grass blades.
“After they started building up the park, the water would get cloudy,” he says. “Sometimes, we’d have to close the park until the cloudiness settled.”
Faison also recalls the thousands of apple snails and snail eggs that plastered every surface at the springs: boat hulls, docks, retaining walls and tree trunks.
“The walls and everything would be painted with apple snail eggs,” Faison says. “Toward the end of the 1970s the apple snails began to disappear.”
Faison believes the disappearance of the apple snails is at least partly responsible for the increase in algae in the springs (apple snails eat algae) and for the decline in the limpkin population that once fed on the snails. He also believes the problem may have been chemicals used at the time to control hydrilla, an exotic invasive aquatic plant.
“You hardly see any limpkin today,” Faison says. “When the apple snails disappeared the limpkin population disappeared.”
Other Florida postcard birds began to disappear as time passed. Egrets and great blue herons, once abundant at the springs, searched elsewhere for food as fish populations dwindled, Faison recalls.
“I’ve seen the fish population go from thousands to a few hundred,” he says. “I’ve seen catfish so thick that you couldn’t see the bottom of the springs. It was just solid blue with catfish.”
Human activities may have also played a role in the decline in fish populations. Silver Springs has attracted people to its waters for centuries, from Timucuan settlements and Spanish invaders in the 1500s to traders plying the spring run to ferry goods in the 1850s. In the 20th century the springs captured the eye of Hollywood, serving as the ideal exotic backdrop for six Tarzan movies and more than 100 episodes of Sea Hunt, starring Lloyd Bridges, whom Faison met twice.
Being on the periphery of the action surrounding television filming was exciting, Faison says, but he ponders whether human impacts such as filming, recreational boating and scuba diving played a minor role in fish declines.
“Disturbance chases (fish) out,” he says. “Guys who worked here before me said fish were larger and more plentiful. It looks like there’s a cycle going on all the time.”
Capturing oral histories of Florida’s springs is providing scientists a more colorful, richer, human and holistic view of watery jewels that have survived a millennia.
“You can take anecdotal evidence, file it away and look for scientific evidence supporting that,” Lowe says. “Roosevelt has an intuitive understanding of how an ecosystem works. He understood that with the decline of the grass and fish populations there would be a decline in bird species. One of the things we need to do is record the memories of astute observers of the histories of the springs. I hope we have more opportunities to record this information as we have done with Roosevelt. I felt it was a real privilege to meet this man and I appreciate his willingness to share what he has observed over the years.”
Photos courtesy of the Florida State Archives.
Roosevelt Faison has seen many changes at Silver Springs during his time there as a glass bottom boat captain