This article originally appeared as a feature story in Florida Weekly.
The two kayaks push off from the small sand beach and paddle quietly through the narrow opening in the line of dense mangroves along the shore, heading into the estuary. It’s high tide; though the small boats draw only inches, parts of this body of water, rich with aquatic life, are not navigable when the tide is out. A light breeze carries across the water and a mullet flashes silver as it jumps into the morning sunlight, just feet from the lead boat. An osprey, reminded by the splash that it’s time to hunt, lifts itself into air thick with the smell of the sea and joins the brown pelicans and belted kingfishers already above the water looking for meals. The kayaks continue on through nature that is unconcerned with their presence; a confidence born from generations of life undisturbed by the hallmarks of human progress. This is old Florida.
John D. MacArthur Beach State Park opened to the public in 1989, created from property that was acquired by the state in 1981 using the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. Accessible from Singer Island, it, like so much of the area, had once been owned by John D. MacArthur and encompasses almost 440 land and water acres. The boundaries were formed when Palm Beach County drew an environmental control line through this section of Lake Worth Lagoon across which developments could not pass. The resulting land is a unique cross-section of four natural Florida habitats: maritime hammock, estuary, beach dune, and the Anastasia limestone reef.
The maritime hammock covers 121 acres of the park on both sides of the central estuary, the largest area of its kind in Palm Beach County. Arial photos of the area showing the condominiums and houses surrounding the park make clear why assistant park manager Patrick Rash refers to it as a “postage stamp of green,” one of an increasingly small number dotting the U.S. coastline and providing a critical resting spot for migratory birds and butterflies.
“The next reasonable resting spot for them is Gumbo Limbo in Boca Raton,” says Rash, “which is quite a trek for some of the smaller birds and butterflies. For that reason alone it’s critical that places like this are preserved.” The hammock also provides a home to nine designated plant species and 20 designated animals.
The estuary, across which a 1600 foot bridge connects the main section of the park to the beach front portion, contains all seven types of sea grass indigenous to the state and provides a safe breeding and feeding ground for species ranging from oysters to manatees. Another critical resource to protect, it’s estimated that 60-90% of marine creatures are dependent upon estuaries at some point in their lifecycles.
The kayaks approach the shore opposite their launch point and the smell of the ocean grows stronger. The sound too: waves beating against the beach and reef are a reminder of the pristine stretch of sand that lies just on the far side of the narrow section of Singers Island ahead. The buttonwoods, strangler figs and gumbo limbos are visible beyond the thick line of mangroves that guard the shore and provide protection for wading blue herons. A hawk passes low overhead as they turn and paddle south.
The ocean beach at John D. MacArthur Beach State Park has its own unique characteristics. It’s a 7000 foot stretch of undeveloped beach dune that’s an oasis of a time long past, sitting quietly undisturbed while life in the twenty-first century continues in the condominium towers visible to the south. The park starts offshore at the Anastasia limestone reef that’s just a short swim from the beach, providing snorkel-toting visitors with an excellent and easy-to-reach destination to watch reef squid, parrot fish and the occasional loggerhead turtle in their natural habitat. But the reef marks only the beginning of the park’s ocean-front offerings. This stretch of sand is the easternmost point in the state of Florida, and closer to the Gulf Stream than any other part of the United States.
“The proximity of the beach to the Gulf Stream makes it unique in the states.” says ranger Mykl Wallrath. “The ocean currents make it a place where all the continents connect.” And, unlike beaches elsewhere that are regularly groomed, this one is left alone. “The only things we ever remove from that beach are those left by man,” says park manager Don Bergeron. “Other than that, it exists in a completely natural state.”
The connection of continents that Wallrath speaks of is evidenced when he, and other rangers like Scott Duncan, search the beach’s wrack line, the stripe of mostly seaweed that runs along the beach parallel to the ocean. They look for sea beans: seed pods that have fallen into the water and been carried to other beaches, often a continent away. The story goes that Columbus was inspired to search for land to the west after finding sea hearts, the seed from a West Indian vine, in the Azores, where sea hearts are still called Columbus beans. Here in Palm Beach County, sea bean hunters like Wallrath and Duncan walk the wrack line at first light a couple of times a week, looking for unique examples with which to expand their collections and display in the parks education center. Wallrath has already found over 50 varieties of sea beans, many of which he and other rangers give to park visitors or use in educational programs.
And then there are the turtles: the park’s beach has more loggerhead, leatherback and green sea turtle nests than any other Florida state park. In the 2010 season, the park staff located over 1500 nests on this mile-and-a-half stretch of beach, equating to a nest every five feet, one of the highest density nesting sites in the state. During peak season in June and July, visitors to the park can sign up for nighttime turtle walks in which a staffer will wait on the beach alone, watching for a female to begin laying her eggs. Once the turtle begins to lay, she will not stop until she’s done, so the staffer has ample time to radio for a small group to come down to the beach and watch the turtle complete her clutch before covering it up and lumbering down the beach back to the ocean.
Passing beneath Burnt Bridge, the kayaks enter the Lake Worth Lagoon proper and turn westward towards Munyon Island. Ahead of them, the water surface shows the telltale signs of a manatee nearing the surface, then a nose, back and fluke appear in sequence. Nearby, another small group of kayakers is putting into the lagoon, led by a park ranger who is explaining the unique habitats and features found in the park.
The educational programs at MacArthur are another important part of the park’s DNA. Last year, over 2500 school kids from over 100 schools visited to learn about the park’s four habitats, explore the theme of connectedness, and get a feel for Florida’s natural state. And the educational programs will receive a major boost when the new Pew Family Natural Science Education Center opens this coming spring.A $2.1 million project, the new center was funded through the state’s “Partnership in Parks” program in which private donors contribute 60% of the cost while the state picks up 40%.
Thanks to the efforts of the Friends of MacArthur Beach State Park, (“As far as I’m concerned, the best friends group in the State Park system,” says Bergeron) the fundraising target was met. The new center will be equipped with a classroom containing 20-30 microscopes, a research library, a discovery lab, and the newly relocated gift shop. And not only will schools be able to attend educational programs taught by park personnel, a pilot “teach the teacher” program will be training teachers to use the facilities themselves, allowing the center to be a true extension to the traditional classroom.
The park also offers summer camps to children ages seven to 13, providing age-appropriate activities that range from introducing the younger children to the park through the use of environmental crafts and outdoor activities, to a marine biology camp for older campers that includes explorations of the reef and estuary.
Added to the snorkeling, turtle walks, kayak rentals (single or double, starting at $10) and popular annual events like the Blizzard at the Beach, the educational programs fill out a slate of activities that easily explains the 130,000 annual park visitors; a number that still, stunningly, represents an under-utilization of the park’s resources.
Upon reaching Munyon Island, the kayaks begin to paddle slowly through the network of inland channels to protected tidal pools. Here, more than anywhere else in the park, a sense of what Florida once was pervades. The mangroves and trees tower above the waterline, hiding buildings and developments on the mainland from view. Migratory songbirds and raptors perch in the branches of shoreline trees. When the tide turns the kayakers depart, taking advantage of the shift in currents to travel silently and effortlessly down the channels, paddles held across their chests, drifting slowly back towards the lagoon and, beyond, civilization.
Munyon Island lies in the Lake Worth Lagoon at the southwestern edge of the park property. Originally called Nuctashoo, meaning pelican island, by the Seminoles, the first recorded inhabitant lived in a tent and sold green sea turtles from the island in 1884. In 1892 the Pitts family bought the island and subsequently sold it to Dr. James Munyon in 1901, who opened the Hygeia Hotel on the southwest tip of the island in 1903. Named after the Greek goddess of health, the Hygeia attracted visitors who wanted to stay in what was considered one of the most beautiful places in the state, soak in the “fountain of youth” and drink “Dr. Munyon’s Paw-Paw Elixer.” The 21-room hotel burned down in 1917.
In the following decades, the island grew from its original 15 acres to more than three times that size due to the construction of the Intracoastal Waterway, which runs past the island’s western shore. It was acquired by John D. MacArthur in 1955 and was passed to the state with the rest of the park in 1981.
Restored in 1997, the island now has more than 23 acres of maritime hammock, 20 acres of mangroves and spartina, five covered picnic areas and a boardwalk, in addition to the network of channels and tidal pools. Still only reachable by boat, a dock construction project is currently underway that will provide 20 boat slips and make the island’s resources more accessible to people looking for an afternoon trip back in time.
The kayaks slow as they approach the break in the mangroves that leads to the small beach on the shore near the educational center at park. They draw up on the sand and the kayakers depart. At their backs, the tide continues to recede; the mud flats in the estuary slowly reappear. The wading birds reclaim what’s been theirs for hundreds of years, the sea breeze moves slowly through the tree tops, and old Florida continues to thrive.
The John D. MacArthur Beach State Park is located on the northern end of Singer Island in Palm Beach County, at 10900 Jack Nicklaus Drive. It’s open 365 days a year from 8 AM to sundown. Admission is $5 per car. For more information, call the park at (561) 624-6950 or visit http://www.macarthurbeach.org/.