What the Iguana Didnt Know
By Tom Neale, 3/9/2006
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The iguana lay, silent and still, on the warm seawall. Slowly, occasionally, he blinked his eyes. He couldn’t figure it out. His motor scooter was gone. It had been there for weeks. And weeks is a long time in an iguana mind. It had laid there rusting beneath the water under his warming spot, a part of the front wheel protruding at low tide. Oil had been slowly dissipating from its motor, spreading a poisonous sheen.
Something strange had happened that morning. He couldn’t figure that part out either. An outboard motor boat had pulled up, with a father and son. It was towing an old inflatable. The inflatable was full of junk, if you’d call it that. You probably wouldn’t call it anything if you were an iguana. They had come up to the wall, pulled the motor scooter out of the water, put it in the inflatable, and headed away. Strange—very strange.
What the iguana didn’t understand was that a “happening” was happening that would be indeed strange in many places, but not in Ft. Lauderdale. It was what they call their annual Waterway Cleanup. It was the 29th one, no passing fantasy. I was on the sea wall across the southern branch of the New River from the iguana at one of 33 pickup stations in Broward County. Boats were pulling in and offloading tons of trash and debris, piling it into dumpsters rented for the occasion, and heading out again for more. Some were heading to far reaches, some were working the shores nearby.
The take was heavy this year, because there was a lot of extra junk blown in from last fall’s hurricanes. I had watched a few weeks earlier as a sport fish boat had limped over to a quay at dusk, a crew member had dived over with flippers and mask and a knife, and come up with the beginnings of maybe 50 or more feet of outdoor carpet that had blown from somewhere into the water during one of the storms. It didn’t belong in the water, and it sure didn’t belong on those props. But most of the stuff in the water, this year and in years past, had been thrown there, or allowed to blow there or to be washed there (from rains) by folks on the shore. Some don’t care, it seems; some just don’t realize.
The whole deal was a bit strange for me too--not because I’m an iguana (although my wife sometimes seems to think otherwise) but because I’m a boater. And for years I’ve heard extremists and radicals—more and more every year—blame everything bad that happens to the water on boaters. I know this is wrong. I know that boaters, probably more than anyone else, want clean water. We live in it and play in it. I’m in the water every day I can possibly be there, whether it’s swimming, diving, cleaning my bottom, or just cooling off. But we, you and I, are in the minority and, when it’s convenient, we’re often on some politician’s hit list.
Minorities are easy pickings for those bureaucrats and politicians who are more interested in saying they’ve solved a problem than in actually solving it. They can get up in front of the cameras, beat on their chests, and say “I cleaned up the waters” because they once again criticized boaters or curtailed boating in some way. And they often think they can get by with this, because they think that we can’t do anything about it because we don’t have the votes of “the masses.” So they avoid offending “the masses” although it’s usually those “masses” who’re putting stuff in the waters, whether it’s sewage or motor scooters. And that means they avoid actually cleaning up the waters.
But in Ft. Lauderdale that doesn’t wash. The Waterway Cleanup not only cleans up the waterways, it shows who really cares. It’s sponsored by boating businesses and groups. Its founding sponsor and organizer is the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, which is headquartered in Ft. Lauderdale and run by a hard working guy named Frank Herhold who’s a boater and who knows how to talk to boat bums like me as well as to the movers and the shakers. Frank and his staff and the members really put out for this. The people who furnish the boats to pick stuff up and haul it in are—you guessed it—boaters. Also, many community members without boats are deeply involved and helping. It’s an effort that transcends special interests and the “you—me mentality” that gets in the way of good things like this in other areas. And many politicians and bureaucrats turn out—there are actually some very good people from that sector.
The “event” only happens once a year, but it’s a kickoff for environmental projects for the rest of the year and it brings an awareness that lasts far into the future. The kids that spend time with friends and parents retrieving lost treasures of junk or old plastic bags or barnacle encrusted refrigerators will remember and tell others and hopefully the word will spread and someone will think twice before he tosses a beer can out the car window while he’s going over a bridge.
This year 62 tons of trash were picked up by nearly 3,000 volunteers in 250 volunteered boats. Donations from businesses paid to have it hauled away to a safe disposal. Media coverage was wide. A local TV personality who also boats was the “spokesman.”
This would be a great thing to do in other places. It’s a way of publicly showing up those bureaucrats and politicians who point fingers at the wrong people so that they can stay in office without doing anything meaningful. Far more importantly, it’s a way that those of us who care the most about clean water (you and me) can help to spread the word to those folks who see the waters only in the movies or when they go to the beach—to spread the word that our rivers and bays and oceans aren’t public dumping grounds. It’s two thirds of our planet’s surface, and if we can’t swim we all sink.
Besides, if people on shore keep throwing in motor scooters, one of these days that iguana is going to learn to ride, and throw one of those beer cans back into someone’s yard.
Copyright 2004-2005 Tom Neale