By Eric Barton
Published: April 10, 2023
Take a stroll through the lush grounds behind the Vizcaya Museum & Gardens and you’ll find yourself at a one-of-a-kind staircase. The steps are made of hardened coral called coquina, and they lead down into the murky depths of a mangrove forest. There are a couple of moorings at the bottom that look like barber poles, where you can imagine Venetian gondolas pulling up.
While the stairs make a sweet backdrop for engagement photos, they’re also a harbinger. David Hardy, the horticulture manager at Vizcaya for a decade now, has watched as the bay waters creep up those stairs inch by inch. More and more every year, the rising waters also carry in plastic bottles, wrappers, netting—the detritus of society that, let’s be honest, doesn’t look great in a selfie.
All that junk will vanish over the span of a day when a few hundred volunteers descend on Vizcaya to fish around 700 pounds of trash from that mangrove swamp. The efforts are part of Baynanza, a county-wide series of events with the goal of cleaning up Biscayne Bay and raising awareness around the constant challenge of preserving our local waterways.
“This is truly critical,” Hardy says of Baynanza. “And the level of enthusiasm of the people who come out, and their concern for the environment—it’s encouraging to see how many people really care.”
Since it began in 1982, more than 100,000 volunteers have shown up for Baynanza’s annual Biscayne Bay Cleanup Day and collected more than 500 tons of trash from its shores. The work continues on Saturday, April 15, and if you haven't signed up yet, no worries: Baynanza welcomes walk-ups.
This year, organizers have expanded Baynanza’s footprint by adding four inland sites upriver from the bay. They’re among an impressive 31 cleanup locations for 2023, stretching across Miami from Biscayne National Park to Oleta River—including five sites accessible only by boat.
One of the busiest spots for volunteers each year is the stunning swath of land at Morningside Park and the uninhabited Picnic Islands off its shore. Efforts there will be overseen by the Miami Waterkeeper, a nonprofit that works to bring attention to water quality issues.
“Anytime organizations host cleanup events, it’s really just treating the problem,” says Erin Cover, Miami Waterkeeper's education and outreach manager. “But the real impact is raising the importance of these issues.”
Throughout the year, Miami Waterkeeper conducts water-quality testing in 22 sites across South Florida. Those tests help monitor the overall health of the bay, spotting problems as they develop, like the combination of warm water and an algae bloom that helped contribute to the death of 27,000 fish and wildlife over five days in 2020.
Among Baynanza’s inland cleanup sites is Hialeah’s Amelia Earhart Park, helmed by Miami-based nonprofit Debris Free Oceans. Working with communities to limit single-use plastics, Debris Free Oceans has recruited a group of volunteers from Hialeah Senior High to help de-pollute the park’s scenic lakes.
Events like this provide an opportunity for students to see firsthand the scope and impact plastics can have on water systems. But Debris Free Oceans program and outreach director Maddie Kaufman says some kids show up already equipped with knowledge about the harmful microplastics found everywhere, from floating island-sized garbage patches to our bloodstreams.
“It’s been really amazing to work with these high school students because they’re learning about pollution and the threats to the ocean,” says Kaufman. “[Baynanza] allows them to be an actionable part of the solution.”
At Vizcaya, volunteers will have a chance to collect trash among rare mangroves that are likely hundreds of years old. Hardy, who left behind a career in advertising to become a horticulturist before landing his dream job at Vizcaya, says the volunteers find everything from beach balls and flip-flops to the ropes used to tie up boats.
Participants can also witness firsthand how the bay has risen over the years, slowly working its way up those steps and also submerging the iconic dock that serves as a breakwater just offshore from Vizcaya. “Being right here on the bay, we are pretty astutely aware of how the climate has changed and how it’s affecting us,” says Hardy.
For Cover, the positivity that results from a single volunteer event helps Miami Waterkeeper’s staff push through all of the bad news and uphill battles they face the rest of the year.
“It’s hard to not be doom-and-gloom about it,” says Cover, “But the bay is—right now—not doing great.” For years, it’s been overrun with fertilizers, sewage and trash that’s led to algae blooms, killed crucial grass beds and inflicted massive fish die-offs like the one in 2020.
But then, Cover says she’ll watch kids coming together to clean up trash at events like Baynanza, and it’s impossible not to feel inspired by their positivity. While their parents might be jaded and resigned to inaction, kids often believe we can still solve the bay’s problems.
“It’s a really interesting juxtaposition between how adults and kids see the future,” Cover says. “It really helps keep those of us who are working in this field inspired to keep going.”