30 is the new 20: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary turns 30

“Bodies in the sand, tropical drink melting in your hand,

We’ll be falling in love to the rhythm of a steel drum band,

Down in Kokomo.”

Released in 1988, this Beach Boys classic was stuck in my head long before I moved to the Florida Keys to restore the reef. It’s not unlikely that Carl Wilson and Mike Love had spent a sunny afternoon or two enjoying our little slice of paradise, and some local tall tales claim that the fictional Kokomo really is a place in the Keys. (You can tell me, is it really the old Holiday Isle bar, now the Postcard Inn?)

Grecian Rocks –
Snorkelers enjoy the corals at Grecian Rocks in the late 1980s. The female model is Barbara Doernbach, Stephen Frink’s late wife; the male model is Mike White, the second Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary superintendent.

Legendary tiki bar or not, our island chain and its turquoise waters have been captivating people for decades. Protecting those resources became, and remains, paramount to the continued bounty of our oceans and the lives they sustain (wild and human). 

The designation of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in 1990 tried to coordinate and amplify those efforts. Today, Nov. 16, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary turns the big 3-0

I remember my late 20s, dreading my “dirty 30” birthday, when I would officially be “so old.” I thought my heyday was over, and that I’d spent my luck on Hollywood Boulevard and the L.A. city lights. 

When I hit that milestone birthday, I did a tour-de-30 that involved a tattoo, running a half-marathon dressed as Pixie from Peter Pan, hang-gliding off a mountain, and quitting my job. You might say I had something of a quarter-life-crisis going on. 

Luckily for me, I was naive and wrong. With some hard days, many tears, and too many self-help books and podcasts, I found myself rebirthed here in the Florida Keys, protecting our coral reef, living a dream I didn’t know I had. These waters enthralled me as they have so many wayward sailors and motorcyclists who visit the southernmost islands and never leave. 

A photo of the USS Duane on the first day she was open to diving, the day after Thanksgiving 1987. STEPHEN FRINK/Contributed

Now, on this 30th birthday of the sanctuary that bonds us all together, I think the same mindset shift can apply. Indeed, many fishermen opposed the creation of the sanctuary and had a deep mistrust of regulations; many still do. Most may already feel like it’s too late, with catastrophic loss of coral reefs, overfishing, and damage to critical habitats like our seagrasses and mangroves. Bigger problems than those galvanized by the #KeysStrong hashtag threaten what we love — like water quality issues, like climate change. 

I still have hope that this can be the sanctuary’s own quarter-life-crisis and that we can turn the situation around. We may not be able to bring back the massive coral stands that once filled our waters, but we can support the science working to restore some of our reefs. The fish won’t come back instantly, but they will follow the corals, if we let them. All of those support the economy and the livelihoods of the thousands of Conchs who live here.

We have to endure these challenging times and emerge together with a plan for our sanctuary that everyone can get behind. Hopefully then, the next 30 years will be a success story we all can proudly tell. After all, they say, “30 is the new 20, and 40 is the new 30.” Let’s make it good. 

Stephen Frink swimming in what would become the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. © Jerry Greenberg/Contributed

I’ll leave you with these iconic images from my friend Stephen Frink, who’s been taking pictures of our waters since the 1970s. These are some of his favorite shots of what the Keys waters were like before the sanctuary’s designation. Hopefully, with our collective help, we’ll have a new collection of images in the next decade to showcase how far we’ve come in restoring this glory.

Tiffany Duong
Tiffany Duonghttp://tiffanyduong.com
Tiff Duong is self-made mermaid who loves all things cheesy (romantic and dairy) and thrives in the 3 am hour. She believes in leaving it all on the field and has never met a (mis)adventure she didn't love.

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