By Leslie Jacobs
My love affair with the Florida Keys began several years ago with a trip to Key West to celebrate my 10 year wedding anniversary. I not only fell in love with the beauty, but with the culture and the respect that the locals had for the environment, which was demonstrated nearly everywhere. Eco-tourism is a way to make a living, however, it is also a way for locals to educate the general public on the ways that humans have inflicted harm to our environment, namely to our oceans and reefs, in the past century. It brings an awareness to many, and shares with it a sense of responsibility and respect that hopefully will be taken home with visitors to share. You learn about the importance of mangroves and dunes, and why they must be protected – because they help to protect us.
I live in the Virginia Beach area, so I am not a stranger to hurricanes. If you go around town in Key West, you will discover businesses promoting eco-friendly products and restaurants that have take-home cartons made with biodegradable materials and paper straws (or no straws). Reef-safe sunscreen is mandatory. This was just my first taste of the Keys. I loved it so much I wanted to keep coming back – but I wanted to explore more. I started making trips there every few months and exploring everything the Keys as a whole had to offer. I made friends down there. I got to know the locals, who introduced me to places you would not normally find as a “tourist.” I no longer wanted to see the “touristy” spots, I wanted to experience all that the locals were able to experience. Call me a nerd, but I even studied the geography of the Keys. I discovered every beach and sandbar. I learned that I had a knack for photography and found myself setting alarms to wake up at sunset just so I could be on the beach at the right moment to be there for the perfect shot as the sun came up.
Then in 2017, red tide began to take its toll on the marine life along Florida’s Gulf coast. Being an animal and ocean lover, this especially perked my interest and saddened me. I especially have a soft spot for sea turtles (turtles in general, really – I have four of my own!). Seeing the horrific pictures of dead marine life washed ashore in massive quantities really hurt my soul. It was just the beginning of a major change in my life. I didn’t like what I saw, I wanted to do something about it and to be involved somehow. I wanted to know WHY this was happening. So I started doing research. I joined environmental advocacy and grassroots groups. I started signing and sharing petitions. I even started one of my own, which gained 600 signatures. I began doing volunteer work in my spare time, helping the environment by doing beach cleanups, dune restoration, and advocacy efforts. I became an activist and began participating in protests against off-shore oil drilling and pollution and I became an advocate for organic farming and began growing my own organic food. I cut out toxic chemicals from my family’s lives and began only using eco-friendly alternatives. I invested in reusable bags and started an anti-plastic bag campaign. I attempted to cut down on how much plastic we purchased, even switching to bar soap, shampoo, and conditioner. In my love for endangered sea turtles, I became a certified nest sitter, to watch over baby sea turtle nests as they were about to hatch, to ensure their safe transition into the ocean and record data. I also began volunteering more at the nearby national wildlife refuge. I plan to return to school and obtain my master’s in ecology, since discovering my newfound passion for the environment and animals. I have been a registered nurse for many years, but my passion lies with animals and the environment. I feel I can truly make a difference, or at least that is where my hope lies.
My love for the Keys and for Florida is what has prompted my lifestyle change and discovery for my passion for the ocean, animals, and the environment, and the desire to make a positive impact in our currently destructive society.