Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Return to Treasure Island

"The Surf is coming down because it costs too much to upgrade the ailing building, whose space-age, 1950s furniture has never been replaced and whose mid century look was featured in Architectural Digest. A 30-unit hotel-condo is planned to rise in its place. Each unit could cost near $400,000, as opposed to The Surf's rents of $66 a night." - St. Petersburg Times

The Surf Motel closed on Sunday April 18, 2004. I remember reading about the controversy surrounding its demise online, there was even a website created to encourage support for the Surf. The New York Times reported the story, yet the Surf was demolished and a new condo created.

Built in 1956, the Surf was among a number of Googie Motels on Treasure Island near St. Pete Beach. It had been some time since I had visited this small Pinellas County community, and I was eager to see what had survived since the Surf's demise. I felt a huge sense of relief when I saw the towering monolith of the Thunderbird Motel. The T-Bird must be one of the best neon signs in all of Florida and it appears little changed from its mid-century glory days. Nearby other mom-and-pop beach cottages, motels and apartments appear to be hanging in there.

My favorite is the quaint Sea Jay, which also boasts a wonderful neon sign, one of my all time Florida Faves. The whole complex is like a time machine back to the 1950s with Featherstone pink plastic flamingos, well-maintained shuffleboard courts and an elevated swimming pool. I only had time for a brief survey, but I'm buoyed by the prospect that one Florida community has still retained some vintage charm in the face of the overwhelming bland developments that permeate the rest of the state.

Vintage images from the State Archives of Florida

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Peering into the Abyss

After seeing spectacular underwater images of the crystal clear waters of North Florida springs, I became obsessed with taking my own underwater photos. So I purchased a camera on Amazon and patiently waited for a free weekend day where I could cobble enough time together to head to a spring. The closest spring to my downtown Orlando home is Wekiva Spring State Park, so on a rainy Sunday afternoon, Mrs. Ephemera and I raced north on I-4 to make my first attempt at photography in the underwater realm.

Wekiva Springs is surrounded by development. High-end residential housing and commercial properties push right up against the boundaries of the park. When I made a visit to the spring over the summer, I watched from the above the water as tri-atheletes swam laps in the spring's basin. On this rainy November visit the spring wasn't crowded but there were still swimmers enjoying the chilly water.

Donning my newly purchased fins, mask and snorkel I initially thought the water didn't seem to cold. It was a bit cumbersome to try to see the back of the camera through my mask which often filled with water in. Combined with the fact that I am blind as a bat without my glasses, meant that at first I had no idea what I was photographing. Eventually I got the hang of it and could actually line up what I was try to shoot.

As I made my way over to the boil, I noticed that the huge rock walls that formed the canyon from where the water comes out of the aquifer was covered with algae. The surface of the water also had a layer of floating algae that I had navigate through as I snorkeled along the surface. The recreational swimmers, without masks, seemed oblivious to the green goo, but I was struck by the contrast between this spring and the pristine ones in North Florida that inspired this adventure.

At first I was concerned that the algae seemed to be the only life in the spring, but I eventually found some bluegill swimming near the bottom. I approached the boil again, fighting to maintain my position against the water pushing its way through from the earth. Despite the algae, it is an awe-inspiring sight to see the where the edge drops straight down into nothingness. Swimming between the "cliffs" and looking down is a bit frightening as the darkness appears to go on forever.

Eventually I noticed I was shaking too much to hold the camera still. 72 degree water is cold even if the air temperature is an equivalent temperature. I got out and dried off having seen enough. I look forward to going to other springs to see if I have a similar experience (there are over 700 in Florida.)

The advocacy group that works on behalf of the springs and the Wekiva River has this statement on their website: "...the environmental quality of the Wekiva basin continues to be threatened. Loss of habitat, decline in spring flow, increased nutrients in the water (especially nitrates), increased water consumption, wildlife mortality on existing roadways, and proposals for new roadways through the basin are but a few of the issues that demand constant monitoring. The effects of these issues are cumulative." While there was still beauty to the spring, it was clear to my untrained eye that the amount of algae present was not good. The result of my Sunday adventure was a renewed commitment to help raise awareness to help protect these sacred waters. The Friends of the Wekiva will be hearing from me soon.