In November of last year, the city council determined Deadman’s Island was worth saving with a sum of $100,000 of the City of Gulf Breeze’s own dollars to be put towards the proposed Deadman’s Island Estuary Restoration Project. With the new 500 linear feet of breakwater repairs and sediment relocation expected to go in around mid-March, Marine Biologist and Project Manager with Ecological Consulting Services Inc., Heather Reed, has already been hard at work on the restoration and preservation of the eroding island. Just last Friday evening, a troop of boy scouts camped out on the historic landmark and awoke early Saturday morning to begin planting.
“They did an awesome job!” Reed said. “They planted 1,000 plants! The first planting of the season.”
Reed says it’s important to get the plants in the ground as soon as possible to stabilize the sand being put out there.
An amphibious excavator sat near the water’s edge on Friday morning pumping sand from another nearby site onto the island’s eroded perimeter.
“The sand is dredged from the mouth of the channel only and placed on the city’s spoil site to allow the water to percolate, or filter, through the sand,” Reed explained. “The sand bleaches out in the sun over time.”
Reed explained that the natural process creates clean, local sand that can be used to place back into the water for Deadman’s Island restoration efforts. Stakes already placed in the ground measure the mean high water line.
Prior to planting, the ground is a bit wet and can easily fall through.
“Only because it’s just fresh,” said Reed. Reed also pointed out the white PVC pipes bobbing their heads up out of the water, explaining that the approved breakwater will be taking their place hopefully next month. “It should be completed by the end of March,” Reed said. “It doesn’t take long to put the rock out.”
Reed came to a spot on the island where a river seemed to be flowing through to the bayou.
“This is where the blowout was that everyone was all upset about,” she explained. “It’s just been one of those things where once you get past the seawall, the rest of it just naturally scours out. That’s what we’ve been trying to prevent. We have to put these breakwaters out to slow down the wave action to prevent the erosion and stabilize the shoreline.”
Reed also explained that once the salinity returns during the summer months, the marsh surrounding the newly cut channel, which require brackish water, or a concentrated mix of fresh water and salt water, to survive, will be endangered. “They can’t take that level of salinity, salt water content,” Reed said. “In a couple of years you’ll start seeing a die back of the salt marsh.
Reed explained that the biggest obstacle to effectively and consistently preserving the island has been a lack of funds. “We haven’t had the money all at once to do that,” Reed said. “Now we’re seeing these restoration projects with $16, 20 million; ours has been $4 million over 10 years.” Reed also pointed out that while the city pays for the permits, there’s nothing actually budgeted for Deadman’s Island. “I pretty much get the grants for all this,” said Reed. “We’re a research area as well.”
Reed simply wants people to acknowledge the importance of the island that houses so much history.
“It’s just a unique treasure that people have wanted to preserve for many years,” she said. “It has five shipwrecks. The British and the Spanish had ownership and then the US bought it and it became a quarantine station.”
Reed explained how the Spanish and British bought the island to use it as what is called careenage.
“They would bring large pirates of the Caribbean-like ships, called schooners, they bring them up on a track system, then they would turn them over and repair and clean the boats. Back then you would get ship worms and barnacles and stuff like that… so you had to really take care of your boats.”
Reed went on to explain that after the US bought it, it became a yellow fever quarantine station. She said, “There’s only three of those here; Sabine, Grassy Point and Deadman’s Island.”
As for the name, Reed said the only reference she’s ever seen to the island as Deadman’s Island was after the US purchased it. “Supposedly, some people say it’s because a ‘deadman’ is anything you can tie a boat to, and they had a lot of those up here,” Reed. “But I didn’t see it referenced as Deadman’s Island until it became a yellow fever quarantine station.”
The city acquired part of Deadman’s Island as a donation back in 1977 prior to purchasing the remainder of the island to use mainly for preservation as well as for people to enjoy for recreational purposes.
“Hurricane Dennis came through and exposed seven coffins,” Reed said. “Some were taken to UWF… The coffins were rather small and back then they just kind of folded everything up into the coffin. Everything was encased by the peat material. It’s real interesting.”
Reed said this led to a ground penetrating radar study which found more middens. “We don’t know if they’re Indian artifacts or coffins or what, but we knew that it was worth trying to protect and preserve,” said Reed. “And the State Historic Preservation Office told the City of Gulf Breeze they need to stop the erosion and preserve the historic artifacts, so that’s what we’re doing with our grants and such.”
Reed said, “This is probably the only place that you can come to touch history. Any day you could walk along the beach and find a little rusty something that came from one of the shipwrecks or washed up after a storm.”
Reed said the next planting events are scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 18 and Mar. 4. These events are open to the general public, youth groups, garden clubs and anyone who needs community service hours. The meet-up location will be at the Wayside boat ramp at 8:30 a.m. Reed said volunteer boats to transport are also needed and appreciated.
For more information on how to get involved, contact Heather Reed at (850) 346-2073. To see more about the restoration project, go to www.deadmansisland.org.