The park came through the recent Columbus Day weekend – traditionally one of the busiest and most dangerous of the year – relatively unscathed. An estimated 700 to 800 boats gathered in the clear shallow waters off Elliott Key beginning as early as Friday night. The park was enforcing its so-called “Five Boat Rule,” which limits to five the maximum number of boats tied together and requires a minimum of 100 feet in between rafts of boats and individual, non-rafted boats. The separation allows for emergency access while at the same time decreasing interaction among attendees in the crowded anchorage.
This year marked a return to a focus on the park’s resources and a considerably stronger NPS presence in planning, coordination, enforcement and public education. Recent years had seen a lessening of all of those things in favor of allowing partner agencies to take on much of the responsibility for what was happening in the park, with little change in reducing the actual impacts on the park’s resources.
Wayne Rybeck, incident commander over the weekend, says that early enforcement and strong coordination among participating agencies are being credited with the fact that there were few injuries and no deaths this year (six people have died at the event over the past ten years). Notable incidents included a woman who was removed by helicopter after falling on her chin while pole dancing and a man who received CPR from a ranger at one of the marinas that empties into the park. Ranger Gretchen Messa had just received CPR training two weeks earlier when she was called to assist the man who was lying unconscious in the bottom of his boat. Paramedics took over, and the man was taken away by ambulance. Messa reports that the man arrived back at the marina by taxi two hours later, ready to rejoin the party.
Other significant incidents include 12 boating under the influence (BUI) arrests, four unauthorized commercial operations cases, and multiple incidents of minors in possession of alcohol, disorderly conduct, public intoxication, violations of the Five Boat Rule and excessively loud music. There were also several drug seizures, including cocaine, Ecstasy and over ten pounds of marijuana, the largest drug haul in the history of Columbus Day weekend in Biscayne National Park. In total, over 200 cases were pulled in the four days.
A multipronged public information campaign in the weeks leading up to the event included a heavy ranger presence at marinas to distribute information to boaters, a Facebook series on what is appropriate in a national park, and tripling the presence of NPS staff at the annual news conference, which was held in the park this year rather than at the Coast Guard Station in Miami Beach. Large flashing traffic signs at two of the marinas summarized the regulations while boaters waited to launch. Staff searched the internet for commercial operators advertising trips into the party, and contacted the operators before they arrived.
Another addition this year was a trial run of water quality testing. If the tests show increased levels of ammonia, fecal coliform and other indicators of water pollution, the park will seek to do additional testing next year.
The park is indebted to the US Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary, Customs and Border Protection, the Florida Fish and Game Commission, Miami-Dade Police Department, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, and rangers from Everglades, Big Cypress, Canaveral, and Gulf Islands for their assistance in keeping the event under control and protecting park resources.
One particularly bright spot occurred early Monday morning when approximately ten visitor boats combed the anchorage collecting trash and lost valuables, such as anchors, sunglasses, jewelry and the like from the sea grass beds.
More background on Columbus Day Weekend in Biscayne National Park is available on the park’s website at www.nps.gov/bisc/planyourvisit/columbus-day-weekend.htm.