Don’t Order the Grouper

A submarine trip to the scariest thing off the coast of Florida.

A submarine prepares to deploy to a sewage outflow in Florida.

Photo courtesy of Dave Tompkins

I’ve never piloted a submarine through human effluent. Sitting inside a glass sphere built for two, I receive my instructions on how to surface, in case the driver suffers an adverse medical event. At the helm, Robert Carmichael wants to make sure I don’t freak out in the benthic zone—that I can manage rear buoyancy and have a basic Zaxxon-ian grasp of how to operate a joystick.

Our destination is the mouth of an active sewer pipe entrenched two miles from Hollywood Beach, Florida, south of Fort Lauderdale. Carmichael wants to film the toxic outfall for his Project Baseline initiative, a conservation nonprofit working with volunteer cave mappers, divers, marine biologists, hydro-geologists, and people who don’t want their seafood marinating in medical bio-waste. The pipe is referred to as the “poop cannon.” The sub’s dispatcher, a 145-foot research vessel called the Baseline Explorer, is anchored nearby and has confirmed the bearings of the pipe’s business end.

It’s 98 degrees inside our tiny bubble. The extreme heat is a by-product of a scrubbing system that recycles our exhaled CO2 into a breathable mix of nitrogen and oxygen. (No helium, alas.) “It’s an exothermic reaction but allows us to breathe and think clearly,” says Carmichael, a cave diver who holds patents in re-breathers and recreational diving hookahs. I’m gripping the sub’s emergency instructions, a placard laminated against sweat, which I’m contributing in volume. Until now, the most time I’ve spent underwater was when a hurricane bearing my father’s name (Charley) stole my trunks while trying to drown me in its eye when I was 15. My experience in crisis management at depth is lacking.

“Do me a favor,” says Carmichael. “Tell me if you see anything big and weird.” We’re cruising through what is essentially a coral ossuary. What’s big and weird is the absence of visibility and color—rather than a thriving reef of hermaphroditic coral, we’re navigating a lunar rubble dusted with dredge silt. Scuba divers from the Baseline Explorer appear vague in the grainy water outside our window. If—as Joy Williams once wrote—a diver “is what he sees,” they may not even exist. Our mission isn’t exotic. We’re a plumber’s Cousteau.

A sea turtle blows by with purpose. Carmichael turns a buoyancy valve, releasing pressure with a hydraulic hiss, as if a bus had knelt in my ear. Another sub dispatched from the Baseline Explorer gently alights on the seabed next to us, sitting on large cylindrical batteries. For some reason, I wave to them in slow motion like an astronaut, confusing 90 feet below sea level for deep space. Sense of abyss is relative.

Ten feet before us, a sewer pipe made out of limestone spews yellow-brownish insults into the reef ecosystem. The pipe’s mouth is barely visible through the cluster of baitfish and foragers, a silver mass of twitch and glide binging on nutrients long processed and evacuated by Broward County taxpayers. A goliath grouper bullies its way through and enters the pipe to feed. I’m told to watch out for fishing lines—an entanglement hazard for the sub’s thrusters. The Hollywood outfall pipe serves as a popular fishing spot, toilet to table.

The grouper emerges from the pipe and lies on its side on the ocean floor, as if for a post-gorge nap. Apparently, nature isn’t easily grossed out. The algae are symbiotically thrilled. The overload of nitrogen and phosphorous from the outfall has resulted in an explosion of phytoplankton. Overfed from eutrophication, the blooms suffocate the corals, draining the reefs of oxygen and color. With a kudzu instinct for hyper-competitiveness, algae are outgrowing all other species. Todd Kincaid, a hydro-geologist working with Project Baseline, says it’s like dumping loads of Miracle-Gro and used cat litter into the water—47.5 million gallons of partially treated sewage daily.

“There’s a lot of other stuff in sewage, other than nitrogen and phosphorous,” says Brian LaPointe, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. “There’s viruses, heavy metals, bacteria, personal care products. Pharmaceuticals, hormones, plasticizers, house care products—thousands of chemicals that don’t even get monitored.”

Traces of high blood pressure medicines and Viagra have been especially prevalent in local effluent.* LaPointe says it’s disrupting the reproductive cycles of marine life. It’s also been shown that corals can be susceptible to disease transmitted by human pathogens found in sewage.

The submarines before launch off the coast of Florida.

Photo courtesy of Dave Tompkins

In 2005, LaPointe published a study revealing a “wastewater fingerprint” in macroalgae, research that would contribute to the closing of sewage outfalls in Delray Beach in 2009. (LaPointe has also been waging war on septic tanks throughout the state of Florida.) In 2008, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection began legislation forcing Dade and Broward counties to shut down the pipes. Municipalities fought back, complaining about costs, and they received an extension until 2025. Meanwhile, the EPA’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits have been in limbo amid arguments as to whether the outfalls are the responsibility of state or federal water managers. In 2007, Carl Hiaasen called attention the outfalls in the Miami Herald. “It’s pretty appalling,” he says, on the phone from his home in Florida. “Gives new meaning to ‘It’s the same ol’ shit.’ ”

The new treatment system will involve injecting sewage 3,000 feet underground. Doug Yoder, deputy director of Miami’s central plant at Virginia Key, believes the energy required for this project could ultimately cause more long-term environmental harm. “When the legislation was being considered, we pointed out that a much more significant threat to the reef systems are sea level rise and global warming—all of which are arguably going to be made worse as a result of all the extra energy and fossil fuels required for us to manage the wastewater flows.”

In the meantime, South Florida’s resident tourists could be swimming in dilute sewage. “The fish aren’t there for the dissolved nitrogen,” says Todd Kincaid. “There’s other stuff coming out of that pipe and you can see it. It’s brown—if you look close there’s little particles.” Yoder suggests the earth tones could be due to tannins in the groundwater from the canal systems. The fresh water effluent loses its disturbing color once it reaches the surface and becomes invisible when carried north along the currents, toward Spring Break.

Florida’s economy is largely dependent on a thriving reef ecosystem that’s now in danger of being mobbed by algae blooms. Project Baseline is currently raising money to inject florescein dye into the Hollywood pipe on St. Patrick’s Day, for downstream color, and watch the beaches go green.

Going under right off the coast of Florida.

Photo courtesy of Dave Tompkins

The Hollywood Beach pipe is just one of six sewer lines along Florida’s coast. Virginia Key has been receiving the chud of the wealthy since another pipe was extended south from Miami Beach in 1971. Designated as a “black-only” beach in 1945, this small barrier island lies in Biscayne Bay, a half-mile southwest from Fisher Island and the noses of residents like Julia Roberts and Mel Brooks. In the mid-1980s, the Virginia Key treatment plant began dosing Fisher Island with a lemon-fresh Big D (or Sewer D), a countereactant dispersed from misting nozzles. In addition to the sewage plant, neighbors of the stinking rich include an oil depot, the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, the beach where Notorious B.I.G. sweated, profusely, through his first Miami Bass party, Death Star dredge barges, and whatever else happens to be floating through the Port of Miami. It’s quite an ecosystem.

In 1987, geologists in a submarine could hear the geyser roar of effluents while conducting a “quick and dirty” study of the Virginia Key pipe and shipwreck reefs. In addition to the rich biodiversity, they discovered that corals and other “community encrusters” were living on the pipe as a substratum. In Florida, corals have been known to make homes out of discarded German grenades, so a sewage pipe seems like a relatively low habitat risk assessment, at least until the algae started stealing all the sunlight.

“I knew they would be on that pipe,” says Colin Foord, a marine biologist based in Miami. Foord runs Coral Morphologic, a coral cloning lab and video art studio he co-founded with childhood friend Jared McKay inside a Pentecostal church in Overtown. Foord has been diving in Biscayne sewage for the past eight years, documenting coral’s adaptive properties in Miami’s polluted urban watereways. He recently boated me out to an underwater meteor crater near Virginia Key.

It was Foord who first suggested I do a submarine dive, a conversation that was initiated by his wish to install a giant “pyramid blaster” subwoofer in the crater. Both ideas presented challenges. To name just one, keeping humans alive underwater is a cost-prohibitive venture. We’d originally approached a private submersible company in Miami, but they relocated their operations—and sub—to Seattle, where the rapper Macklemore was allowed to splashdown for free.

That’s when we were able to tag along with Project Baseline, which is funded by Global Underwater Explorers, with headquarters in High Springs in Central Florida, a cave-diving haven that provided the crash set for Airport ’77.* Foord joined me aboard the Baseline Explorer when I did the sub drop near the outfall pipe. “We’re going to be exploring the asshole of Miami,” Foord smiled. “What could be better?” As you may have gathered, Caddyshack sense of turd humor is needed to distract one from the possible eco-horror at hand, especially in a state where water-borne flesh-eating bacteria is a reality.

* * *

My late brother was a watercolorist named after a treatment plant in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He once joked about a desire to be reincarnated as sewage legislation—using transmigration to shut down his namesake. Maybe that’s why I’m on the Baseline Explorer.

The author underwater.

Photo courtesy of Dave Tompkins

When I first step on board, I skip the hyperbaric decompression chamber and go straight for the subs. “We have two submersibles,” Carmichael tells me. “So we can rescue ourselves.” I’m so excited I forget to be terrified. I want to do all kinds of rookie moves, like operate the robot manipulator arm while the sub’s strobe light is flashing.

Carmichael tells me the sub cruises at “half the speed of you,” drifting somewhere between Hydra and flotsam. Before our descent, he’s in the cockpit, running through crosschecks. I carefully lower a tray of CO2 scrubber granules so we’ll be able to breathe. Carmichael asks me to hand him a 55-pound lead bag. “That’s to make sure we sink.” A diver walks by, all nitro swagger. “This ain’t Disneyland!” Another expert in mixing breathable gases.

It’s finally spashdown time. We are in the sub, suspended from a giant hook above the ocean like a nerdy piece of leviathan bait. The sun has baked the bubble and my t-shirt is already soaked, leeching at my back. The crew takes pictures. The captain, who told me he was an escaped convict from Louisiana, waves.

We’re now half submerged. Green water slaps at the glass, briefly magnifying and dispersing the figures on board. It feels like I’m looking out of a paperweight.

We’re going under.

Don’t panic.

Don’t think about all the times you napped through the flight attendant’s emergency instructions before take-off. Don’t think, for a moment, that you’re still on a plane dreaming about piloting a submarine. Don’t think about the German U-boat that was sunk by its own “high pressure toilet” in April 1945. Don’t forget the U-boatmen’s collective nightmare of being buried alive. Don’t choose this time to decide you are claustrophobic. Don’t hyperventilate, for there’s no room to breathe.

Continuing not panicking.

Don’t order the grouper.

In memory of Ross Severan von Burg, who originally encouraged us to do the sub drop but passed while the story was being written.

Correction, Nov. 10, 2015: This article originally misspelled Viagra. (Return.) It also originally misstated that the headquarters of Global Underwater Explorers is in Wakulla Springs. It is High Springs, Florida. (Return.)