April 1, 2023
Florida Icon: Biologist Mike Owen

Photo: Erik Kellar

Florida Icon: Biologist Mike Owen

Biologist, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Copeland; age 59

Art Levy | 4/26/2019

You don’t want to fall on a cypress knee. Those knees, some of them are sharp. You can get speared if you land the wrong way. Probably the most dangerous thing in the swamp is not an animal — not an alligator or a cottonmouth. It’s a cypress knee.

Fakahatchee is Florida’s version of the Amazon. For a biologist, there’s nothing in the United States that can beat this.

The biggest thing my dad taught me was to not be afraid of anything in nature. Just be careful and respectful out there. He did not teach fear.

Back when I was a student at St. Pete Junior College, I saw the book, ‘A Guide to Camping in Nature,’ by Gerald Owen Grow, and his description in that book of Fakahatchee was just really special. I figured, well, I’ve got to see this place. When I finally did, it was in August 1985, long before I went to work there, and the mosquitoes were just crazy. I only lasted maybe five minutes, running the path before the boardwalk started and then I might have made it 100 yards down the boardwalk before I was just covered in mosquitoes. I was 25, and I was pretty tough, but the mosquitoes made me feel like a wimp, so I ran back. But I wasn’t completely intimidated. The fact that I couldn’t see it that first time only strengthened my resolve to return.

The ghost orchid is my favorite orchid because it’s the ultimate underdog. It’s Cinderella. For 51 weeks, it’s a bunch of roots on a tree. The ghost orchid doesn’t even have leaves. She’s just cleaning and doing all the work for 51 weeks, but like Cinderella, when the ghost orchid finally blooms for just seven to 10 days, it steals the ball. Nothing else comes close.

Florida has to manage its water with better foresight and wisdom. The only way we’re going to get there is through an informed public and continued public pressure. When people are informed, they make the right decision.

In 2006, I met a woman by the name of Donna on a swamp walk I was leading. It was exactly two years to the day that my first wife and I decided to split up. What really intrigued me about Donna was her eye for spotting orchids. I’m on this swamp walk, and I had just shown the group a ghost orchid. I usually only show one ghost orchid per group. I knew there was another ghost orchid nearby and I didn’t want to show that one to the group — and Donna spots it! Nobody ever finds ghost orchids on their first trip in the swamp. Your first time, you’re overwhelmed. Most people are just trying to take it all in and not fall in the water. But not Donna. She’s got the eye! Eventually, we decided to get married and have the ceremony in the swamp under the orchid that Donna found. Her orchid held the record for blooms. It bloomed in 2006 and every year after until 2013, when it had a bud and was going to bloom again. Not long before the wedding, which was June 2013, the orchid was poached, scraped off the tree, so we ended up getting married at the orchid I showed the group that first day.

Civilization means we have to treat each other with civility, whether we disagree or not. There’s a lot of competition in nature, but there’s a lot of collaboration, too.

Pythons are incredible creatures. If you’re dealing with a 14-footer, that can kill you. They’re virtually all muscle, and they’re another good reason not to be alone in the swamp. The last several years, I’ve gotten into the habit of carrying garden clippers with me in a holster. Other people carry a machete. If, for some reason, I got into an encounter with a big snake or whatever, at least I could start clipping to save my life.

Me and a couple of guys went out in the swamp quite a while ago to sniff a ghost orchid, to see what it was that attracted the giant sphinx moth, the ghost orchid’s only known pollinator. The fragrance only comes out at night, so we hiked before sunset and waited. We sniffed and decided it smelled clean, just a very pleasant, clean odor. But we’re guys, and we don’t have names for odors, so the very next year we brought a couple of ladies out to the swamp. They sniffed a bloom and said it smelled ‘clean.’

I’ve been told one of the best places to see a panther in South Florida is Janes Scenic Drive in the Fakahatchee Strand. I’ve seen 23 panthers in my 25 years here.

In the swamp, if you get into a hurry, that’s when you’re going to get hurt. You really have to be slow. You have to be methodical. In the swamp, the only thing I do quick is talk.

I enjoy collecting data. I have 70 completely filled out waterproof notebooks, crammed with data on plants and animals and water. I’m old school. I still use pencil and paper. The data is a time capsule that I’ll leave to the future.

Fakahatchee is a Native American term that means either ‘muddy water’ or ‘crooked river’ or ‘pulsing river.’ Another one is ‘hunter’s paradise.’ Those are the four I’ve heard. Maybe all of them are right. To me, though, Fakahatchee means paradise.

Read more in our May issue.

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