String of White Pearls
An inside look at rare and beautiful ecosystems of Walton County’s dune lakesPhoto courtesy Jeffrey Cagle
String of White PearlsRare, Beautiful Dune Lakes are the Northwest Florida’s Most Prized Natural Wonders
By Chuck Beard
Downy white and teetering on long black legs, the Ardea alba is belly-deep in the dark water at the lake’s rim. Tiny bulged eyes focus just below the surface, black pupils darting left and right, and then farther right. An iridescent flash cues the primitive bird brain to strike, and the sharp yellow bill pierces the water like a needle punctures fabric. Before disappearing down the S-shaped neck of its predator, a wriggling Cyprinidae gets its first and last look at dry land.
Stalking the shallow edge of Deer Lake in coastal South Walton County, the Ardea alba has no idea how exclusive its marshy habitat is on our blue planet. If it could fly 7,000 nautical miles southwest to New Zealand, it would feel right at home on Lake Papaitonga, where it would trade its common American name – great egret – for the more colorful native kotuku.
Deer Lake and Lake Papaitonga share the rare designation of “dune lake.” Dune lakes have the unique characteristic of periodically exchanging their natural fresh water with salt water from the ocean, creating a distinct ecosystem for plant and animal life.
Located about 150 miles west of Tallahassee, Walton County is home to 15 natural coastal dune lakes, more than any other location on earth. Only Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. northwest Pacific Coast offer similar ecosystems.
Ebb and Flow
Walton County’s dune lakes have passes, or small inlets, that open to the Gulf of Mexico. These passes allow salt water and fresh water to periodically exchange and flush out the lakes.
When a dune lake’s water level reaches a certain critical height through rain or other inflow, the weakest area of sand around the bank separating the lake from the Gulf will “blowout,” creating an outfall that releases fresh water laterally near the surface into the Gulf. At that point, seawater – having a greater density than fresh water – flows into the lake near the bottom to create an estuarine environment.
Wind activity plays a great part in a dune lake’s development as well. When rock is eroded or sand is redistributed by heavy winds, the lake’s shape and composition can change.
Once the lake’s freshwater level subsides, the opening between the lake and the Gulf will disappear until that critical height is reached again and the process repeats itself.
As each coastal dune lake has its own unique level of outfall and frequency of flushing, salinity composition between the lakes can differ greatly. Some dune lakes are connected to the Gulf for long periods of time, while others, such as Campbell Lake, rarely make the exchange.
Get Your Feet Wet
Western Lake is one of the largest dune lakes in Walton County, and Matt LaBo of Blue Sky Kayak Tours knows it well. Meet him at the WaterColor Boat House and suit up in swimwear, boat shoes and life vest. Essentials include sunscreen, bottled water, bug repellent and snacks. You’re out in the sun the whole time, so consider bringing appropriate headgear. And don’t forget the camera and binoculars.
With no current or waves to impede progress, paddling on the lake is very easy, even for the amateur kayaker. Never kayaked before? Just remember: Paddling on the left propels you forward and right, and paddling on the right propels you forward and left. Today’s kayaks are amazingly stable, so you don’t have to worry too much about capsizing.
LaBo takes the lead and talks about the points of interest. Have binoculars ready, as you might see a red-shouldered hawk glide overhead at any time. Ospreys are often sighted.
“They’re highly specialized to hunting fish and eating fish,” LaBo said. An osprey’s inner eyelid is adapted to reduce the glare of sunlight on the water – “like polarized sunglasses.”
Unusual among predatory birds, their talons are distributed two toes forward and two toes back, which provides these predators extra stability while carrying live prey. Also, ospreys carry the fish headfirst to make it as aerodynamic as possible.
Dune lakes are famously diverse in their plant and animal life. Head to shore, walk a few hundred yards inland and you’ll move through three different eco-zones: coastal upland area, true forest and coastal dune environment. Spindly live oaks are everywhere, interspersed with saw palmetto, magnolia, flash pine, longleaf pine and turkey oak (named for leaves that resemble a turkey’s foot).
Mastodons and giant armadillos once lumbered through the dunes here, but now you’ll see tracks of wild deer, feral pigs, Osceola turkey and even Arkansas razorbacks.
Massive and intimidating in size, the dunes are surprisingly fragile, and can be flattened by unknowingly careless beachcombers. Though they look solid, these wedge-shaped mounds are actually formed by intricate plant root systems. Burrow deep inside and you’ll find very little sand.
These delicate dunes, which grow in height at a rate of about a foot a year, are protected, in part, from the elements found on the windward side. In turn, flora on the leeward side grows green and lush.
LaBo’s Western Lake tours generally take a couple of hours. Both single and double kayaks are available. For the best photo opportunities, take a double and sit up front, and make your partner do all the rowing from the back.
After touring the lake, park your kayak and get a taste of the area’s culinary delights at the Fish Out of Water restaurant, located on the second floor of the elegant WaterColor Inn and overlooking the gulf. A coastal Southern charm pervades the air, and you can’t go wrong with the seafood or sushi. The outstanding chilled seafood platter appetizer is a don’t miss.
Preserve and Protect
Dune lakes have been identified as “critically imperiled in Florida because of extreme rarity” by the Florida Natural Areas Inventory, and human alteration to natural drainage is seen as a threat.
With an eye on the area’s aggressive development, a Coastal Dune Lakes Task Force has been formed by the county to monitor the effects any development will have on the fragile dune lakes.
“No construction or disturbance will be allowed,” says the Walton County Comprehensive Plan. “A buffer area of not less than 50 feet of vegetated area will be left undisturbed along either side of the natural outlet from the lake.”
Another group dedicated to preservation of the dune lakes is the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance, an organization founded by Okaloosa-Walton College to protect and preserve the natural resources of the Choctawhatchee River and Bay, while encouraging sustainable development. The alliance is made up of area residents, developers, educators, community groups and interested citizens.
“What folks need to do is talk to their local government about planning issues and controlling growth,” said Department of Environmental Protection biologist Randall Payne. “People have to learn to live with, accept and appreciate the natural environment without trying to change it into something else.”
Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council
Blue Sky Kayak Tours
Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance
Fish Out of Water
Florida Natural Areas Inventory