Missing fisherman: Why did search take so long? Lake O is really big

Updated Jan 11, 2018
The vast, seemingly endless, expanse of Lake Okeechobee. Staff photo by Greg Lovett

Just how vast is Lake Okeechobee?

Those following the search this week for missing fisherman Nik Kayler, whose body was found Wednesday, might have wondered why the effort to find him was so difficult and took six days.

After all, it’s just a lake, not an ocean. Why did it take so long?

Lake Okeechobee, Palm Beach County’s avocado-shaped “western coast,” is massive. At 730 square miles, its 135-mile shoreline runs along parts of Palm Beach, Hendry, Glades, Okeechobee and Martin counties, much of it in remote, rural areas.

Searching Lake O’s shore is the equivalent of scouring the length of three Palm Beach Counties, whose shoreline is 46 miles.

RELATED: Post Coverage of Lake Okeechobee

Kayler, 38, from Apopka, was apparently thrown overboard January 4 when bad weather from a strong cold front struck during a fishing tournament.

His family and friends launched an intensive, personal search with dozens of volunteers.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the U.S. Coast Guard and the sheriff’s offices from Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Okeechobee counties were involved. The Federal Aviation Administration halted flights over Lake Okeechobee while boats and aircraft looked for Kayler.

Yet, it still took nearly a week before his body was spotted by a commercial vessel in the lake near the Clewiston water tower.

“It’s been rough, but we got him home,” said Phil Kayler, Nik’s brother.

Considering the the size of the lake, the search might have been expected to take far longer.

The name Okeechobee comes from the Miccosukee words oki (water) and chubi (big).

It’s big water, indeed.

Lake O is nearly half the size of Rhode Island. Of all the lakes in the lower 48 states whose shorelines touch only American territory, only Lake Michigan is bigger.

The big lake is also an oddity in pancake-flat lower Florida.

Picture a huge, shallow bowl pushed down into the porous heart of the southern peninsula, then filled with water to an average depth of only nine feet.

For eons, water from the Kissimmee River plains to the north emptied into this bowl, which overflowed its southern rim every summer, sending a leisurely flowing sheet of water south to nourish the Everglades and Florida Bay.

Floridians in the first half of the 20th century were more concerned with flood control than protecting what Marjorie Stoneman Douglas said were “the world’s only Everglades.”

The St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers became canals to drain the lake’s high water like huge straws sucking water east and west.

After the 1928 hurricane drowned more than 2,500 people in the lake’s farming settlements, the federal government built the Herbert Hoover Dike around the lake, whose structural integrity worries Glades communities every hurricane season.

As engineers engineered the natural water flow of the southern Florida peninsula like some gigantic plumbing project, Lake O has been caught in a tug of war between farmers, environmentalists, wildlife managers and developers requiring a water supply.

The lake has suffered from too much or too little water. Much of what does pour into the lake is contaminated with nitrogen-rich runoff, leading to periodic algae blooms which eat up the lake’s oxygen, suffocating fish and polluting the downstream Everglades.

The lake is an old, old place in a relatively new state.

For hundreds of years before Zora Neale Hurston wrote of the deadly ‘28 hurricane in “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” “It woke up old Okechobee and the monster began to rollin his bed,” the lake was known by other, ancient names.

The oldest reported was “Mayaimi,” meaning big water, a name reported by 16th century explorer Fernando Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda. The lake’s old name was reincarnated as the name of that big metropolis to our south.

A few decades later, the French founder of what is now Jacksonville wrote of hearing of a lake called Serrope. Hidden in the impenetrable Everglades, seen by few Europeans, the lake acquired the mythical status of a Brigadoon.

British mapmakers used the Spanish name, Laguna de Espiritu Santo. By the early 19th century, it was Lake Mayaca after a group of indigenous people, a name preserved by Port Mayaca in Martin County. An 1830 Florida map calls it Lake Macaco, and its surrounding territory shows a network of Indian trails.

In the early 20th century, pioneering farmers discovered the rich, muddy muck soil around the lake, establishing small farming communities, most of which were abandoned or sank in hurricane floods.

Many coastal residents have never seen the big lake, which lies unseen, almost a modern myth, behind its dike, even while traffic on State Road 80 skirts its southern bank.

To see the huge, liquid heart of South Florida, you must climb or drive to the top of the dike. (Pahokee is a good place to do this.)

In front of you, grey-blue water spreads past the horizon, like an inland sea.