INDIAN RIVER COUNTY – Local Vero boat-builder Mark Castlow, armed with little more than passion, is wading into the battle for the Gulf of Mexico, as self-appointed commander of what he is calling the Dragonfly Environmental Army.
Mustering the celebrity firepower of singer Jimmy Buffett, a longtime acquaintance and resident of Palm Beach, Castlow has begun customizing his flats-fishing boats, the namesake of his company, Dragonfly, for use in rescuing wildlife along the coast of the Gulf. However, he is finding good intentions are not enough to sway the powers that be that he has something to offer in the effort to protect the creatures whose habitat is being fouled by the onslaught of oil.
Last week, Castlow took one of the $40,000 boats, built with backing from Buffett, to the marshes of Mississippi, where a third partner and Buffet comrade, Alabaman Jimbo Meador was waiting with University of Southern Mississippi scientists. Meador is working on a PBS documentary on the spill.
But this past Monday, after trailering a second boat north to the Panhandle for an interview with CNN, he got word from the top: no one is allowed to rescue birds from the oil spill without a state or federal license in wildlife recovery or rehabilitation. Because BP is footing the bill, the two designated non-profits handling rescue aren’t even accepting donations for oil-spill wildlife victims.
“No one’s allowed to touch the birds, we’re not allowed to retrieve them,” he said, enraged at the stultifying bureaucracy thwarting the clean-up efforts of volunteers.
Castlow, a native of Coconut Grove, grew up an avid surfer, and when he got old enough to drive, headed north to Fort Pierce, and in 1975, set up shop there building custom surfboards.
He was making up to 35 a week, sending them north to Rhode Island, when he decided to transpose his knowledge of fiberglass to a larger product: boats. With partners, he founded the company that would eventually spawn Maverick, Hewes and Pathfinder boats, from a factory between Fort Pierce and Vero Beach.
Ten years ago, he left that business to start staging fishing and boating shows around the country. Through his travels Castlow realized there was a need for boats customized for particular types of flats-fishing, depending on the region, its anglers and its fish.
Two years ago, Castlow began a business hand-building custom boats – he keeps a camera trained on the projects, so his customers can watch the progress on-line.
This time, his clients go beyond the boats’ bankroller: they are the birds, stranded in the gulf oil spill, if Castlow manages to shear the red tape and get started with his waterlift to safety, with what he hopes will soon be a fleet of six Dragonfly avian ambulances. Indeed, Castlow’s boats are being built to accommodate not only flailing, oil-stricken animal life but humans as well.
Sketching out designs with an architect’s penmanship, he outfitted his minimalist, hand-wrought fiberglass flats boat with an eight-foot table, coated with a non-skid anti-microbial gel, and cooled by solar fans and a full-length folding canopy to shield stressed wildlife and workers alike from the brutal summer sun.
The canopy is rigged with a misting system that when it kicked in, brought a collective sigh of relief from the test crew of scientists last week, when it significantly dropped the temperature.
So far though, even those research scientists have been prevented from retrieving dying birds. If they get the OK, Castlow has mounted a camera on board to transmit the rescue activities over the web.
Media awareness is a large part of Castlow’s edge in the battle, thanks to Buffett, he says, as well as frustrated would-be activists who can’t figure out how else to help, and are tweeting and Facebooking contacts to recruit for the Dragonfly army.
Castlow, who has a writer’s penchant for names, calls the boats by an acronym: S.W.A.T. , short for “Shallow Water Attention Terminal.” His “Dragonfly Environmental Army” gets a similarly intimidating short form, one that packs a punch on a baseball cap: D.E.A.
When Castlow saw that the first two successful rescues of the spill, a pelican and a northern gannet were being taken to the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge for release, Castlow saw his chance to confer with experts.
Dr. Sharon Taylor, a California-based environmental contaminants division chief for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife, and a wildlife veterinarian with experience in numerous oil-spill rescues, made suggestions to enhance Castlow’s original design, which had included a rinsing station and tanks of water. Taylor said the birds were typically so stressed after capture, hydration was not the priority.
Castlow expects four more Dragonfly S.W.A.T.’s to be completed in time for the spreading disaster. In the meantime, he continues recruiting for his environmental army every chance he gets.
“We’re truly not taking ‘no’ for an answer, ” he says.