Jack E. Davis knows the Gulf of Mexico better than, well, just about anybody. He grew up on both the panhandle of Florida and in the Tampa Bay area, but it was writing the newly released book, The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea, that solidified the University of Florida professor’s expertise. At nearly 600 pages, it’s the first comprehensive history of the Gulf of Mexico. Beginning, quite literally, from the basin’s beginnings 150 million years ago when the Yucatán Peninsula separated from Florida, The Gulf traces the sea’s history through the records of prehistoric peoples and colonial explorers to today’s fishing and oil industries. Davis argues that not only is the body of water important for its resources, it’s a vital part of the story of the South and the United States in general. We spoke with him about some of his favorite discoveries.
You cover so much in this book. How did you break down the entire history of the Gulf?
I organized the chapters around natural characteristics—shells, rivers, fish, birds—and then used human subjects, like the artist Walter Anderson, and their stories to lend structure. But nature is the marrow and flesh of this book. The story that emerges is a bit of both nature writing and historical narrative—there are descriptions of mangroves and coastal marshes, birds migrating, and the beach and where it came from.
There’s also a whole chapter (“The Wild Fish That Tamed the Coast”) devoted to the history of anglers—and especially those chasing tarpon. Why was that fish so important to the area?
You can ask anyone who has ever caught a tarpon; it’s a glorious fighting fish. But back in the 1800s, people couldn’t figure out how to catch them at first. They would harpoon it and let the fish drag a skiff around until it tired itself out. But then this New York architect came down and hooked the first tarpon in 1885. Then others figured out how to do it, and word got out.
Before then, many of the Gulf’s cities and towns we know today didn’t even exist. When the sport fishing industry set on fire, people were coming from all over to catch tarpon, so a tourist industry grew. Everything was named “Tarpon Bay” or “tarpon” whatever—every boat and skiff, inn, restaurant, and bar and grill. East-Coasters went to Florida to fish, Midwesterners went to Texas, and for some reason there were a lot of tarpon fishers from Kentucky. Women loved the sport, too. Thomas Edison and his wife, Mina, had a house in Fort Myers, Florida, and she was as much of a tarpon fanatic as he was. She would write letters home to friends about how tarpon that got away were the “sauciest things.” There were all sorts of surprises like that—I loved writing that chapter.
Give us a tour through some of your favorite places on the Gulf.
Padre Island, Texas, is a national seashore and is just stunning. If you don’t have a spiritual experience visiting Padre Island, there’s something wrong with you. It’s magical. There are these beautiful, colorful dunes along the shore and then you look west and it’s prairies.
In Louisiana, Avery Island is a great place to go. It’s the home of Tabasco as well as a bird sanctuary.
Around the coast, in Mississippi, visit the Walter Anderson Museum. He is really considered the artist of the Gulf of Mexico. He lived most of his time on Horn Island and kept these wonderful island logs that are beautifully written and illustrated.
When you’re driving along the coastal byways, you see both the old South and the new South. Mobile, Alabama, is an old city that still has that antebellum feel to it. It’s quite beautiful with marshes around Mobile Bay.
The beaches along the Florida panhandle are sugar sand beaches, and I think they are the best in the world. There’s that emerald-colored water like a gemstone itself. What a lot of people don’t realize is that those beaches are really the Appalachian Mountains. That sugar sand is eroded quartz, so when you walk on the beach, you walk on the mountains.
Highway 98 is the miracle strip because almost the entire way, you have a view of the Gulf. Port St. Joe, Florida, has an outstanding state park to camp in. If you’re a kayaker, you can take your kayak along the barrier islands there. And then Cedar Key is a charming place that has become so successful with aquaculture they call it “Clamelot.” Cedar Key is ‘Old Florida’ and has done a wonderful job preserving its character.
What do you hope readers take away from your writing?
I hope it encourages Americans to reconnect with the Gulf by reminding them that we have this marvelous sea in our backyard. It’s shaped our history, and it is more than an oil pump and pretty beaches. We have taken a lot from it, and that’s okay, but to continue doing that, we have to continue to take care of its estuaries, rivers, and diversity of life. This is really America’s sea, so I think we have a responsibility to be good stewards of the water that has given so much to us.