Andrew Otazo, armed with a knife, gloves, a trash grabber, industrial-strength garbage bags and a powerful mission, showed up at the Bear Cut Nature Preserve on Key Biscayne on Tuesday the way he has countless afternoons over the past year.
He walked past the sunbathers on North Beach, past 40 kite-boarders, past a wading egret and a scurrying hermit crab, ducked into his beloved mangroves, and got back to work.
Against a picturesque backdrop of turquoise water and Miami skyline, he removed a Windex spray bottle nozzle, an empty milk jug, a seven-pound chunk of foam, a flip flop, several water bottles, a beer can, a beer bottle, a plastic lunch container, a plastic cup and fork, and a tangled mess of marine rope and netting that was wrapped around a tree trunk.
Over the past year, Otazo has hauled away 6,500 pounds of trash from those mangroves one bag at a time. This Sunday, he will tow 30 pounds of that garbage on his back for the entire 26.2-mile Miami Marathon in an effort to raise awareness for his cause.
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Otazo, a 31-year-old Miami native who lives on Key Biscayne, has run in four marathons, two half-marathons, one Olympic triathlon, one off-road triathlon, one sprint triathlon, three adventure races, and two mud runs. This Sunday’s race will be the most meaningful of his life.
“I’ve been exploring Bear Cut Preserve since I was a child, and I know that place inside and out. I know, quite literally, every inch of that place,” he said, explaining his obsession with cleaning up the mangroves. “It is an absolutely stunningly beautiful place. It is beyond gorgeous, very diverse. The problem is that there is so much trash there. I’d go out there and be upset because as much as you can enjoy the serenity and beauty of the place, it is marred by all this trash. Tons and tons of trash. It looked like a landfill.”
He wrote letters to the county, and lodged complaints with every agency he could think of. Nothing changed.
“About a year ago, I was like `Nothing’s going to happen if nobody steps up’,” Otazo said. “So, I decided to step up. I went out there with industrial trash bags and I spent day after day, hour after hour cleaning up. To date I have gone through 60 percent of the interior preserve, although along the coast new trash gets deposited with every high tide.”
He documents each day’s clean-up on his GoPro, and started a YouTube channel, which is drawing more interest than Otazo imagined. But he wants to spread the issue further out into the community.
“That’s why I’m doing the marathon fundraiser because I want to very literally bring the problem out of the mangroves, walk the trash around for 26 miles and show the people of Miami, `This is where we live,” he said. “You can’t see it, but it affects you directly. I think people will connect with that, and will care.”
Otazo has been civic-minded since his days at Belen High School. He attended West Point for two years, and transferred to the University of Miami, where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and a Master’s in International Administration. He interned at the State Department, with a focus on initiatives in Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia.
He then moved to Boston. His girlfriend, Loly Sosa, who has supported him through his mangrove cleanup, was attending Harvard Law School, and Otazo found a job working as a personal assistant to former Mexico president Felipe Calderon Hinojosa. From there, he became a research associate at the Harvard Business School, writing case studies involving business in South and Central America and the Caribbean.
Otazo moved back to Miami as the local director of QuikForce, a Harvard Innovation Lab startup, and most recently has been working as Executive Director of the Cuba Study Group, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that aims to make changes in Cuba and influence U.S. decision-makers.
One reason he was so happy to get back to Miami was his love for Key Biscayne and Bear Cut, in particular. He began to study the issue of marine pollution, and the more he learned, the more he wanted to make a change.
His love for the environment began with his father, Julio and mother, Cruz, who goes by “Cuqui.” Together they run MCO Environmental, a construction company that focuses on environmental remediation.
“Caring for the environment was taught to me at a very early age,” he said.
Among the debris he has found in the mangroves: car parts, an empty body bag, syringes, men’s suits, dresses, “lots of underwear”, Styrofoam, plastic bags, plastic straws, pens, lobster traps, a 200-lb. boat, two mattresses, a rug, industrial sheets of plastic, and a bunch of yellow bottles that apparently made their way from Haiti.
He says one big source of garbage are outflows that don’t have trash traps and dump street trash from drains into the bay. Another big culprit is the boating community.
“We have so many careless boaters, and this drives me insane,” Otazo said. “You’ll drive over the Bear Cup bridge on any given weekend and see 20 to 30 boats anchored just off shore. People come on shore and leave everything there. It’s so frustrating. They’ll leave like 30 used diapers, Publix sandwich bags, beer cans and bottles. It’s infuriating.”
The garbage is not only unsightly, Otazo said, it hurts the South Florida wildlife. Many local marine animals spend a portion of their life in the mangroves, especially in their juvenile stages. Those mangrove root systems provide protection from predators. They also serve as an important rectory for birds such as herons, egrets, and ospreys, who build nests and lay eggs there.
Otazo explained that the plastic that is left on shore doesn’t biodegrade, but gets broken down by wind, sun, and tides, and disintegrates into microscopic pieces and those get into the soil and into the water. Animals at the bottom of the food chain mistake it for food, ingest it and the bigger animals and fish eat the smaller ones and it works up the food chain — and eventually, to humans.
“We are eating fish like tuna, marlin, swordfish, and those fish have plastic and toxins in their bodies,” he said.
And so, on Sunday, he will take his message to the streets of Miami. With the help of his friend, Danny Alonso, Otazo made a 30-pound pack of trash, wrapped in netting, and attached it to a hiking bag that Otazo will lug on his back. Otazo, who is 5-6 and 160 pounds, has been training for the race for two-and-a-half months wearing a hiking bag full of dumb bells.
“I’m hoping people will see that thing on my back and say, `What is that?’” Otazo said. “I’m going to look really goofy wearing that pack and I’m wearing hiking shoes and high socks and running shorts. It does not match well, but it will get the job done.”
Otazo says his work has just begun.
“I want to finish cleaning up Bear Cut, at least the interior, and then do regular maintenance along the coastline,” he said. “And I want to make this an issue in South Florida, raise awareness, to educate people that this is a serious problem and find a solution. Say I walk into your kitchen and I see the sink overflowing and water going all over your floor. My first reaction is not to grab a mop, it’s to turn off the sink. We need to turn off the source of marine trash in Miami. I am doing my little part.”