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Sunday Favorites: Exploring Dune Lakes of the Panhandle


SANTA ROSA BEACH -- When I was around eight years old, we visited my cousins in Santa Rosa Beach, a quiet beachfront town in the panhandle, near Panama City. A walk down the shore with my brother revealed a large saltwater-fed pond produced by the Gulf tides via a saltwater stream, which meandered through the sand.

Not understanding the physics of that particular beach system, my brother and I took one look at it and like any reasonable kids, we decided the streams that ran to the gulf could be better if they were straighter. 

The stream was only about five or six feet from the breaking waves; however it seemed to stretch for a long distance paralleling to the shoreline before finally meeting it. My brother, Elan, and I took buckets and shovels and began digging.

It took us hours but as a child time doesn't mean the same and it felt like the single greatest construction project of all time. As we finally had a foot-wide passage from the beginning of the stream to the shore, we didn’t anticipate that the pressure from the lake would widen our small passage instantaneously, caving in the sand and quickly tripling, then quadrupling our manmade canal.

We tried to stop the spillage, but to no avail; by then the current was too strong and we could only watch in horror as hundreds of lakefront homes lost their waterfront in a matter of minutes.


Even my parents were horrified, telling us to get back to Aunt Barb’s before someone figured out that it was our family that had so effortlessly managed to decrease property values and destroy an entire ecosystem just because they wanted to build a small mote for their amusement. 

“Don’t mention this to anyone,” they said, looking at each other with a sigh and saying simultaneously, “Only our kids could cause such destruction.”

That was over 20 years ago. Last weekend, my boyfriend, Drew, and I revisited my Aunt Barb in Santa Rosa Beach. As we drove down Hwy 98, we passed several “dune ponds.” As we approached each one, I wondered if that was the one my brother I had drained as children.

When we got to Aunt Barb’s house I broke my decades-long silence on the topic and spilled the beans about the, well, " pond spillage." Barbara said that the lakes naturally broke through the sand about once a year draining the lake and spilling tanic water into the azure-colored saltwater that made up the Emerald Coast.

Whew, I thought, what a relief. The event had only been weighing on my conscience for over twenty years. 

I would later learn that the coastal dune lakes where I played as a child are rare. They occur in only two places in the United States: the Florida panhandle and the northern Pacific Coast. To make them even more exotic, they can be found at only three other places in the world - Madagascar, Australia and New Zealand. 

According to the Walton County website, they are formed by streams, groundwater seepage and rain. However, a storm surge creates intermittent connections (the meandering streams) to the Gulf of Mexico, called outfalls. “This periodic connection empties lake water into the Gulf, and, depending on tides and weather, salt water and organisms from the Gulf flow back into the lakes,” according to the website.


People are allowed to fish, kayak, canoe and paddleboard in the lakes but motors are prohibited. Altering the natural outfalls of the lakes are also prohibited (whoops). The website also says that both freshwater and saltwater species of fish can be caught in the lake, which makes them uncommon but efficient asset to anglers.

This time I didn't feel the need to dig the sand or alter them in any way. Instead, I simply recounted the story to Drew, who jokingly said, "Well, I bet this was a nice place before you guys ruined it."

We spent the day roaming the beach, checking out the dunes and the lakes, taking pictures and having fun. They were beautiful and again I was amazed at the geology of my home state, a place that offers just about any kind of beach you could imagine. 

I look back on that day when my brother and I tried to connect the lake to the Gulf and it makes me laugh. It's nice to know that sometimes you can revisit your past, even if it's not quite the way you remember it.


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