Category Archives: Panacea Florida

Riding the Tide into a Salt Marsh

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We did something I have wanted to do for a long time. We rode the incoming tide from Levy Bay to the big pool at the intersection of Chattahoochee St in Panacea and Highway 98. There is a channel that winds through marsh grass swamps, sinkholes with springs, and some forested areas. The land is privately owned so you can’t leave the water but you do get to see some forest along the trip. We started at the Levy Bay landing which is a public boat dock. The marsh turns into impassable mud flats at low tide so we arrive one and half hours before high tide. By the time we had the canoe down and everything set up, we had one hour until high tide.

The tide rushes into these narrow channels at a brisk pace. You have to pay careful attention to avoid getting stuck on sandbars or hitting oyster bars. There are also lots of obstacles like fallen trees, remnants of old docks, and debris. Additionally the channel itself has many deep pools over springs where you simply can’t see the bottom in the brownish water. So we rode the tide in. In places it was like mini rapids. Always a strong flowing current fast moving to ride. The water is topped with foam, full of all kinds of bits of debris and detritus and it abounds with all kinds of crab holes along along the muddy banks of the marsh grass. We saw mullet, smaller fish, a string ray in black about 18 inches across the wing tips and many birds, especially egrets, cranes and vultures.

We did not bring our camera. We have used the rice trick (putting the camera in a bag of rice to dry out) once already after a canoe trip and while the camera recovered, the calendar never worked again so my pictures always come out marked as having occurred on 2013 date the camera got dunked. It was a good thing we didn’t try to take pictures. Riding the tide in those narrow channels at quite a good clip while avoiding all the potential places to spill was challenging enough. If you look at the picture you can see near the end of the route one very large and very deep pool. It was a real pleasure to come charging in there at top speed and find ourselves in this huge relatively calm place. The volume of water there is so deep even the incoming tide makes only a small impression. Though the water was clear we could not see the bottom making me wonder if maybe there is a smaller version of the Wakulla spring in the deepest place.

We rested a bit and then took the final small channel to the egret pond next to the highway. That was our goal. We see that pool every time we drive to the beach and I really wanted to find out why it always has at least three white egrets in it. We arrived at top speed out of the channel to find ourselves on a flat mud basin. The egrets were intently feeding and barely looked up, as if canoes with humans arrive here all the time. They had certainly had no need to worry since we were firmly grounded on smelly mud.

We unstack ourselves with much heave ho-ing and worked our way back up the channel to the deep pool. The tide was already ebbing. By the time we crossed the deep pool the rush of water had ended so we leisurely wended our way across the pool and then back up the channel. As we arrived in sight of our truck the tide began to turn and run back out. We rode the reversed current the last few hundred yards.

Being a prairie girl and not accustomed to the ocean, the tide fascinates me. The marsh breathes the water in and then breathes it out. The grass and creatures that live on the shore line have adapted to thrive in the rhythmic rise and fall. The marsh’s rich detritus is carried out of the marsh with the tide and feeds the wildlife at the bottom of the food chain. Farther and farther up the food chain larger and larger creatures wait at the mouths of the channel and then at the mouths of the bay ready to eat. The marsh is the food source of many creatures in the bay.

The marsh also serves as a nursery for much of the sea life. Many fish swim into the bays and lay eggs and then swim out. The fry hatch and grow in the shelter of the marsh feeding on insects and the like until they are finally big enough to ride the tide out. The endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles feast on blue crab in the bay for two years or so before continuing their slow migration back around the gulf to their breeding places. The mud flats, like the final place we saw all those egrets, is its own feasting place for these and many other glorious birds..

One of the unfortunate things that has happened in Florida is that many of these nurseries and feeding places have been filled, levelled and now have shopping malls and hotels and houses. Wakulla has been blessed with acres and acres and acres of coastal wetlands that protect and nourish the Gulf. There is a tale of this area that says a very rich woman once asked naturalist and writer Jack Rudloe how to best help sea horses. He told her protect the marshes on the coast because the marshes feed the reefs just off shore where the sea horses live. And so she bought six miles of coastland marsh and she does nothing with it except protect it in order to protect the sea horses.

The world needs more such wise women.

Peaceful Days

We have settled into our Florida home. Life has been gentle and sweet. Long days of lazy beach walking, and collecting natures treasures. We were walking the beach and found endless sea pansy soft coral so we carried handfuls back to the marine lab where they will be put to good use instead of dying. Another day we watched our favourite dolphin pod driving mullet into the shore in high surf and we were overjoyed to see they have a new baby. I shouted my congratulations and was treated to a waving tail display and a happy jump and a rolling wave of one flipper in the air. Dolphins call dogs. Jack’s Lily swims out and then swims with them when they call. The dolphins like Lily, especially the younger ones and they greet her and try to get her to play but she isn’t a very good swimmer. When they get bored with her simply one dimensional stroke they swim off and she returns to shore, exhausted but full of doggy joy.

On the walk pictured below, in a heavy fog, we disturbed a large osprey who had just caught a fish. The bird flew off with the squirming fish tight in its grip. Yet another day we found a pile of slag from the clearing of a canal and it was packed full of fossils. We carried home chunks of ancient sea bed turned to rock with shells and worm tracks that day. We saw my favourite bird of all birds, the impossible, ridiculous, roseate spoonbill which is much more respectable looking in its native habitat doing its natural thing than when seen in any zoo. The winter birds who headed south before us, but whom we left in Georgia, have finally arrived and the trees are full of cardinals, robins, oriels,  blue jays, hundreds of starlings in stunning murmurations, golden and brown finches and yellow warblers and all those nondescript little brown ones I can never distinguish. They are far quieter and far more social in winter than when they are combating for mates and nesting places back in Alonsa so one can see entire folks living in peaceful close proximity.

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The dogs love the beach. Each morning a large group of dog owners meets early and walks the beach with dogs off leash. The dogs run and play and do the dog thing with abandon while we walk and chat about grandchildren, vehicles, our aches and pains, and where good sales are. The dogs roll in the stinky gunk, swim in the water and dig, endlessly dig in the sand. We moan about how they will need a bath again but none of us makes a move to interfere with their dog play. Some dogs try fishing. The fish are too smart. The crabs fight back and win. Yelp and a quick walk back and the dropped crab moves off. Some dogs, like my Trusty, prefer to just lie there and enjoy the sun and the heat in quiet dignity. Trusty watches the others with disdain and she never needs a bath. The only time I have ever seen Trusty get excited and take to the surf was when the dolphins called her, presumably to show off their new baby. She’s not as good at swimming as Lily and she gave up when the waves hit her chest. She ran up and down the beach crying, unable to fully answer their song. I wish I could hear it.

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Most people like the beach when its sunny and hot. I prefer to go to the beach when it’s cloudy and cool and a stiff breeze makes for rolling surf. On such days it’s often just us with our dogs and we can walk for kilometres without meeting another human being. These are also the days one is most likely to see the dolphins.

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There is something healing about the beach. The voice of Ulmo (if you are a Tolkien’s Silmarillion fan you will recognize that) is soothing.

As a child I had favourite song. I learned it in school. Our school day began with the Lord’s Prayer and two hymns from an English child’s hymnal.

I often hum it quietly to myself as I walk the beach listening to the waves.

“This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.”

“This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.”

“This is my Father’s world, dreaming, I see His face.
I open my eyes, and in glad surprise cry, “The Lord is in this place.”
This is my Father’s world, from the shining courts above,
The Beloved One, The Holy One,
Came—a pledge of deathless love.”

“This is my Father’s world, should my heart be ever sad?
The Lord is King—let the heavens ring. God reigns—let the earth be glad.
This is my Father’s world. Now closer to Heaven bound,
For dear to God is the earth we trod.
No place but is holy ground.”

“This is my Father’s world. I walk a desert lone.
In a bush ablaze to my wondering gaze God makes His glory known.
This is my Father’s world, a wanderer I may roam
Whate’er my lot, it matters not,
My heart is still at home.”

There should be something about dolphins in there. Perhaps I will have to add a verse.

Florida is in full bloom.

It’s getting to be far too hot and I am counting the days until we head north to escape the heat (32C) 89F yesterday with 100% humidity so the sweat just rolls off instead of evaporating and cooling. I will miss Florida when we leave, but not this heat. The locals are just now coming alive and have stopped complaining about the bitter cold of temperatures that require more than a T shirt. They haven’t started sweating yet either. They just laugh at me when I complain about the heat.

One thing that has just astounded me with the arrival of heat has been the way everything has suddenly decided it’s spring and now is the time to start blooming. There is so much that is green year around here in winter that I didn’t notice it’s drab for most the time we have been staying here. Now we have this positive riot of passionate colours that could teach the north a little about blooming. I took pictures of just the flowers on my two short blocks walk from our parking spot to the Marine Lab when I went to pick up the mail. Wow. I recognize fuchsia (pink) and wisteria (purple) but the rest are unknown to me. It’s just lovely.

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Mission Accomplished; I love my Truck!

One of the fun things about hanging about at Gulf Specimen Marine Lab and being handy and available, is you just never really know what you might be asked to do. This day, it turns out their truck was in the shop and the boat was back from the shop, and they had specimen orders waiting to be filled. So Cypress Rudloe, who is Jack’s son, and their managing director, asked me if I could move the boat for him. I had already done this once before so I jumped at the chance to give the old Ford F150 pickup a chance to act like a real truck instead of a fancy fully equipped passenger vehicle with a funny trunk. Just in case the warranty people are checking up on me, I did make sure this boat and trailer were below the maximum specified weight in the manual. This whole boat going down the road is about an every third truck occurrence on this highway here. It seems like everyone has a boat.

This was all great fun for me. There was even one muddy mushy spot where I had to switch into four wheel drive to get out of the muck and move along. Oh how fun! Vroom Vroom goes my truck and I love my truck. I might just leave that mud on it for while, I am so proud of it. I have a working truck.

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St George Island

We enjoyed a quiet afternoon at St George Island. This lovely long stretch of stunning white sand is accessible via a long causeway/bridge. It has a lighthouse, miles of beach, a state park. The state park has a campground but it is always full and booked months in advance in the reservation system. There are a lot of beach houses, rental condos and many very large luxurious beach houses of the very wealthy that could pass for mansions in most places. There is also a great pizza place. Good pizza is hard to find in the south. The road from Panacea to St George follows the coast and there are multiple small antique and curio shops on the way. So we spent a day walking the beach, seeing the sights, shopping (we didn’t find anything this trip), and closed with pizza before driving home. No spectacular wildlife scenes but we did see dolphins beyond the breakers. SAM_4853SAM_4928SAM_4927SAM_4926SAM_4919SAM_4914 St George’s is a long thin sand bar with high dunes on one side and the road runs down the middle. We explored both sides of the road.

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Dick took his very first selfie but I don’t know it counts when you use a mirror. SAM_4872 SAM_4868SAM_4867SAM_4864SAM_4862SAM_4854

Never turn your back on the ocean: my shark/dolphin encounter.

I had one of those once in a lifetime type experiences today. Naturally I did not have a camera. The camera is with hubby dearest who is in Dallas doing his academic thing. I went off to the beach at Alligator Point with the two dogs. It was cold, with a nasty wind so the place we were was empty of other beach denizens. I was delighted to see a large group of dolphins feeding on fish I presume were mullet very close to the shore. The dolphins were coming so close into the shore that a good portion of their bodies were up out of the water and they were really close. The dolphins feeding were the larger dolphins in the group. It was the four very large ones I have seen before plus some of the medium sized ones driving the fish into shallow water and attacking them. I could see other smaller dolphins surfacing and some even jumping completely out of the water in what looked like racing play beyond them. I was enthralled. I love dolphins anytime but to see real live wild dolphins doing their wild and free thing is just a delight beyond describing. I have walked the beach at Alligator Point many times and seeing dolphins there just never gets old for me.

In the midst of this wonderful display I heard a particularly high shrilling squeak noise and I looked up to see a very small dolphin racing toward the large adults. The baby was leaping clear out of the water as it raced. It was making a bee line towards the adults at a 45 degree angle from the shore, swimming at top speed making this weird squeaky noise. I saw a fin behind it and my first thought was

“Oh isn’t that cute, they’re playing tag with the baby.”

Then I looked again.

This was no dolphin following that baby. It was a large shark. Baby was racing full speed towards the large adults on the shore and I assume the noise was a terrified baby distress scream. With the hair rising on the back of my neck and every Mommy/Grandma instinct I have on full alert, I watched that baby and then out of nowhere one of the medium sized dolphins threw itself hard against the side of the shark knocking it off course and slowing it down so the baby gained some distance as it raced straight toward the adults near the shore. I found myself screaming at the big dolphins to do something and I felt sick thinking I might soon be seeing a baby dolphin get killed.

And then the fight started. The shark was about 20 meters from the shore and right behind that baby when suddenly the water was full of thrashing smashing adult dolphins. The baby was gone. For a long moment the shark was rolling around in a mass of bodies and foaming water snapping and bending its body but unable to get a grip on anything. The four biggest dolphins appeared to be attacking it in a coordinated manner and keeping well clear of the front end, taking turns smashing it with their full weight. With the crashing about as the big dolphins attacked, the shark at one point was shoved into water so shallow it was half exposed and I saw the big head with all the teeth in profile in the air for a split second as it flailed. The dolphins made loud ferocious exhalations with deep harsh grunts, spewing spray from their blow holes as they slammed the shark with their bodies and heads. I could also see the shark was about a foot or two shorter than the biggest dolphin crashing into it. I had a crazy urge to jump in and beat on that shark myself but fortunately good sense asserted itself and I stayed on the sand. The dolphins were handling it quite well without me. The shark finally rolled back towards deeper water, thrashing hard. The shark vanished under water with the four dolphins right behind. I watched and after a moment I spotted two of the big dolphins surfacing and then going down again, far away, moving very fast to the south east, and then it was quiet.

The medium sized dolphins, six of them, were very near the baby and there was a lot of blowing and squeaking and I ran down the beach like an idiot shouting “Are you okay baby?” wondering if the baby was hurt, hoping it wasn’t. I stopped when the dolphins, probably alarmed by the lunatic human, moved further away. I was very happy to see that the baby seemed to be unhurt.

After another long moment the four large adults were suddenly back and there was much swimming close around the baby and all the smaller dolphins, and many gentle body nudges and heavy blowing. The entire group then took off along the beach in the opposite direction from where I saw the dolphins presumably chasing after the shark, all moving very close together, baby surrounded by adults. No one seemed injured, which was a huge relief. The whole thing probably took five minutes or less from start to finish but I had such an adrenalin surge I felt head achy, nauseous and I was shaking. My two dogs appeared to be completely oblivious to the whole thing. I was too shook up to finish our walk so we headed back home.

When I got back to my computer I went on line to look to see if I could identify the kind of shark. The first problem I had was that the shark appeared to be entirely black but none of the Florida sharks in the identification guides are black. The only thing I could conclude was that it was not a hammerhead. However, as I considered it, I realized the black colour was likely a trick of the light because the dolphins also looked completely black to me in the bright sun, thrashing in the water with all that white foam around. Yet, I know these dolphins are common bottle nose (Tursiops truncates) and these dolphins are grey not black. So ignoring the black colour and going only by the shape of the head and the shape of the dorsal fin and the small far back placement of the fin near the tail, small eyes and general body shape, I would say it was most likely a bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas). Given that adult bottle nose dolphins can reach 10-12 feet in length and these adults were the biggest dolphins, that would make the shark about 8-10 feet long. The little dolphin was only about 3-4 feet by contrast with the adults, making it a very young dolphin and a tasty meal for a hungry bull shark.

I then went and read up on bull sharks and the whole thing makes sense. Bull sharks like to hunt in shallow water. They do attack and eat baby dolphins. They do appear in Florida in winter even when the water is colder. This was a big shark too, fully adult sized and quite dangerous as sharks go. The scientist in me can stand back and objectively say the shark was just being a shark and doing what sharks do. It is not evil or bad. The scientist in me hopes it was not killed by the dolphins but rather got away. The mother and grandmother in me is 100% behind those brave dolphins risking themselves defending their little baby, especially the medium sized one who knocked that shark away before the big dolphins arrived. That part of me says I sure hope those dolphins killed that awful shark so it can never hurt a baby dolphin again.

Another day at the beach. And people wonder why I don’t like to go into the water.