Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Pontoons and Airboats

When I travel to veterinary conventions, I usually take a half day off to see the local sights. In Florida, it was a convention-sponsored tour called "Dolphins, Manatees, and Alligators - Oh My!"

We took a bus from Orlando east to Cocoa, crossed the St. John's River onto Merritt Island, then on to the marina for our pontoon ride on the Banana River.

Here is Cap'n John, giving us the required safety lecture. The water level is so low outside of the canals specifically dredged for boats that the rules if you fall out are: "See if you can sit up. If you can't sit, see if you can stand up. If you still can't touch bottom, swim a couple of feet towards
land, then walk to the shore."

This is our tour guide, Don, demonstrating the use of his loaner binoculars. (I have my own, thanks anyway.) Don knew a lot about Florida history and the area, but he wasn't the greatest birder. I had to "help" him out from time to time, in my own special, annoying, know-it-all way. (And Susan, I didn't jinx the birding!)

Although one of the stated goals for this trip was to see manatees, the "cold snap" (highs in the 50's that day) had driven the manatees to warmer waters. We struck out.

At least I hadn't been on the kayaking trip in search of manatees the previous day. I saw those people when they returned and they were blue with cold.

This was the closest I got to a manatee the whole time I was in Florida:

mosaic manatee fountain, DeLand, FL

We did get a brief glimpse of dolphins, too quick for me to get any photos. Despite the lack of advertised mammals, we did get in some great birding.

The trees were dripping with Brown Pelicans, and we often saw them perched on docks or pilings, or flying from place to place and diving into the water.

Osprey were everywhere. I even saw one flying through the shopping district of Cocoa, like you might see pigeons in town in Ohio.

This plant is called Brazilian Pepper-tree, also called Florida Holly. It is a noxious invasive alien, one of the worst pest plants invading Florida. It is very aggressive, especially along waterways, and is crowding out the natives. Like many plants, it is spread by birds eating the fruit and distributing the seeds. Robins are big fans of the fleshy fruit.

Coming back to the marina, we passed under the only privately-owned drawbridge in Florida.

Next, it was back to the St. John River for an airboat ride at the Lone Cabbage Fish Camp.

If you ever get the chance to take an airboat ride, do it. It is like riding a motorcycle on the water. The speed and the wind in your face take your breath away.

You have to wear ear protectors to muffle roar of the engines, and your boat driver will probably be a crazy young man who takes the corners on "two wheels," making you feel like you will tip into the murky water. Since our target species for this trip was the American Alligator, not being dumped out was high on my list of priorities.

I absolutely could not take any photos while we were speeding along, but we flushed lots of good birds. Great Blue, Little Blue and Tricolored Herons, and egrets (probably both Great and Snowy, but I was in no position to ID them for sure) abounded. A flock of Blue-winged Teal were the only ducks I saw.

cypress trees

We slowed down as we came around a bend, and the driver cut the engine to an idle. Drifting along, we scanned the shores for 'gators.

Again, the colder temperatures and brisk winds had these cold-blooded creatures looking for warmth. No gators.

We hit the turbo-rockets and jetted on. Once again, we slowed to a crawl, and there he was, in all his glory. A 9 foot American Alligator, hauled out on the bank, catching a few rays.

Isn't he a beaut?


holly said...

Uh, yeah. Beautiful (lol). I can imagine not wanting to get tipped out in *that* water. I'm cool with lakes I can see the bottom of - Maine spoiled me. Reminds me of when I was little and swimming w/my cousins and they told me about 'freshwater sharks'. I immediately tucked my feet up on the float and hollered for mom. She finally heard me and I begged her to bring the boat out to get me. She said "Oh for cryin' out loud......GET IN HERE!"

I had no choice, it was dusk but I don't really thing I hit any water on the way in.
(Ellen? I sent you the link to this blog. Do you recognize anyone in this story??)

holly said...

Oh, you know what? Your blog is making me much more aware of birds around me every day. There is one I hear every time I take the dogs out although I haven't seen it. It says 'Right here! Right he-re!' all the time. Very distinctive call.

Kathy said...

Yes, that is one nice looking reptile. I wouldn't want to be his lunch. That was mean of your cousins to tease you that way Holly!

nina said...

Wow--an adventure in Florida!
But, I would've been a little uneasy in such a flat boat...that's a good-sized alligator!

Boating with alligators is like hiking with bears--I'd keep glancing over my shoulder.