Thursday, February 28, 2008

Fun Frolicking With Manatees

The sign below gives some good advice to those visiting Florida! Don't miss Homosassa Springs or any of the pristine waters around the Crystal River area. This is some of the clearest water you will find anywhere in the world, and because all the bodies of water are spring fed, they remain at a constant temperature year round- in the mid 70 degree range- which makes them the perfect gathering place for manatees in the winter. Manatees are essentially streamlined, floating elephants who live their lives in water, so my picking the "frolicking" portion of the post's title has more to do with alliteration and what you can do swimming around in the cold (to us) water with them, than it does to the nature of the beast. But they are universally loved animals, with the possible exception of boaters who prefer to go fast rather than slow, thereby endangering the slow moving and always in the path of the boat mammals. But having gone swimming with them (snorkeling) several times in the past, I can tell you their gentle nature belies their size and appearance and it is hard not to appreciate the fact that something this large can be this safe to be around in the water. They are vegetarians and there has NEVER been a documented case of their having attacked or harmed in any way- a diver in the water with them.

We had hoped and planned to throw the wet suits on again this visit and jump in the water with the manatees, but found the cold front that passed through the area the week of our visit, made the prospect of doing that a tad less than appealing. Sorry to say that, having done this before, and even though we LOVE doing it, we opted to stay warm and not get into the water with them this time around. But that doesn't mean we didn't see plenty of them or have the chance to get up close and personal. A visit to the Homosassa Springs State Park virtually guarantees that you will be able to observe the gentle giants in crystal clear water, and get within a few feet of them while you are in their presence.
Without a diver in the water beside them to show scale, it may be harder to get a sense of their size. In fact, they regularly weigh a ton or so. They move slowly, powered by an enormous round fluke at the back of the torpedo shaped body, and graze on "lettuce" and other aquatic vegetation found within their range. They are an amazing sight to behold. Of course, you know you can click on the pictures to enlarge them and give you a better look!

The state park is also home to thousands of Florida's native birds. While there are some "wild" birds that come and go as they please, the lion's share of theses birds are here because they have been hit by cars, boats, planes...or anything else that did them some harm. There are some with one wing broken or even missing, one leg, a missing eye, you name it. But in most cases, the birds have adapted so well, that unless you were paying attention to the park ranger as she goes around feeding the birds that need the most help, you may never realize the fact that these guys are "handicapped" in some way.
Just at the edge of the preserve area of the park, the protected waters merge with the head waters of the Homasassa River in a basin which is very popular with manatee watching boats, private boats that are sight seeing and maybe doing some fishing, kayakers, snorkelers, and so on. Because the water is perfectly clear it would be the perfect place to find a "glass bottom" boat. There are tons of snapper, red fish, snook, ladyfish and black striped mullets and sheepshead. I didn't see any glass bottom boat on this day, but look closely at the photo below and you will clearly see a "bare boat charter," or at the very least, a "bare bottom" captain. Surely this is how Captain Larry got his start aboard Fitter out of Cape Coral, Florida.

And speaking of Florida, for a while I was feeling quite guilty about post after post coming out of Florida. Having lived in the state myself for 5 plus years now, I suppose I thought the Florida subjects for the blog may not have the same appeal as posts from, say, the Yukon Territory, the gold fields and mountains of Alaska or even the endless and large animal-populated plains of Montana. But it seems I was wrong about that, thinking only about what was new and exciting to me and not so much what was new and exciting to all the readers. Now we are hearing just as much reader feedback as ever- all of it in the plus column. We have even been told by some "born and raised" Floridians that we have discovered and written about activity opportunities they were unaware of even after living their entire lives in Florida. So, as long as it works for you, we'll keep introducing you to things we may have seen or experienced before, so long as they are new and exciting and educational to you and yours....

In this post I am including three new signs found along our travels in the area. Above, even though all the other critters at the Homasassa State Park are native Florida animals, clearly the hippo is a "naturalized citizen." You will see both the sign and the hippo in the photo if you look hard enough. This is not a sign you will see everywhere. The sign did not say, BEWARE, but it should have!!!

And the sign below appeared on the door to the mens room at Frog's Landing Restaurant on the water at Cedar Key- a quaint little "drinking town with a fishing problem."
Phrasing is everything. At the bait shack, you can "rent you bait" (how does that work??) and they apparently sell "live and frozen kayaks."
Below, Marilyn samples a fry from the fisherman's platter and, in the foreground, you get a look at my plate of roasted hard shell clams (little necks) in tomato, garlic and wine sauce. Cedar Key, unbeknownst to me and a big surprise to be sure, is the largest producer of hard shell clams in the country. They come straight from the flats to the restaurant on a daily basis, so I just had to enjoy a plate of them. I was not disappointed.
Later, while we were sitting around outside at the end of another day of exploring, this box turtle crawled up for a visit. Even Abby enjoyed the visit, before we set the little guy off in the direction of safety.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Fun On The Sponge Dock

I'm a Pisces. That makes me a "water person" by astrological sign, and nothing could be more close to the truth that that. Of the things I have accomplished in life, none has given me more reward and joy than learning to dive. I took my first plunge into the water with a scuba tank when I was 15 years old. After that, there was no turning back; I wanted all the training that I could get as I was able to afford it. Diving, at any level, is not an inexpensive proposition, and diving safely requires a lot of quality education and training. My instructor for that first plunge was a former Navy frogman, trained both in hard helmet and scuba diving, who happened to be in the employ of my father at the Reading Museum, where he was director. In those days, the air tank with a free flow regulator and a weight belt was pretty much standard gear. Nothing more. Times have changed to the point now where divers wear sophisticated computers, demand regulators to deliver either compressed air or nitrox, buoyancy control devices (BCD's), and a whole host of specialized equipment designed to increase underwater efficiency and make the process more simple and hence more safe. But some things never change. And a diver, no matter the form of diving, no matter if it is recreational or commercial has a few basics they must know and treat with respect. The most basic of these basics is "bottom time." Over the years, divers, especially those in the service of our country in the Navy, have devised a "table" that tells the diver how long it is possible to stay in the water and on the bottom at certain depths to avoid the curses that can present themselves to any diver: narcosis and the dreaded "bends." To keep it simple but informative for those of you who have never dived and may not even like the water- the main idea here is that if you stay too long at too great a depth, nitrogen bubbles begin to form in your blood. That turns into a life threatening reality in short order, so this situation must be avoided at all costs. But I digress. When my initial training with the Navy diver was complete, I was so enthusiastic about the sport that he gave me his steel hard helmet that he had kept since his Navy days. To this day, I continue to tote that helmet nearly everywhere I go in the world- such is my love of diving. I was given it in Pennsylvania. I took it to Maine when I moved up there for many years. Then I carted it by cargo ship to an island off the coast of Honduras when we moved to Roatan, where we lived for 5 years. Next to Florida, where it is temporarily in storage until the next time we settle down. That helmet is heavy. Very heavy and has no business being a traveling artifact in the coach. But I miss it all the time, and so our trip to Tarpon Springs to take an interactive sail of an actual and working sponge diving boat was something that had me super excited.

The St. Nicholas VII shown below is part of a family owned business. The Billiris family has owned and operated the company for a long, long time. We picked up our tickets from Ted Billiris at the dock in order to climb aboard. We learned a lot even before the boat came to the dock to pick us up. Ted is a very interesting fellow. I afford great respect to fishermen and captains and those who make their living on the sea. It is a hard, but noble enterprise and it teaches the "fisherman" lessons not easily learned elsewhere. When such a person is willing and ready to share his life and times - sign me up! Interestingly enough, I started doing business with Ted's brother, George Billiris, in the early eighties. We had a retail store on the coast of Maine that sold, among other things, art supplies. I purchased my "silky" and "woolly" sponges for the store and some giant specimens for myself direct from the family, sometimes traveling to Florida and the dock and warehouse to pick out my product personally. The family always treated me special and to say that I always looked forward to going back to the sponge dock would be an understatement. So getting the opportunity to board the ship and see the real deal was certainly a highlight of our time in this area.
If you've ever shopped a coastal town, chances are you happened into a shop that sold hard hat dive helmets that were all polished up in brass and gold and copper. That is not the look of a sponge divers helmet as you may be led to believe. But this is:
In this next sequence of photos, you'll see third generation sponge diver, "Dennis," in full regalia and watch as the crew get him ready for the dive. It takes two to suit him up, check all systems, help him into the water, then protect and handle his hoses while he is submerged.

Right before he takes the plunge, he is handed his rake for harvesting the sponges and the net into which he places them once located. You will notice in these photos that the diver will work close to shore in relatively shallow water. That happens to be where the sponges are right now as they make a comeback after years of struggle caused by a blight that was no doubt a side effect of pollution. But the sponges are back strong now, so the boat does not need to travel far to carry out the demonstration.
With air in his suit, the diver floats, even though he is carrying approximately his body weight in lead to help him sink to and stay on the bottom when he is ready.
All divers, all types of divers, check gear function on the surface before submerging, and signal to their tenders that in fact everything is working and they are ready to head down.
We watch over the side of the boat in great anticipation. We follow the bubbles as does the tender and watch to make sure that no air line or safety line becomes entangled, and that no boats are headed our way which could sever the air hose and bring about disaster for the diver.
Captain Clay, himself a life long sponge diver, narrates both what we are and are not seeing while the diver is under. Most of the dive community are Greek. Captain Clay is a Cajun by birth, but he fits in beautifully and he has more knowledge about this industry than you could ever hope to learn without having been there for a lifetime yourself. Many tours we have taken across the country were hosted by college students or a guide who was given the text that he was supposed to impart to us during the tour. That is not the case here. The guide, the captain, the diver, the boat owner, the crew- all have made sponge diving their lifelong love and business. The expertise was amazing and we were down right giddy about how exciting this adventure was...
The next sequence of shots will bring the diver back on board and help him out of his gear.

Once the diver is safely on board, the crew bring around the living sponges (this type (woolly) is black as it comes out of the water alive) and only has the look of store bought "natural sponge" once the living material is cleaned from the "skeleton," which is the sponge as you know it.
Thrilled at what we have just witnessed and learned, we ask the diver to autograph a postcard of himself in full gear offered to us on board. Thanks, Dennis! Great job. Dive safely. RESPECT!
I had never seen a helmet diver's shoe up close and personal. There is a thick metal plate screwed to the bottom of the leather boot. Here his tender makes an adjustment to that metal plate with a Phillips screwdriver. After the equipment tune up, Dennis will be ready for his next demonstration. If you are EVER near Tarpon Springs, by all means stop by the dock and see about taking the sponge boat tour and demonstration. It is simply terrific!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Family Fun In Feb

Cosmic Ken and Linda "flew" over from their winter perch in Orlando to help us welcome Betty (Marilyn's little sister) and husband David to Tampa, where we had a miniature family reunion and a great afternoon visit and dinner with them. They are based in Maine, where we expect to be headed this coming summer, but it was their first visit to the coach and we were delighted to see them both and give them the tour. It's always interesting to get people's reactions to the RV world when they have no previous introduction to it.
I've had a warm fuzzy feeling for Bet ever since the first time I met her. She is bright, sensitive, thoughtful, and as non-judgmental as a human being can be. Besides, she has a fantastically dry sense of humor that I really and truly appreciate. A visit with her brings out both the inner AND the outer child in me, and for that above all I love to see her when we get a chance- which isn't nearly often enough.
And those of you who have said how much you have enjoyed meeting and reading about "the family," can gear up for meeting Marilyn's other sister, the middle sister, Julie, in a couple months when we travel to PA and get a chance to see her run her champion dogs in agility trials in Harrisburg.
For David and me - nice to have the girls "look up to us." Yea, uh, huh....

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Fairs in February

February brings the Florida State Fair back to Tampa. We'd stopped there once before but found a lot of spaces we hadn't discovered on the previous visit so it was a worthwhile day, besides I had a thought of curly fries in the back of my mind. The fries were good. Very good. But no matter how many fairs I visit, I find the sausage sandwiches never taste as good as they smell. I am not sure why that is true, but I am determined to research that point until I figure it out.

The parade through the fair grounds had some pretty neat stuff, not the least of which was the "doggie style" stage coach. I think of a stage COACH as the western forerunner on today's RV's. Why else would they have called it a "coach?"
Florida has a history of cattle ranching that few are familiar with. In this part of the state especially, there were entire communities that built up around that business and the process of driving the cattle, in the fashion of what most know as the old west cattle drive, to market. Because, like their counterparts, the Florida cowboys rode horse and cracked their whips to get the herd to move, they became known locally as "Crackers." The first time I saw the sign of the "Florida Cracker Trail" highway that makes its way past Wauchula, Florida, I thought maybe Nabisco had a biscuit and cookie plant nearby- WRONG. Anyway, the State Fair memorializes this history by maintaining an entire Cracker Village on the premises, complete with authentic, restored buildings from the area, most of which were originally constructed in the 1800's. The village comes complete with re-enacters, all of whom are in the costume of the time, and most of whom really do know the various aspects of the life at that time and carry out a living demonstration of those activities. So real is the experience that at the camp cook house, all the food for the "villagers" is prepared over an open fire in the yard. When "soup's on," all come running with their own plate.

Nowadays we think of Florida as a state with open access to salt water and hence a lot of salt- but in the late 1800's salt was in scarce supply. To remedy that, the vats in the photo below were filled with salt water from the sea and boiled down, thus creating an early process for yielding "sea salt."
But back in the midway, a sliding board is still as popular as ever! Just a little bigger.
Flags and bright colors and wafting smells draw the visitor down food alley...
and right past the turkey leg smoking operation...
A type of goat with four horns on display in the animal tent, not the freak show- this is the way all of this species presents.
Talk about good timing! We entered the cattle area just as Elsie here went into labor. They put her in a special birthing pen and about an hour later, a very cute little critter came into the world through the back door of the stall so to speak. Here he (or she) gets his (or her) first bath. It's not that I can't tell them apart (the his and hers thing) just that you have to have the right angle to figure it out- and we didn't.
Some fairs have celebrities. Would you believe that we met Larry King at the fair. No, No, No, not THAT Larry King. Who cares about him. I mean Larry King as in King's Kettle Corn from, Island Grove, Florida. The competition for Kettle Corn is steep these days, but Larry and Betsy have the neatest display, the best sights and smells, and by a landslide the friendliest folks working the wagon. So our Blue Ribbon for Kettle Corn goes out to them! And judging from the size of that kettle, if popcorn ever shows up in short supply, Larry should be able to turn a buck making sea salt for Florida cowboys.
When I was a kid at the fair, we lined up at the squirt gun booth to shoot at the target, fill the tube, and make the horse race across the track- to win the prize of our choice- so long as that choice was the really small one on display and not the really big one that lured you in in the first place. But nowadays, you shoot to fill the tube to help Spider Man climb the web to the top of the booth so that you can win Spider Man himself! Or that big wizard bear. My guess is that those stuffed prizes can now be made so cheaply in China that they can afford to give out the big prizes a lot more freely. So much for the good old days, huh?
And I used to ride Bumper Cars. Now it's Bumper Boats and the attendant wades around in the pond to make sure no one drowns in the shallow ride. Carnival OSHA.
Then on to Ybor (rhymes with Igor, and yes I spelled it correctly) City. This historically Cuban section of Tampa, where the cigar rolling operations moved when they departed Key West, reminded us a lot of a small New Orleans. Same architecture, balconies with lots of eateries and bars. Even Coyote Ugly has a bar here. We took the self directed tour on a Saturday morning, so there wasn't much going on. One shop attendant described the action as "the calm before the storm," as Saturday night is a whole lot different than Saturday morning.
The trolley, or Street Car, was not named "Desire." But I would like to see the place again some day when it's really hopping!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Think Tank

On a cool day by Florida standards, overcast, and a relatively dismal day, we ventured into Tampa for a visit to the Florida (Tampa) Aquarium. It's a nice aquarium, poised at the precipice of a major renovation during which the goal of making it one of the world's most interactive aquariums should be realized. There was an ongoing art show within the confines of the aquarium displays that had some really terrific stuff, including the one below called "Think Tank."

This aquarium features the usual fish displays, but has some really dynamic indoor/outdoor environments to explore as well. Inside this massive greenhouse is a "working" mangrove swamp with fish, turtles, rays, otters, nesting birds, orchids, and more.
The giant Manta Ray at the entrance gives you the feel of being in the water with these magnificent and absolutely gigantic creatures. They do not have a live one on display. As far as I know they have never been kept in captivity. But I sure would like to discover otherwise...or get a chance to swim with them somewhere, sometime. Memo to self: Add that to the "to do" list.There is a widely diversified "touch tank" that offers contact with many more marine creatures than the typical starfish and conch experiences offered by a lot of aquariums. This one had a variety of anemones that were touchable- often they are not!
This clown fish swims with a giant clam and some lovely anemones. Giant clam. Did I mention I love sushi and clams on the half shell??? Just asking....
The Florida Aquarium already offers the world's ONLY interactive experience with, of all things, Penguins. We gathered in the big tank theater room in anticipation of the "Penguin Promenade." Kids get to sit on the floor up front. That's not fair! I couldn't make myself look small enough to make it up there, but what the heck. Even from the Peanut Gallery the view of the crowd awaiting the penguins was fun.
Once the penguins arrived, the kids weren't quite as brave about being up front. But the crowd had me penned in up back so I took whatever shots I could from back there.
You know, if you have ever been to a penguin display, that they have a very strong odor about them. It comes from "guano" which is, well, penguin poop. Here is one of the interesting factoids we learned about the real "poop" on penguins. They can project, that is to say, "shoot" their poop a distance of about four feet. You can challenge this fact if you wish, but as I was there and a penguin poops every 10 minutes or so, I can tell you that this fact was, in fact, demonstrated on more than one occasion. So when the handler tells you their poop can shoot four feet- believe it. But here's the thing, when they pick them up to bring them close up and personal for the photo shot- that range doubles to about 8 feet. That too is true. Eau de Penguin. Very fashionable I hear.
Before back surgery caused me to discontinue scuba diving, I tried to see jelly fish in the water column for the express purpose of staying away from them. But now that I watch them through the glass in an aquarium display, I find the fascination with them much more interesting and appreciable. While they are some of the most simple creatures in the sea, they are spectacularly beautiful, especially when the light catches their structure just right. I love to photograph them, so here's a sample from the Tampa Aquarium jelly display.
The lion does not always roar. Sometimes he moves slowly and silently through the grass and waits for the perfect moment to take his prey. This lion operates like that all the time.
Something for every one. Pretty little thing, eh?