Tarpons: The Silver King is a Conservation Success Story

Leave a comment

By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune

The tarpon is called “the Silver King” for good reason. It can grow upward of seven feet long and 300 pounds, and it is generally acknowledged as the toughest sportfish on Florida’s coast, known for its muscular runs and spectacular leaps.

However, when The Florida Aquarium Associate Curator Eric Hovland (pictured below) calls the tarpon “scrappy,” he is not talking about its rod-bending ability. The tarpon, in his view, is the ultimate survivor. With the ability to gulp surface air thanks to a unique swim bladder, the tarpon has been around since prehistoric times and can survive conditions deadly to other fish.


Florida Aquarium Associate Curator Eric Hovland.

Hovland recounts that when Hurricane Katrina left New Orleans’ Aquarium of the Americas without power for days, the sharks and other fish died. The tarpon, able to gulp air at the surface even as the tanks’ oxygen levels plummeted, survived. (The Florida Aquarium, for its part, has a comprehensive disaster plan to protect wildlife that includes roof-top generators that can provide power for at least a week.)

Hovland says The Florida Aquarium’s half-dozen tarpon were obtained as fingerlings with the assistance of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. They have been in the Aquarium’s Coral Reef habitat for close to 15 years.

The tarpon’s air-gulping ability allow juvenile fish to inhabit stagnant water inhospitable to many predators, an early advantage. The tarpon themselves are remarkable predators, long-lived – perhaps 50 years or more – and incredibly adaptable. Tarpon can survive in deep offshore waters or in flats scarcely deep enough to cover their bodies. They spawn offshore around full moons in early summer.


Photo: Citron

Despite its tolerance for stagnant water, Hovland says the fish, usually found in large schools, are vulnerable to pollution that may damage its skin and reproductive functions and eliminate prey species.

The tarpon is not a picky eater – though anglers know that predicting when it will feed is another matter. Baby tarpon feed on insects and plankton. Adults feed on fish and shellfish large and small, including mullet, pinfish, ladyfish, shrimp, crabs and threadfin herring. Hovland believes the northern migration of tarpon during the summer months is likely driven by its search for prey species, though some tarpon do not migrate.

Threadfin herrings and crabs probably are the most popular baits in our region. The little threadfin may seem an odd target for the bruiser tarpon, but Hovland says the tarpon are attracted by the “big disco ball” of congregated baitfish. “They just open their jaws and slurp.” Bottom fishing with a dead fish also can be productive, as can be fly fishing, which is popular in the Florida Keys.

Jack E. Davis’ superb book on the Gulf of Mexico, “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea,” describes how the quest for tarpon brought visitors and development to Southwest Florida after the first tarpon, once thought to be uncatchable on a rod and reel, was landed in 1885. (A wonderful book on tarpon fishing, full of historic photographs, is “Randy Wayne White’s Ultimate Tarpon Fishing: The Birth of Big Game Fishing.”)

Fortunately, the tarpon represents a conservation success story, especially in Tampa Bay.  Decades ago, pollution and overfishing threatened the tarpon, and its numbers dwindled. Now anglers and biologists say the Tampa Bay area’s population is the best it’s been in years.

A big part of that comeback can be attributed to the pollution laws that cleaned Tampa Bay. Hovland believes the net ban also helped. But strict tarpon-protection laws also were essential.

Evidence of how regulations have changed over the years can be seen at the pull-off on Bayshore Boulevard where the Jose Gasparilla Ship is moored. Colorful fiberglass fish hang from a narrow concrete structure. It is a nifty example of public artwork.

Aerial of the water in Tampa

Aerial view of Tampa Bay, Bayshore Boulevard, and downtown Tampa.

But years ago, dead tarpon, not artwork, hung at this check-in station for the tarpon tournament. Many, perhaps most, ended up in the dump (tarpon are bony and not considered edible).

Such “kill” tarpon tournaments, much promoted by local boosters, were once common. But regulators took steps to stop the waste, largely at the urging of conscientious anglers.  Even before the tighter rules were adopted, many tournaments became catch-and-release.  Outdoors enthusiasts often don’t get the credit they deserve for being environmental leaders.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission records has ratcheted down on the number of tarpon tags issued to anglers through the years until now it is essentially a catch-and-release fishery, with a kill tag being issued only when an angler is in “pursuit of IGFA record.”

The Commission has rigorous guidelines for handling tarpon, which include not taking them out of the water, though one occasionally sees photographs of triumphant fisherman cradling a tarpon in both arms like a rolled-up rug.

Sharks are the tarpon’s primary predator. Once while fishing near the mouth of Tampa Bay, I saw a hammerhead toss up and then chomp a six-foot tarpon in an explosion of blood.

Captain Justin Moore, my guide, told me that a shark is unlikely to catch a healthy adult tarpon, but an exhausted fish is vulnerable. That is why Moore, and most charter boat captains, are exceptionally careful about making sure a fish is thoroughly revived before releasing it. They also avoid excessively light lines that guarantee a prolonged fight.

Moore, who fishes out of Anna Maria and has never failed to lead me to tarpon, won’t allow the taking of a fin as a trophy, once a popular way to memorialize a catch. He believes it can lead to a dangerous infection. Hovland, who notes the tarpon has the largest fin of any fish, agrees, saying, “That’s a good captain.”

Such thoughtfulness on the part of Florida anglers is a big reason the Silver King remains an iconic symbol of Florida’s coast.

A visit to the Florida Aquarium will give you a stunningly close look at this strange and magnificent fish. And thanks to smart conservation regulations, you also have a good chance of sighting a Silver King in the wild.  social-media-profile-image

The Chaz Remains Enchanting Wilderness Oasis Despite Environmental Challenges

comment 1

By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune

The Chassahowitzka may be difficult to say, but this beguiling river scarcely an hour’s drive from Tampa is impossible to forget. The Seminole Indians gave the river its tongue-tying name, with Chassahowitzka meaning “pumpkin hanging place,” according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. But the roughly seven-mile long waterway usually is simply called The Chaz.

The river has not been spared entirely the effects of development, pollution and water diversions, but it remains a remarkable natural sanctuary, offering crystal clear springs, abundant wildlife, and excellent fishing, though boaters must take care with the rocky bottom.

My wife and I recently canoed the river and saw alligators, countless wading birds, a wood duck with ducklings, kingfishers, and numerous ospreys and hawks.  Turtles sunned themselves on fallen tree limbs. Bass, bream and huge schools of mullet were visible in the clear water.

The Chaz The Crack

In my past trips, it had not been uncommon to see otter and manatees. Deer, hog, bobcats and even bear populate the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, a 30,000-acre refuge that surrounds the lower river. The refuge is also a winter home for the endangered whooping crane.

We launched at Chassahowitzka River Campground, where a friendly young couple provides efficient service, and the wise counsel to use bug spray.

Just upstream from the launch is a large spring in the river that has already attracted swimmers, and nearby is the Seven Sisters Run, a series of shallow but gorgeous clear-as-glass spring vents.

Further upriver are homes and a rustic marina, but downriver is mostly natural. A popular stop for locals is “The Crack,” a spring-swimming hole at the end of Baird Creek, a tributary on the north side of the river less than a half hour down from the campground.

The narrow creek winds through lush swamp land –  keep an eye out for water moccasins on fallen trees – before hitting Blue Springs, marked by a rope swing. The late Terry Tomalin in his excellent book, “Everyday Adventures: A Florida Outdoors Guide” (available at the Aquarium’s gift shop), says Blue Springs is usually crammed with mullet. We see plenty of mullet elsewhere, but Blue Spring is not very clear on the day of our visit, and we only see a few.

The Chaz Seven Sisters

A little past Blue Springs, the creek shallows, and we beached the canoe and waded a few hundred yards, trying not to trip on roots and rocks. But the creek then opens up to “The Crack,” a sight that is worth a tumble or two. The spring is probably less than 50-feet long, but spectacularly clear and invites immediate immersion.

To enjoy The Crack’s natural serenity, arrive early. As the day progresses, it can attract dozens of visitors, some of whom like loud music.

We returned to the river and headed downstream. A few stilt homes appear along the swampy shoreline, but they do little to diminish The Chaz’s wild ambience.

While it is an easy drive from our Lutz home to the river, we planned to visit my aunt in Sugarmill Woods the next day and spent the night at the comfortable and homey Chassahowitzka Lodge, thoroughly enjoying our stay.

The hotel was built in 1910 and has been run, with a few interruptions, ever since by the Strickland family. It definitely possesses the Old Florida charm it advertises, but it has been remodeled and also has all the modern conveniences, including Wi-Fi. We found, to our surprise, most guests come to golf at a nearby course, not visit the river.

We had dinner at The Freezer in Homosassa. It is packed with locals and, if you can find a seat, offers delicious smoked fish and shrimp and relaxing waterfront view.

The next day we had a wonderful visit with Aunt Evelyn Fee at the Greenhouse Bistro & Market in Homosassa. We are seated next to the indoor butterfly garden and found the intimate setting and locally produced food to our liking. And a conversation with Aunt Evelyn, who has lived in Washington, Australia and London, is always a special reward.

There was no fishing on this trip, but through the years I have fished The Chaz and environs numerous times, having good luck with trout and redfish, particularly on the flats outside of the river. Once I had a large bull shark bite off half a ladyfish at the side of the boat. I know others who have caught cobia and snook.

The Chaz Stilt Home

The Chaz’s rocky waters can quickly claim a prop.  Fortunately, on most of my fishing trips I have accompanied Mickey Newberger, a former federal marshal who owns a stilt home on The Chaz and has been fishing and exploring the river since he was a Boy Scout in the 1950s. I doubt if anybody knows The Chaz better or loves it more. Mickey remembers when migratory ducks virtually covered the sky during the fall, but the flyway has changed and the Chassahowitzka is no longer a duck-hunting mecca.

When The Florida Aquarium was being built, Newberger guided its scientists up The Chaz tributary, Crawford Creek, so they could study its ecosystem in developing the Florida Water Story theme.

Newberger has continually fought for the Chassahowitzka’s welfare, leading the campaign to stop the use of polluting septic tanks by homes around the river and provide access to a public sewer treatment system. Now he worries the pumping of ground water for municipal use in the watershed is dangerously diminishing the river’s fresh water flow.

Southwest Florida Water Management District officials say regulations are carefully crafted to maintain the “minimum flows and levels” necessary for the river’s health. A skeptical Newberger says he has seen the water quality and aquatic vegetation decline dramatically through the years.

One hopes the district’s regulators seriously attend such concerns and rigorously monitor any changes in the river.

The Chaz Sisters

However, some Chaz changes through the years have been for the better.  In his 1957 publication on Florida Rivers, “Outdoors Afloat on Florida’s Wonderful Waterways,” fabled outdoors writer Rube Allyn wrote of “hate-bordered signs, embellished by skull and crossbones.” The racist signs, Allyn thought, contrasted man’s love for “natural beauty and hate for his brother with skin of another color.”

Such messages, fortunately, are long gone.

Allyn also wrote of encountering “seacows,” not manatees but dwarf cattle, about half the normal size, that spent most of their time in the river. The seacows swimming and frolicking in the river must have been a fascinating sight but could not have been good for water quality.

The Chaz still may face environmental challenges, but it endures as an enchanting wilderness oasis on the bustling Gulf Coast, one where Florida’s native wildlife and natural beauty are on spectacular display. social-media-profile-image

And It All Began with a Canoe Trip

Leave a comment

If you are discouraged by politics and don’t think you are rich enough to affect government, consider the example of Gus Muench.

Now 80-years-old, Muench never envisioned himself getting involved in politics. He grew up in Seminole Heights, where he was a “river rat.”  He had a little boat he kept chained in a park on the Hillsborough River and was out on the water every chance he had. The river had good fishing though “they dumped sewage right into the river. They’d treat it with alum … it was white. … I would eat the fish and crabs out of the river and think nothing of it.”

He worked his entire career at a telephone company, but always loved being outdoors, and in his off hours ran a crabbing business, with traps throughout Tampa Bay. He built a home on the Little Manatee River, where he raised his family.

While working his crab traps, he witnessed how dredging and shoreline development harmed the estuary. He began writing letters to newspapers and become more politically involved, particularly when developers proposed a huge marina on Cockroach Bay that surely would have ruined that undeveloped stretch of Tampa Bay.

More than 30 years ago, Muench visited my office at The Tampa Tribune, where I was an editorial writer, with a terrific idea.

He thought the Indian mound at Cockroach Bay in South Hillsborough should be preserved, and Hillsborough County needed a way to fund the acquisition of such pristine sections of Tampa Bay.

1986 canoe trip SIZEDIn order to bring awareness to the cause, Muench was about to take a canoe trip with his sons along the near-pristine shoreline from Manatee County to Ruskin, camping along the way. Indeed I was interested in covering it.  I asked him to take photographs and later wrote an editorial about his expedition and his preservation campaign.

While a strong movement to clean Tampa Bay and protect what was left of its natural coastline already was underway, Muench’s canoe trip conveyed the importance of that effort. Tribune Outdoors Writer Frank Sargeant and others also wrote about Muench’s efforts.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt, one of the state’s great environmental champions, soon proposed a conservation program that became the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program or ELAPP, and Muench became one of its most energetic supporters.

ELAPP assessed property owners a small amount to raise funds to purchase ecologically valuable land. You might think that Hillsborough residents would be skeptical of another tax, but, like Muench, voters recognized the urgency of saving natural riches in the rapidly growing county.

“We took it to the public and it passed” by more than 70 percent, Muench said during a recent interview. He’s been involved with ELAPP ever since, serving on its citizens’ advisory board and continually advocating for its support.

Since ELAPP’s adoption, he’s continued to be committed to the bay’s welfare. He’s worked to prevent motor boat prop scarring in sea grass beds, is campaigning to create a conservation corridor from the Little Manatee River to the Manatee County line, and has sought to promote shoreline stabilization by establishing oyster beds.  He sees sea level rise causing more erosion on the lower bay.

A “pet peeve” of his is how waterfront landowners cut mangroves and other vegetation, which he characterizes as “shoreline wildlife corridors.”  He says, “We have an ego problem. People want to show off their homes and fail to realize the importance of shoreline as ‘edge habitat’ that is vital for fish, birds and other wildlife. We don’t understand it, so we cut it down and then we have erosion and loss of habitat.”

Until a recent injury, Muench continued crabbing and operated a business taking visitors to collect crabs from the traps, which he would cook when they returned to the dock. Before being treated to a delicious meal, customers learned about the importance of the bay and the demands of commercial crabbing.

abe2ae4a3102ff90535da04ff2dfbbf1.jpgHe loves introducing children to the outdoors and enjoyed taking out participants in The Florida Aquarium’s youth programs on his crabbing trips before having to cut back. Muench credits his passion for the outdoors to the camping trips he made as a child and believes families similarly can instill in their children a love of the natural world by spending more time on the water and in the woods. Nature, Muench believes, offers a lifetime of wonders to those who take the time to pay attention. “You never stop learning.”

Now his focus is giving back to the bay that has provided him so much joy. “You can’t appreciate the environment if you don’t get involved,” he said. “You have to plant trees, seagrasses, do something,”  such as that canoe trip that played a significant role in building momentum for conservation through land acquisition. It is notable that ELAPP bought the Indian mound in Cockroach Bay that inspired Muench’s trip. ELAPP, he said simply, “changed my life.”

And it all started with that “canoe trip.”social-media-profile-image







Muench will be the first to stress that many public officials and citizen volunteers deserve credit for this landmark environmental program that has saved more than 61,000 acres of Hillsborough wilderness.

The program is now rightly named for Jan Platt because of her relentless work to adopt and sustain ELAPP. Others providing essential leadership included planner Joel Jackson, community volunteer Jan Smith, county naturalist Rob Heath, ELAPP acquisition manager Kurt Gremley, Hillsborough Community College Dean of environmental studies Fred Webb, and environmentalist Sally Thompson.  Three individuals who played key roles have since passed away: Hillsborough Parks Director Ed Radice, Environmental Protection Commission chief Roger Stewart and National Audubon bird sanctuary manager Rich Paul.


A Creature of the Wind

Leave a comment

By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune

One of spring’s most inspiring sights is the elegant swallow-tailed kite swooping and circling through the air against a vivid blue sky. It is beauty in motion. So, I was delighted the kite was chosen as the central motif of The Florida Aquarium’s new Mosaic Center, which offers meeting rooms and event halls with panoramic views of the waterfront. But, the Aquarium’s commitment to the kite involves much more than the remarkable photographs and sculptures in its new facility.

The black-and-white raptor is a stunningly beautiful and remarkably graceful bird, but its life history is characterized by tenacity, danger and mystery. For years the Aquarium has partnered with the Avian Research and Conservation Institute (ARCI) to advance kite research.

According to ARCI, which monitors the welfare of a number of key bird species, the swallow-tailed kite nested in at least 21 states in the early 1900s. Now it nests in only seven, mostly Gulf of Mexico states, so its long-term prospects remain uncertain. Florida hosts two-thirds of the nation’s estimated 8,000 to 10,000 birds, which stay in the United States roughly from March through July before making a daunting 5,000-mile trip to South America.

Fortunately, ARCI has been satellite tracking the kites for more than 20 years, revealing many of the birds’ previously unknown habits.,As Gina Kent, ARCI Research Ecologist and Coordinator, explained to me, each year the birds migrate to South America – Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia – where they feed throughout the winter. They return to the United States in the spring to nest.

The birds in Texas and Louisiana make the South America trip over land. But the birds from Florida and the states to its north must fly across the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatan. It can be a perilous journey, as was tragically demonstrated this year with a kite the ARCI called Bullfrog, a bird of special significance to the Aquarium.

Swallow-tailed Kite trip 4

Its staffers and volunteers had raised the $4,000 for a satellite transmitter that was put on Bullfrog in 2015.  (The birds are briefly captured with netting and fitted with the tiny solar-powered transmitter.) This March, after signals showed Bullfrog had attempted to fly across the Gulf, being aloft for more than four days over water, transmission was lost.

The unavoidable conclusion: Bullfrog had perished. Such losses are heartbreaking for Kent, who can observe how blustery cold fronts frustrate a bird’s gutsy efforts to return to the U.S. from the Yucatan, the point of departure for the birds’ return Gulf trip.  The birds, which gorge on insects to fuel up for the flight, may be forced to spend more time over the ocean than they can physically handle.

“They are creatures of the wind,” Kent said. If winds are favorable, a kite can cross the Gulf in as little as 24 hours. But headwinds can make the trip last for days, burning up the bird’s precious energy supplies. There is little food to be had while flying over the Gulf.  She added, “The birds can survive perhaps three nights or four days over the water before they become too weak to continue.”

Swallow-tailed Kite Trip11

The birds always return to the same nesting area. The return flight is more hazardous than the fall migration, and not solely because of windy cold fronts that stall the birds’ progress or blow them off course, causing them to land hundreds of miles away. “In the spring, they are more antsy to begin nesting,” Kent said. “They are more likely to take risks.” They may push on, as Bullfrog did, when they should return to the land and replenish themselves by feasting on dragonflies and the other large bugs that are their favored prey. (The kites also kill lizards, snakes, frogs and other small critters, but primarily to feed nestlings.)

Weather isn’t the only threat. A major concern is the transition of South American forests and ranches to soybean, sugarcane and other agricultural operations that destroy habitat and use pesticides and herbicides, with the chemicals threatening the kite’s food supply and the birds themselves. Kent said they are seeing disturbing cases of birds dying there, though there are plenty of bugs to feed them. The scientists are uncertain what is causing the deaths.

Swallow-tailed Kite11

Development also is a threat in the United States. Kent said the birds, while fairly social for raptors, are relatively solitary much of the time. But they gather in massive “pre-migratory roosts,” where they can fatten up on insects for a month or so before setting out on their incredible journey.

In Florida an estimated 5,000 birds, about half the country’s kite population, gather on a privately owned South Florida woodland. Development of the tract obviously would be devastating to the kite population. Scientists also worry that a nearby sand mining operation may adversely affect the birds. The situation underscores the continuing need for Florida to spend more on land conservation, either buying land outright or acquiring development rights.

There are, of course, natural predators: the great horned owl, being the primary one.  Snakes, raccoons and other raptors also can be a threat, primarily to eggs or nestlings.

Kent said that the longest her organization has tracked a kite is seven years, but no one knows  how long they can live. Researchers do know only 30 percent of nestlings survive their first year. Despite those odds, and their treacherous annual migration, these “creatures of the wind” are holding their own, but without much margin for error. Perhaps with some thoughtful human assistance, the swallow-tailed kite’s beauty and grace will continue to inspire wonder for generations to come. social-media-profile-image

Please Note: Gina Kent will be among the featured speakers at the Florida Birding & Nature Festival Oct. 13-15 at the Hillsborough Community College South Shore Campus in Ruskin. The event will offer expert speakers, seminars, field trips, exhibits and artwork and other products for nature lovers.  The Florida Aquarium and Mosaic are among the sponsors. You can learn more at fbnfestival.org.)

A Diving Epiphany Creates Amazing Aquarium Experiences

Leave a comment

PR1He has excavated shipwrecks, explored deep-water caves and been mask to snout with 15-foot hammerheads. But, The Florida Aquarium Vice President of Operations Casey Coy’s greatest diving thrill comes not from such adventures but from introducing others to the wonders of the “Blue Planet.”

Coy spearheads The Aquarium’s “conservation research diving program,” and whether studying coral reefs off Cuba, observing sea turtles in the Florida Keys or looking for Civil War-era shipwrecks in the Hillsborough River, Coy relishes the possibility of “shining a light on places new to science and helping to preserve them.”

He credits Jacques Cousteau and asthma for his scuba career. Plagued by chronic asthma as a child, a doctor recommended swimming to strengthen his lungs. But mere swimming wasn’t enough. On Saturday mornings, rather than tuning in to cartoons, he would watch repeats of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and was enchanted.

The ocean wasn’t readily available to the Boulder, Colorado, native, but his father and he took scuba lessons and went to Molasses Reef off Key Largo for their open water dive. It was truly transformative. “It had everything you could imagine for a dive,” he said. “We saw grouper, shark, barracuda, moray eel … it began my love affair with the sea.”

StageEvery year after that, the family would take a diving vacation. He eventually became a lifeguard and worked in a dive shop. Still, he earned his University of Colorado degree in fine arts and after graduation took a job in graphic design. “That lasted about eight days,” he added.

He soon was contacting every dive shop in South Florida and landed a Port St. Lucie dive master job that would eventually lead him to diving throughout the Caribbean, South Pacific and Hawaii. But as much as he loved diving, he ultimately felt the need to give more purpose to his passion. And, that brought him to The Aquarium in 1999, four years after it opened.

He credits the late Thom Stork, who took over as the Aquarium President in 2002, with recognizing how dive programs could advance the facility’s vision to “Protect and Restore Our Blue Planet.” The Aquarium began allowing guests to dive in the flagship Coral Reef exhibit and enabling kids to snorkel with fish.

FLAQ_Best_HighRes_129The carefully supervised encounters were intended not to generate thrills but rather to promote an appreciation of the natural world. As Coy explained, “Nothing can take the place of a direct experience with an animal. It’s emotional, and that is a sure way to transform people’s behavior.”

Coy said that Stork knew some in the zoo-aquarium world did not approve of such interactive ventures. But Stork, who died in January, saw that when the experience was mutually beneficial to the animals and the guests, it was a powerful way to encourage conservation. “We are going to do it and be proud of it,” Stork told him. Today, Coy’s team  has been integral in establishing safe and positive diving experiences at other institutions across the country.

But that was only a small part of the plan Stork and Coy had for the Aquarium dive team. It expanded to include partnering with universities and scientific groups on critical ocean research on red tides, sharks, sea turtles and numerous other topics.

It grew further with an archaeological survey of shipwrecks in Tampa Bay, finding in the Hillsborough River a Civil War era ship used by one-time Tampa Mayor James McKay and discovering the USS Narcissus, a Civil War tugboat that sunk off Egmont Key in 1866. The state of Florida eventually made the Narcissus its 12th Underwater Archaeological Preserve.

Also, he was part of a dive team that excavated the fabled Monitor, which battled the Merrimack during the Civil War in the first encounter of two ironclad ships.The North’s Monitor sunk in a storm off Cape Hatteras, N.C., in 1862. Coy said a vivid memory is finding human remains in the shipwreck. It was a sobering moment and made him and the other divers better understand that such archaeological efforts must be conducted with the utmost care and respect.


Coy, who has experimented with mixing gases that allow longer, deeper dives, now oversees an operation that includes 25 employees, 125 volunteers and four water craft. The married father of two girls also leads The Aquarium diving expeditions to exotic locales, including pristine reefs off Cuba. Though he’s made thousands of dives, his enthusiasm for undersea world has not diminished. “I still get a bang out of blowing bubbles,” he said. social-media-profile-image
Love Diving?  Check out this amazing story of life beneath the Antarctic ice…


Note:  Those interested in experience The Florida Aquarium’s in-Aquarium and in-the-wild diving experiences can visit The Florida Aquarium’s website.



Trekking for Protecting Florida’s Wildlife Corridors

comments 2

A passion for wild places can, like Florida waters, carry us to places we’d never imagined possible. A little more than two years ago, The Florida Aquarium hosted members of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition as they prepared for their second 1,000-mile journey across the state.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition: Glades to Gulf

Among those attending The Aquarium’s festivities was a 22-year-old recent college graduate who found herself about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. Tampa native Alex Morrison, a recent North Carolina State graduate, had intended to start graduate studies in science and environmental education in early 2015. But an invitation to become part of the expedition’s support team abruptly changed her plans. “It was an incredible opportunity,” said Alex in a recent interview,  “but very intimidating. … they are all such amazing people.”

Indeed, the primary team members — photographer Carlton Ward, conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, and bear biologist Joe Guthrie —  had seized on a brilliant and daring strategy to illustrate the importance of “wildlife corridors,” connected stretches of wilderness whose preservation would allow the state to retain its natural heritage even in the face of crushing growth.

Alex hiking photo copyPreviously, in 2012, they hiked, paddled, biked and rode horses through marshes, woodlands and waterways from the Everglades to the Okefenokee Swamp, 1,000 miles in 100 days. The journey produced a wonderful film and spectacular book of Ward’s photographs. The venture, along with compelling public presentations by the charismatic trio, generated enormous public support for their campaign.

Unfortunately, the public proved far more enlightened than lawmakers, who have continually gutted land preservation funding in recent years.  Though voters overwhelmingly passed the 2014 Amendment One mandating that conservation funding be restored to historic levels, the Legislature refused to follow citizens’ directive, claiming money used on salaries and such diversions qualified as conservation spending. The need to protect the state’s imperiled corridors remains acute.

In 2015, Dimmitt, Ward and Guthrie undertook another trip. This time they would travel 1,000 miles in 70 days, from the Everglades Headwaters in Central Florida to the Alabama border. Once again, they would hike, bike and kayak through woodlands and swamps.

carrying bikes copyAlex, a photography enthusiast, had served as an intern for Ward that fall, earning the respect of the internationally renowned photographer, whose work regularly appears in National Geographic, Audubon, Smithsonian and many other magazines. She was invited to help with the trek’s logistics, heady stuff for the Plant High School graduate.

But if Morrison was awed by the environmental credentials of the team leaders, she was not intimidated by the outdoors. The seventh-generation Floridian had been “immersed in the wilds” since she was “in diapers.” Her father, Tampa dentist Howell Morrison, is a skilled outdoorsman and her mother, Donna Morrison, is an accomplished nature artist. Alex learned early to appreciate natural Florida and found it “tragic” to see so much of the state being bulldozed away.

But handling the logistics was no walk in the woods. She had to deal with numerous details, big and small, required to keep the 1,000-mile trip on schedule. Those might include pitching in on meals or making sure essential permits were on hand.

She was by far the youngest person on the trip that included the three leaders and a five-person film crew. But her colleagues never failed to convey their confidence and respect. “No one could be more supportive, more encouraging to an aspiring young scientist,” she said. Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, the leader of the expedition, was a particular inspiration for a young woman intent on a career devoted to the environment.

Assorted other individuals would join for sections of the trip. The Corridor team also had the wonderful idea of holding the occasional “Trail Mixer,” where the public could join briefly join the journey on selected weekends. (On a frigid day in January, my wife and I were among 80 people who canoed with the team a section of the crystal-clear, lavishly wooded Rainbow River, where a memorable sight was Ward standing in a canoe, taking pictures from all sorts of awkward angles without ever losing balance.)

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition: Glades to Gulf

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition: Everglades Headwaters to Gulf Islands #Glades2Gulf 
Expedition Day 13 – Crystal River to Yankeetown

19.4 mile paddle 
Alex Morrison

This mission of the Florida Wildlife Corridor is to protect a functional ecological corridor throughout Florida for the health of people, wildlife and watersheds. Learn more at FloridaWildlifeCorridor.org. Photo by Carlton Ward Jr / CarltonWard.com As Florida’s human population has expanded, conservation lands have become increasingly isolated from one another, causing problems for numerous species of wildlife. The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition shows that a statewide wildlife corridor is still possible and important for the future of people and wildlife. The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition team includes executive director Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, conservation photographer and project founder Carlton Ward Jr. and biologist Joe Guthrie whose Central Florida black bear research was the inspiration for the campaign. Beginning January 10, 2015, the team embarked on 925-mile trek to highlight a wildlife corridor from Central Florida to the Gulf Coast, through the Big Bend, and across the Panhandle all the way to Alabama. The original Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition was a 1000-mile trek through peninsular Florida, from the Everglades on South Florida to the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia.

One of Morrison’s tasks was trailering and operating Ward’s center-console Mako boat, used for transporting supplies and film equipment. She quickly learned how to maneuver the boat trailer down a ramp by herself, and pilot the boat through winding rivers and across rocky shoals.  But she never quite got over the fear of a mishap that might damage Ward’s boat and expensive photography equipment. (The expedition eventually produced another beautiful book, “The Forgotten Coast: Florida Wildlife Corridor Glades to Gulf Expedition,” and an equally memorable film.)

At night, Alex would help the team transmit photographs and stories. They used solar-powered computers at campsites, though she said they were able to arrange the trip so they could spend nearly half the time under shelter. After a day of sloshing through icy water, any modest comfort was welcomed.

Alex said her most challenging day of the trip was taking the boat trip up the Apalachicola River when the temperatures had dropped into the teens. “The team members were in kayaks and at least they could get their body temperature up by paddling,” she said. “But driving the boat in that frigid air, there was no way to warm up. I had on seven top layers and four bottom layers and I was still freezing.”

Yet that night, sitting around the fire at their sandbar camp remains a favorite memory, though she was happy that “Joe Guthrie is a wizard at starting a fire.”

corridor-mist copyAnother enduring vision is the stunning beauty of the Chassahowitza River. “It is hardly two hours from Tampa and it’s like a totally new universe,” she said. “Getting to see that place, watching the sun rise and the mist over the water and the sabal palms along the shore, it was incredible.” So was seeing 400 to 500 manatees cope with freezing temperatures by gathering in the warm spring water of Crystal River. “That the real Florida, that’s what people should be celebrating.”

That is why she is so passionate about the Corridor and so frustrated by politicians’ inaction. “We could protect pretty much the entire Florida Wildlife Corridor” if lawmakers would simply fund conservation as voters sought with Amendment One, she said.

But Alex, like the Corridor team, refuses to be discouraged. The expedition aimed to open, as she puts it, a “window into wild Florida.” Anyone who bothers to look through it should recognize what marvels are at stake.social-media-profile-image

Governor Bob Martinez a Champion for the Environment

comment 1

“This wasn’t seen as environmentalism; it was patriotism. The necessity of being frugal with resources and avoiding waste made a deep impression …”

From his office on the 39th floor of the Regents Bank Building in downtown Tampa, former Tampa Mayor and Florida Governor Bob Martinez can see the shimmering results of his leadership.

A vibrant Tampa Bay, a cleaner Hillsborough River and a preserved Picnic Island are just a few of his accomplishments readily visible out his window at the Holland & Knight law firm, where he is a senior policy adviser.

Indeed, Martinez’s environmental legacy, as mayor and especially governor, is profound. Likewise, this legacy is a good reason why a Department of Environmental Protection building in Tallahassee is named the Bob Martinez Center.

Yet Martinez is a Republican who brought fiscal discipline and conservative values to government. His insightful approach to conservation contrasts sharply to today’s Tallahassee, where so many elected officials seem indifferent to Florida’s natural wonders.

For Martinez, conservation was simply a matter of acting responsibly, as he had been taught to do all his life. As he recounted during a recent interview, he grew up in a West Tampa that was rural and his family had “gardens, cows and chickens”  and grew hay. He vividly recalls the recycling efforts during his World War II childhood. Every week, students would bring to school “tin fold, rubber bands” and any materials that could be reused. This wasn’t seen as environmentalism; it was patriotism. The necessity of being frugal with resources and avoiding waste made a deep impression.

bob-martinezHe also grew up relishing Florida’s waters. He could walk to the Hillsborough River. “From my home to the river was like a jungle.” His family would fish and crab throughout Tampa Bay. Indeed, he sometimes took his future wife, Mary Jane, crabbing on dates, the first of which was to Clearwater Beach. “When the moon was right,” he could walk through the water dragging “a tub and you could just scoop up” softshell crabs in a net. He also would use chicken necks tied to a string to pull the crabs into the nets.

So Martinez brought a deep, but unsentimental, regard for wild Florida to government. A longtime supporter of The Florida Aquarium, he also worked successfully as a teacher, union executive and restaurant owner before being elected mayor in 1979.

His priority, as it was throughout his public career, was government efficiency, but stewardship was a key part of that effort. Thus, he oversaw the development of a city plant that would burn refuse to produce energy. Similarly, he directed that the methane produced at the city’s wastewater plant be recycled into energy. He continued the campaign begun by his predecessor, Bill Poe, to give city wastewater the most advanced treatment possible before it was released into Tampa Bay. He preserved unused waterfront land as Picnic Island Park.

He made sure blockades were erected at city parks to stop people from driving into the parks to wash their cars, change oil and such — a common practice Martinez found a threat to children and the land.

In 1987, he became Florida’s first Hispanic governor and only the second Republican governor in modern times. His administration established the Republican structure that would help the party become predominate in the coming years. In the next four years he also would compile an environmental record that few leaders can rival.

tates_hellProbably his most historic achievement was the creation of Preservation 2000, a land-buying program that would eventually become Florida Forever. It uses a portion of the documentary stamp tax on real estate transactions to buy ecologically valuable land. It originated in Martinez’s love of nature as well as his concern for landowners.

“There was this constant battle between landowners and conservationists, Martinez said. “Protecting the land would result in landowners being denied use of their land … like a reverse condemnation. So, I thought if the land was really sensitive, we should be buy it … not only because we need it to protect our water sources and wildlife but also to be able to be fair to landowners.”

The visionary program has preserved more than 2.5 million acres of Florida wilderness –  from pristine coasts to Central Florida woodlands. And it has been popular with voters. In 2014, Floridians overwhelmingly adopted Amendment One, which required lawmakers to restore conservation spending, which recent Legislatures had cut dramatically, to traditional levels. Sadly, lawmakers have ignored the voters’ will and used the mandated allocation for salaries and other non-conservation purposes.

Many lawmakers now are adverse to bonding to raise money for land acquisition. They would be wise to listen to Martinez, who bonded the doc stamp revenues to allow the state to buy land quickly, before it could be developed.

“It’s true with pay-as-you-go, you are not paying interest,” he said. “But then you end up paying higher prices. And with pay as you go, only the people who are here now pay for the land, rather than the people who are going to come in the future and who will get to use that land. I didn’t think that was fair.”

Another Martinez milestone was the adoption of the Surface Water Improvement Management Act (SWIM), aimed at cleaning Florida’s rivers, lakes and estuaries. Here again, Martinez’s conservative philosophy was apparent along with his environmental commitment.

Lawmakers wanted to create a new department to administer the program, but Martinez could see this ballooning into an inefficient bureaucracy. He held firm that SWIM should be administered by the state’s five water districts.

Martinez had served on the Southwest Florida Water Management District before running for office and knew it had the scientific and regulatory resources to administer SWIM. He also insisted SWIM address key estuaries, including Tampa Bay. Legislators had wanted the program to tend only fresh water bodies. Martinez prevailed and SWIM, especially in its early years, was a tremendous success, helping revive Tampa Bay and improve the Hillsborough River.

There were numerous other actions to benefit natural Florida. For instance, he successfully implemented a statewide solid waste law. Open dumping was common in rural counties, most of which refused to adopt ordinances against the practice. They fought Martinez, but he held firm, understanding the dumping of tires, batteries and other waste in open areas was a threat to groundwater that would only become costlier to address.

He championed growth guidelines to ensure that new development didn’t ruin resources or overwhelm public services. Tallahassee in recent years has essentially abandoned such growth management. Also, he expanded manatee zones and adopted prohibitions against taking dolphins from state waters. He added officers to a badly understaffed Marine Patrol. All this was rooted in a childhood that taught him to appreciate nature and see conservation as a personal responsibility.

And his tenure as mayor further shaped his environmental commitment. He explains: “So much of much you do as a mayor is about cleaning things up. You have garbage you have to clean up; litter you have to clean up; storm water you have to clean up; drinking water. You have one hell of an environmental agenda just to make cities livable.” Martinez believes ignoring such responsibilities is neither conservative nor frugal. “If you allow those problems to spread, the cost of dealing with them later is horrendous.” social-media-profile-image


Cabbage Key Fishing Expeditions: Unpredictable Ones Often the Best Ones

comment 1

It’s impossible to tell a Cabbage Key fishing tale which I’m about to do without first appropriately describing the 100-acre island.  In fact, you rarely read about Cabbage Key without seeing it described as “old Florida.”  A purist might grumble that Old Florida didn’t have ferry boats taking up to 700 people a day to eat at the Cabbage Key Restaurant, rumored to be the inspiration of Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” And Old Florida didn’t have multi-million-dollar homes on it and surrounding islands.


But given Florida’s rapid growth and development, it is a marvel that Cabbage Key retains so much original rustic charm. Its trademark water tower has hosted an osprey nest since my wife and I started visiting in the 1970s. Wildlife is abundant, including a variety of wading birds, manatees, dolphins, otters and some of the largest gopher tortoises you will ever see. Pine Island Sound, which surrounds it, is an estuary long famed for fabulous fishing that, while it may face growth challenges, remains a natural wonder.

My wife and I have visited with pleasure many times through the years, staying at the famous centrepiece home built in the 1930s by the son of Mary Roberts Rinehart, once-popular author of “The Bat” and other mysteries.  Transformed into a restaurant-lodge, it endures as a remnant of another era.

But for me, fishing has been the lure to visit Cabbage Key. In particular, our trips in March last year and this were especially memorable for unexpected reasons.

The plan both years was to rendezvous with my sister, Trish, and, brother-in-law, Mike, who would cruise from Tampa Bay on their 30-foot vessel, the Nauti Lady. Joining them both years for the three-day voyage was my cousin, Brett, from Key West.  All three are skilled boaters, and Brett is a superb angler.

In turn, my wife Lenora and I would trailer my 15-foot boat from Lutz to the Pineland Marina, where you can count on courteous service, and motor across to the island. Both the trips were planned to coincide with Brett’s birthday and Trish’s spring break from her teaching job. Because the Nauti Lady must stick to the channels, our intention was to use my center console for fishing expeditions and exploring.

But March is temperamental.

A year ago, a howling cold front forced Lenora and I to leave my boat at the marina and take the ferry from Pineland to Cabbage Key. We had arranged to stay at the well-appointed Harborview Cottage, which had plenty of bedrooms for all of us.

The wind settled down enough the next day to enable Lenora, Brett and I to fish with Capt. Cory McGuire of Falling Tides Charters (www.fallingtidecharters.com). He warned us the cold would make for tough fishing, but we still had a wonderful morning, catching numerous redfish, including enough keepers for dinner. Cory also dropped us at Pineland Marina so I could pick up my boat, that with the falling winds now could be taken across.

The weather continued to ease, and we were able to do some flats fishing on our own, catching trout not far from the lodge. But the highlight was boating to Cayo Costa State Park, as natural a barrier island to be found on Southwest Florida, with nine miles of undeveloped beach. It is renowned for shelling – if you like walking with your head down. But why miss the sights? The 2,426-acre park offers natural uplands, hammocks and mangrove forests. Only primitive camping is allowed. There are some cabins, but no electricity or water.

Despite the initial rough weather last year, we so enjoyed the trip we sought to duplicate it this year, thinking our turn with nasty weather was a one-time deal. But March tricked us again.

Though the weather was mild when Lenora and I boated across to gather with the family at the Harborview,  it poured during the night, and by morning, it had turned cold and blustery. Much to our disappointment, Cory had to cancel our fishing trip.  Also, it was too rough to venture to Cayo Costa on my boat so as fate would have it,  we had to experience Cabbage Key as we might not have done otherwise. And it was a joy.

The one-mile nature trail winds through beautiful tropical vegetation: mangroves, buttonwood, Poinciana, strangler fig, sabal palms and many other species. Mosquito spray would be a must during warm weather, but the trail is a treat for nature-lovers. You also can climb the water tower stairs for a stunning panoramic view.

Because Mike is virtually a gourmet cook, we usually prepare our meals and are out on the water during lunch. But being stuck ashore, we decided to lunch at the restaurant and were delighted by the hamburgers and grouper sandwiches, the friendly service and the laid-back atmosphere in the screened-in room.

By then, we were resigned to being landlocked for most of the trip, but that evening Cory earned our eternal gratitude!  He called to say the wind would be down a little in the morning and he’d take us out if we were willing, but warned fishing wouldn’t be easy.

“I figured you were getting cabin-fever,” he said.

Once again Cory provided a terrific experience. We had to move around a bit, but that only allowed us to better appreciate the beauty of Pine Island Sound, with its many mangrove islands, some with dwellings, but many pristine and lush expanses of seagrass beds.  Despite the wind, the water was surprisingly clear.

IMG_0180 copy

Moreover, we caught fish; consistently, though nothing spectacular at first. When it warmed slightly, Cory took us to a hidden mangrove-lined creek, where the action was fast and furious. We caught numerous snook and some lunker trout. Lenora got the sole redfish of the day to give her an “inshore slam.”

IMG_0155 copy

A few of the snook were in the 28 to 33-inch legal “slot” and could be taken for the table, but Cory prefers to release every snook to help the sportfish recover from a devastating freeze a few years ago that killed thousands. Learning this elevated our already high regard for the engaging and astute captain.

Relaxing on our porch after our return to Cabbage Key that afternoon, we got a jarring lesson on the dangers faced by a dock master.

The Cabbage Key dock master tied up his boat near ours, and we usually exchanged a few words in the morning. He is amiable but as seems to be a requirement for the job, a bit crusty. He also is notably skillful at directing the sometimes-inexperienced boaters who must be safely moored.

As we watched him directing a huge cabin cruiser, the vessel suddenly powered ahead, slammed into the dock, splintering a piling and forcing him to jump into the frigid water. We raced down to find him clinging to the broken dock. When I asked if he was all right, he calmly replied, “I am having the time of my life.”

After being helped out of the water, he immediately began to instruct the wayward boat operator how to properly dock. It was, I thought, a remarkable demonstration of devotion to task.

Mike conjured up a wonderful last meal out of the redfish and trout, and the next morning we all went our separate ways, though the winds were higher than I like for my modest boat.

Fortunately, the few miles back to the marina are mostly behind mangroves islands. The trip was rough and wet, but the biggest threat I encountered on our return was a loose trailer winch I had improperly installed before the trip.

When that was fixed, we loaded up and headed for home, with more wonderful memories of Cabbage Key and Pine Island Sound —  but also a resolution that next year’s trip should coincide with something other than Trish’s spring break and Brett’s birthday.



Interested in visiting, here’s more information!

The 100-acre Cabbage Key is island an absolutely enchanting getaway. Its centerpiece is a home built in the 1930s by the son of Mary Roberts Rinehart, once-popular author of “The Bat” and other mysteries. Transformed into a restaurant-lodge, it endures as a remnant of another era. Visitors leave signed dollar bills taped to walls of the restaurant and the adjoining bar. When they fall, they are collected and donated to the Mote Marine Institute.

Such environmental concerns characterize Cabbage Key, which has been thoughtfully managed by the Wells family since 1976.  A number of cottages and homes have been added to the island through the years, but all with attention to retaining natural vegetation and shoreline.

The inn utilizes solar energy system and has a rainwater system that can store 25,000 gallons. Its trademark water tower has hosted an osprey nest since my wife and I started visiting in the 1970s.


Wildlife is abundant, including a variety of wading birds, manatees, dolphins, otters, and some of the largest gopher tortoises you will ever see.

 Cabbage Key is more of an attraction than when we first visited, but it manages to accommodate the usual mid-day day crowds without unseemly bustle. People seem to switch into relax gear when they step ashore.  (The restaurant is open for breakfast and dinner, but lunch draws most of the ferry boats and the crowds.)

 It is easy to lament another tourist invasion of remote Florida, but it is impossible to fault anyone for wanting to experience this beautiful tropical paradise or the owners for wanting to responsibly share it, and with obvious respect for its history and ecology.


Leave a comment

Are we ever lucky at The Florida Aquarium to have our blogger, Joe Guidry, be the winner of such a prestigious award!  And as you’ll find out, he gets to designate $2,000 toward a project or park of his choice. We gave Joe a pass on writing this next blog so we could share some more great news about this hero for our environment.  It is written by Stacy White, chairman of the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners (pictured right of Joe). He represents District 4, and we are grateful for his words of insight, so please, read on …


Recently, I championed the creation of a new award, to be awarded annually by the County Commission, that recognizes conservation efforts in Hillsborough County. In working with stakeholders from Hillsborough County’s Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program (ELAPP), we decided to name the award the Theodore Roosevelt Hillsborough Forever Conservation Award. We chose to make Theodore Roosevelt the namesake because of his conservation record and because of his connection to Hillsborough County made through the time he spent here with his famed Rough Riders regiment. The “Hillsborough Forever” portion of the name is modelled after the state level “Florida Forever” program name and indicates the importance of preserving our finite natural ecosystems into perpetuity.

The inaugural award was presented at the County Commission meeting on April 19th to Joe Guidry, former Opinion Editor of the Tampa Tribune and editor of this very blog. As the commissioner that championed the creation of this award, I cannot think of a better person to be the inaugural recipient. The media is often referred to as the fourth branch of government. Recognizing this, Joe was skillful and persistent in using the editor’s pen to raise awareness of the importance of and advocate for conservation efforts in Hillsborough County and in Florida. More importantly, he utilized his platform as editorial chief of a major newspaper to hold elected officials and other leaders accountable. It also is worth noting that Joe was a staunch supporter of the creation of the Florida Forever program and certainly advocated for a “Hillsborough Forever” policy framework.

During Joe’s tenure as an editorial writer, the Tampa Tribune was known as the more conservative newspaper in the region. For some reason, which frankly I don’t understand, conservation initiatives are often viewed as being liberal, but as Joe put it during his acceptance of the award, there is nothing conservative about squandering away our precious natural resources. As a self-professed conservative, I couldn’t agree with him more. Conservation efforts provide for a sense of place through preserving our natural heritage and provide countless other benefits, such as the protection of our water resources. Conservation should be viewed as a nonpartisan issue of importance to us all.

I have gotten to know Joe over the course of the past several years and I know that he enjoys the great outdoors. It is my understanding that he is doing plenty of fishing and other outdoor activities during his retirement years. It must be incredibly gratifying for him to be enjoying the fruits of his labor as he is doing those things here in the Tampa Bay Area. We have leaders like Joe Guidry to thank for our beautiful bay and the many thousands of beautiful uplands and freshwater wetlands that have been preserved here in Hillsborough County. Without the foresight and leadership of people like Joe Guidry it is quite possible that these efforts wouldn’t have come to be. What a loss that would have been for both our current citizens as well as future generations. I commend Joe for the role he has played in these efforts.

In recognition of his receipt of the award Joe was awarded a trophy, a framed picture of a beautiful pine flatwoods scene from one of our ELAPP preserves, and the ability to appropriate $2,000 towards a park or ELAPP project of his choice. It is worth noting that the $2,000 project appropriation was made possible by a gracious gift from a private philanthropist that is a strong supporter of our ELAPP program. In fact, $20,000 was gifted for this purpose, which will support this award for at least the next 10 years. I can’t wait to see which site Joe decides to appropriate this year’s funds towards!

If you know of someone worthy of receiving Hillsborough County’s Theodore Roosevelt Hillsborough Forever Conservation Award next year, or beyond, please be sure to submit a nomination. Individuals or groups are eligible for nomination. Please visit the county’s website, call the county’s Conservation and Environmental Lands Management Department, or contact my office for information on how to submit a nomination.

Once again, I offer my heartfelt congratulations to this year’s winner: Joe Guidry.social-media-profile-image


Volunteers and The Florida Aquarium Share a Special Relationship

Leave a comment

By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune

This is Volunteer Appreciation Week, which The Florida Aquarium has good cause to celebrate. Manager of Volunteer Services Chelsea Gomez says the 266 active volunteers “interact with guests, care for animals, dive in the exhibits” and are “involved in every single area in The Aquarium.”

Perhaps it is a stretch to say the Aquarium, which employs about 220 full and part-time workers, could not function without volunteers, but as Gomez says, “the volunteers make the difference between a good guest experience and a great one.” The volunteers also make The Aquarium efficient and economical. In the last quarter alone, Gomez says they accounted for 8,000 hours and saved the operation more than $150,000.

Volunteer ages range from 15 to 97, and Gomez says the primary requirements are that they are willing to work hard and that they are passionate about the Aquarium’s vision to “Protect and Restore the Blue Planet.”

It was the Aquarium’s dedication to marine resources that attracted Katie Hartwig (pictured below), a graduate student who began volunteering last year. She is pursuing an environmental education degree with a focus on raising awareness on how plastic debris harms ecosystems. At the Aquarium, with its exhibits that entertain and educate, she found “a reflection of what I hope to accomplish.”

Volunteer_Katie Hartwig

She loves her “husbandry” work, where she maintains, displays and cares for animals. On any given day she might be cleaning the Wetlands exhibit, preparing food for the critters or assisting the Aquarium’s Center for Conservation researchers, who are working on growing corals at the Apollo Beach facility. She spends up to eight hours a week volunteering.

While Hartwig works in husbandry, other volunteers may work in education, guest services or in a variety of other assignments, including spotting dolphins during eco-tours of Tampa Bay. Gomez says volunteers are required to put in a minimum of eight hours a month and most average about four hours a week.

No background in marine science is necessary but all volunteers must go through safety and other training. The length of training, some of which can be done on-line, varies according to task. Sessions for those who will handle animals may take several months. There are no shortcuts.

Beyond working at the attraction, volunteers also can participate in the Aquarium’s conservation work, such as planting coastal vegetation or picking up litter from the shoreline. The minimum volunteer age is 15 and Gomez finds all volunteers, regardless of age, are equally enthusiastic. All are given meaningful work.

“Our volunteers have a wide variety of experience and some have amazing stories,” Gomez says. “They all bring a lot to the table.” The experience can be particularly helpful to students wanting to pursue a science career. They may be given a chance to assist the Aquarium’s biologists. “It’s all hands-on work,” Gomez says.

The Florida Aquarium’s need for volunteers increases along with attendance during the summer. It wants as many people as possible ready to assist visitors. The Aquarium’s website (www.flaquarium.org) provides information on how to become a volunteer.

This week, the Aquarium will show its appreciation to volunteers with a cruise, a reception and other activities. But most volunteers find their payoff comes during their time at the Aquarium. As Hartwig puts it, “It’s very enjoyable. The people are great. You escape the day-to-day routine, and you learn something new every day.” social-media-profile-image