A Diving Epiphany Creates Amazing Aquarium Experiences

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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

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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

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“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

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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.

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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.”

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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.


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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

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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


Upcoming Day of Discovery Focuses on Autism-friendly Experiences

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By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune

In his recent State of the City speech Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn launched an “Autism Friendly Tampa” initiative, pledging that the city would work with the University of South Florida’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) to better meet the needs of residents with autism.

It is an admirable undertaking, and one that The Florida Aquarium has pursued for years with USF’s CARD. Buckhorn is wise to similarly commit to serving those with autism, which physicians now recognize is fairly common. The Centers for Disease Control says one in 68 American children has been identified with autism spectrum disorders.

As part of its resolve to serve these children, and in concert with April’s designation as Autism Awareness Month, The Aquarium will hold its fifth annual Day of Discovery for children with autism or other special needs and their families on Saturday, April 29.

The Aquarium staff recognized long ago that a trip to an attraction can be daunting for children on the autism spectrum and their parents.The lights, noise, crowds and colorful displays that delight other children can be frightening or disorienting to those with the disorder, who may be exceptionally intelligent but have difficulty communicating or coping with the unexpected.


So, The Florida Aquarium, working with CARD experts, adopted a series of practices aimed at putting children on the spectrum and their parents at ease. “For many years, our goal has been to basically be an ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] leader and offer a venue that is inclusive for anyone with special needs,” says Rob Lamke, Promotions Manager for The Florida Aquarium. “We want everyone to feel welcomed.”

On the Day of Discovery, The Aquarium will open for participants at 8 a.m., instead of the regular 9:30 a.m. Special presentations, including an appearance by Star Wars characters, developed specifically for the morning’s audience, are planned. Moreover, The Aquarium will be altered to make visitors more comfortable. There will be no loud sounds, pulsating lights, dark corners or other things the children might find disturbing.

Aquarium educators and curators will interact with the children, who will be invited to participate in activities such as making ice from molds, which is then given to the otters. Lamke says the kids love watching swimming animals frolic with their creations. Admission is $5 prior the event and $8 at the door. Attendance has increased every year and Lamke expects 700-800 visitors this year.

But while the staff takes pride in the Day of Discovery, serving children with disabilities is a daily task at The Florida Aquarium. All Aquarium staffers receive special training on how to respond to the children’s needs and are taught how to calm a child who is acting out.

Knowing that some children can be unsettled by a new experience, The Aquarium staff worked with CARD to develop a special guide that enables parents to prepare their children for what they will see. For instance, it describes the cave-like entrance to the Wetlands Exhibit, so children won’t be frightened by it. It presents such things as how to use the escalator or what children should do if they are upset by certain smells. The guide can be found here.

Lamke (pictured below with son Keland) says the Aquarium provides free noise-cancelling headphones, as some kids are agitated by  loud noise. He also points out the design of the coming Splash Pad provides a secure place for the parents to relax while their children run free.Such attention to such detail has resulted in CARD designating The Florida Aquarium an autism friendly business.

Robbie Keland

The Aquarium is continuing to develop services for not only children on the spectrum but for all visitors with special needs, regardless of age.Lamke says it’s been rewarding to see The Aquarium’s accessibility efforts, such as the Day of Discovery, grow and evolve. And other programs are always in the works, including allowing children to don wetsuits and venture into the display tanks, accompanied by staff guides of course.

Indeed, Lamke believes The Aquarium’s water theme provides a particular advantage in appealing to individuals on the spectrum. “It is a great element for the children, soothing and self-contained,” he says.  But the health benefits of being around water for all of us are being explored and presented by researchers. Lamke concludes, “Being surrounded by water is very calming, not just to people on the spectrum, but also to so many of us. That’s what makes an Aquarium like ours so appealing for the whole family.”social-media-profile-image

Tampa, Know Your Tortoises

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The Florida Aquarium’s e-newsletter recently ran this delightful photograph of Koko, a burrowing owl, riding on the back of a gopher tortoise. The species share the same habitat in the aquarium uplands display, but the photograph is as telling as it is cute. The lowly gopher tortoise carries a lot other creatures on its back – at least figuratively.


Scientists say the burrows gopher tortoises dig provide a home or refuge for more than 350 wildlife species, and it is considered a “keystone” species. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) calls it the “backbone of the plant and wildlife community in which it lives.”

Aquarium Associate Curator Eric Hovland explains that the tortoise can dig a burrow that is up to 10 feet deep and 40 feet long, providing a “a cool, safe place” for animals to avoid the heat and conserve water, which is critical to survival. The burrows also provide sanctuary from predators. Among the species that utilize the tortoise’s burrow are the burrowing owl, indigo snake, opossum, Florida mouse and gopher frog.

The rattlesnake sometimes also uses the holes, which can prove deadly for the tortoise – but not because the snake poses a threat. Sometimes snake haters try to kill rattlers by pouring gasoline down the holes, which can also kill the threatened tortoise and other protected species such as the indigo snake.

It is a cruel, destructive practice. Rattlers are not aggressive if left alone and help control populations of rodents and other critters that can become a nuisance. Beyond that, it is illegal in Florida to kill or harass gopher tortoises, a threatened species, or harm their burrows or their eggs.

Some people still treat the gentle reptile thoughtlessly. Hovland points out that not long ago there was a rash of tortoise “paintings.”  The culprits must have thought a colorful tortoise would look cute but Hovland says the practice damages the shell and blocks its absorption of sunlight.

I can remember decades ago local fairs holding gopher tortoise races, where entrants would prod the tortoises with sticks to make them move. The races are now banned.Also, people sometimes try to make pets of the docile animals, which is illegal and usually harmful.

In fact, Hovland says the two tortoises in The Aquarium’s display are “rescues” that FWC confiscated from people who were keeping them illegally.  Because tortoises had been fed only lettuce – instead of the diverse vegetation they would eat in the wild – and kept out of the sunlight, their growth was stunted, and they could not be released as would normally be done. Nonetheless, the two are likely to be around a long while.  Scientists say gopher tortoises can live up to 80 years in the wild and 100 years in captivity.

At one time, it was not uncommon for people to eat tortoises, which can weigh nine pounds and be 11 inches long or more. During the Great Depression, poor Floridians called them Hoover Chickens, because they offered an easily captured meal during those desperate times.

The biggest threat to the tortoise now is development, which is rapidly claiming its uplands habitat.  Florida does not prohibit the destruction of tortoise habitat but does requires developers to obtain a permit and relocate any tortoises found on the property to be bulldozed.

Beyond a development’s direct impact on the tortoise, it also usually leads to the suppression of fire necessary to maintain sandy pinelands on nearby lands. Residents who oppose controlled burns in nearby woods often don’t realize how preventing the fires dramatically changes the ecosystem while causing the accumulation of dead trees and other “fuel” that can result in an uncontrollable fire when one does occur.

If you see a tortoise trying to cross the road, it is not illegal to pick it up and move it to safety. But do no more than that. Do not put them in water, a common mistake. They are terrestrial creatures, not agile swimmers. If tossed in the water, they will sink and drown.

I once watched one that had wandered into our backyard swim across the small lake behind us. It waited a long time at shoreline, as if to muster up courage or perhaps become more buoyant with air. It finally paddled slowly across, its head barely above water. My son and I followed him in a jon boat to make sure it reached land. After crossing, it rested a few minutes then determinedly continued on to a nearby Hillsborough County preserve where tortoises are common.

P.J. Benshoff, the long-time naturalist at Myakka State Park, writes in her book “Myakka” that gopher tortoises are most active when the moon is high in the sky and during what famed Florida author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings called “south moon under,” the half-way point between moonset and moonrise.

The next time you see one, whether at The Florida Aquarium or in the wild, remember this isn’t just one of Mother Nature’s awkward slowpokes, but a marvel of ecological efficiency that makes sure, as Hovland puts it, “there is room at the inn” for other creatures. social-media-profile-image

Getting Sea Turtles Back on Their Flippers

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By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, the Tampa Tribune

“It was 9 a.m. on a recent Monday.  Our Florida Aquarium Center for Conservation sea turtle release team climbed into two vehicles.  Our shelled comrades, Rosemary and Ginger, quietly rested in their transport carriers. Two hours later, our convoy arrived at Cape Canaveral Seashore and within 15 minutes the two healthy loggerhead sea turtles fitted with microchips swam out into the surf and out of sight.  I’d been watching these girls since they arrived in terrible shape, so seeing them go confidently into the big blue made my week, my month really! Solitary creatures, they likely went their own way.” — The Florida Aquarium’s digital producer, Brian Gallaher  (VIEW VIDEO)


The recent return of these two loggerhead turtles to their natural habitat illustrates The Florida Aquarium’s efforts to save threatened sea turtles. There are seven species of sea turtle, and Florida’s coast provides nesting beaches for five of them – the loggerhead, green, leatherback, hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley.

The Florida Aquarium’s primary focus is on nursing sick or injured sea turtles back to health. Or, as the Aquarium’s Director of Animal Health Dr. Kathy Heym, puts it, getting the turtles “back on their flippers.”

Rosemary, one of the two loggerheads released at Canaveral National Seashore in New Smyrna provides a vivid example of the Aquarium’s labors. She was desperately ill when rescued last June at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The local Brevard Zoo team provided emergency care to the thin, listless turtle, which was transported to The Florida Aquarium.

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Heym said, “When she arrived her carapace and skin were covered with barnacles, and she was extremely anemic — a sign she had been ill for a long time. Her blood sugar also was low indicating she was eating and likely had a systemic infection.”

Heym and her team treated Rosemary with fluids and antibiotics but when her anemia persisted, she was given a blood transfusion from a rescued loggerhead sea turtle at Sea World Orlando. The donor suffered no ill effects from the procedure, but the results were dramatic for Rosemary. She began eating, gaining weight and vitality.

The transformation of the pathetically weak sea turtle that was near death last June to the robust loggerhead returned to the ocean at the National Seashore was remarkable – but no surprise.

Since 1999, the Aquarium staff has treated sea turtles that have been bitten by sharks, struck by boats, swallowed plastic bags or suffered from debilitating infection, cold shock and various other afflictions.


Most of the rescued sea turtles are found in Florida waters but the Aquarium will treat any turtle in need. Ginger, the other loggerhead released with Rosemary was found in December in the Northeast Atlantic suffering from coldstun effects. The New England Aquarium provided immediate treatment and the sea turtle was then flown to Tampa for The Florida Aquarium’s expert care.

In the last 10 years alone, Heym says, the Aquarium has successfully rescued, treated and released 125 sea turtles. That does not include the 18 currently under their care that are now being rehabilitated.


The rescue work will be greatly enhanced with the completion of a 16,000-square-foot Sea Turtle Hospital at the Aquarium’s Center for Conservation under construction in Apollo Beach. Groundbreaking additions will be a dive pool for turtles and a recovery, pre-release feeding and deep diving pools.  Even so, medical care is not the only way The Florida Aquarium helps sea turtles survive.

The Aquarium also is working to monitor sea turtle population and health in Tampa Bay and in the Gulf of Mexico, working in conjunction with the University of Florida and the Florida Wildlife Commission.

One strategy is to work with local fisherman to call The Florida Aquarium’s rescue team when sea turtles are accidentally caught. Heym says a survey of six of the fishing piers around Tampa Bay found 7.7 percent had caught a sea turtle somewhere in Florida and 4.4 percent had caught a sea turtle in the last 12 months in Tampa Bay.


All this will help the further advance the sea turtle’s comeback. But there is an additional goal.As Heym explains, “Since sea turtles live a long time, they are a great indication of the overall health of the ecosystem.” By tending to sick sea turtles such as Rosemary and Ginger, The Florida Aquarium is seeking not only to aid endangered sea turtles but help restore the ecological health of our coastal waters as well. social-media-profile-image

Turning Feel-Good Words Into Action

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By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, the Tampa Tribune

The Florida Aquarium’s pioneering efforts to save coral reefs, which are dying at an alarming rate, is attracting a lot of news coverage, and rightly so.

But those reports, such as The Tampa Bay Times’ recent Paul Guzzo story on The Florida Aquarium working with Cuban scientists to create greenhouses for growing coral that can eventually be replanted, represent more than just scientific progress.

The Aquarium’s coral work is part of a broader strategy best expressed in its vision statement to “Protect and Restore Our Blue Planet.” Those aren’t intended to be just feel-good words. The vision, developed by Board members and Aquarium staff during a retreat a few years ago, is intended to help direct decisions.

Nobody is forgetting about the business side of the enterprise. Its stated mission to “entertain, educate and inspire stewardship of our natural environment” takes aim at its immediate and pragmatic goals. But the larger vision is for The Florida Aquarium to play an aggressive role in protecting our imperilled oceans.

_DSC5787 copyThe Florida Aquarium’s Vice President of Conservation, Science and Research Margo McKnight said the challenge of that vision was how to translate it into action. That was accomplished by narrowing the focus to areas where the Aquarium staff had expertise and could have significant impact.

This led to the focus on staghorn coral, which has lost 90 percent of its original density. That means more than losing a beautiful underwater attraction for divers, particularly in the Florida Keys. As McKnight says, “Corals are responsible for at least 25 percent of the biodiversity in the ocean, and it may be as high as 40 percent.” Thus, saving the reefs also saves one of the key components of a healthy ocean.

The Aquarium team already has proved its expertise in coral research by becoming the first institution in the world to sexually reproduce staghorn coral in a lab. It is collaborating with other research institutions to reproduce healthy corals and revive their dwindling populations.

But corals are not the Aquarium’s only “Protect and Restore” goal. The staff also decided to make sea turtles and sand tiger sharks restoration priorities.Both are featured in the Aquarium and both are native to Florida waters, but more importantly, both face grave threats — from habitat destruction to overfishing.

shark angry copyMcKnight says of the sand tiger shark, “The shark is an apex predator. You take the apex predator out of the ocean, and you are going to have a catastrophe. The biodiversity will plummet.”

She says the loss of predators allows the population explosion of algae eaters which then leads to the loss of food and habitat and, ultimately, to the decline of other species, including popular gamefish.

Yet there is much that is unknown about sand tiger sharks, including their breeding migration. Though the sand tiger shark is protected in the U.S., its numbers are declining. The Florida Aquarium is working with 14 other aquariums on a tagging program and also trying to get the sharks to reproduce in managed care.

The turtle, McKnight says, is an “umbrella” species; and because it is long lived, it is a great indicator of an ecosystem’s health. The Aquarium team is studying whether improving water quality in Tampa Bay will revive its turtle numbers. Its scientists also are engaged in rescue efforts and routinely nurse sick and injured sea turtles back to health so they can be released where they were found.

_DSC5632 copyOf course, beyond the concentrated efforts on these troubled species, The Florida Aquarium seeks to protect and preserve the Blue Planet by transforming visitors, helping them appreciate and understand the ocean’s wonder and importance.

Looked at in that broader perspective, The Florida Aquarium’s aim to “Protect and Preserve the Blue Planet” is not solely about saving the oceans, but also about saving humanity, and its vision statement could not be more appropriate. social-media-profile-image