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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 the 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

 

A Well-Articulated “No” Protects Tampa Bay

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By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, the Tampa Tribune

Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt was mocked by political opponents as “Commissioner No” because of how often she voted against development proposals that came before the Board.

It was a nickname that ultimately most Hillsborough residents came to see as a badge of honor, as she fought an often-lonely battle against projects that posed a threat to public resources, particularly Tampa Bay.

While she lost many of those development votes, her fight to protect the Bay and preserve Hillsborough’s natural heritage led to many landmark measures that continue to benefit our community, including the Jan K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, or ELAPP, which uses a small amount of property taxes to buy and preserve significant lands. She was an early supporter of The Florida Aquarium and once served on its board, appreciating how the attraction enlightens visitors about the environment while entertaining them.

I recently interviewed Jan for an oral history of ELAPP being conducted for the county and the University of South Florida, and her comments revealed how she evolved into one of Florida’s most effective environmental champions.

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Platt (pictured at age 10 above), who was born in St. Petersburg and grew up in Tampa, stresses stewardship is more important than ever: “When I was born 80 years ago, there were 1.7 million people in Florida. Now we have 20 million. We have almost as many people in Hillsborough as we had in the whole state back then.”

Her interest in conservation grew from her love of her outdoors. “I was blessed that my father was a fisherman, and because he didn’t have any boys, I became his fishing partner.  So, we would fish lakes, streams, bays, rivers, bayous – any body of water.”

“Over the years, it would just kill me to see all the development that was destroying all the wetlands. There was a stream in the Town ‘N Country that was beautiful, crystal clear. I saw otter there. You could look down into the water and see the bass. And do you know when Town ‘N Country was developed that stream was used as a stormwater outfall.”

EgretHer appreciation for what was at stake was further heightened when as the Field Director for the Girl Scouts of America working to develop what would be the Scouts’ first salt water coastal camp.  She learned Pinellas County planned to build a sewer plant nearby with the foul outfall going directly into the Bay. She and supporters managed to get Pinellas to scrap the plan.  Instead, it developed a reclaimed water system that is still being used.

When her beloved younger sister died of cancer, Platt decided to try to make an even greater difference in the community by running for office, winning election to the Tampa City Council and then the Hillsborough Commission, where she was not intimidated by the powerful  developers who dominated local politics. Some of those commissioners who inevitably voted her down in those early years ended up going to prison on corruption charges – they had been bribed by developers.

Losing votes did not discourage her. She was intent on making her point. She kept in mind what her mother had taught her: “…a well-articulated “no” can be as powerful as a “yes.”

And she would go on to achieve great success in advancing environmental enlightenment. ELAPP, which has saved more than 60,000 acres, is a key example.

“I kept seeing lands destroyed, and there was no way to save them other than to block them by zoning. The commission was controlled by developers … so it appeared the only way to save land was to buy it.”

The program, funded by a small portion of property taxes, was adopted overwhelmingly by voters in 1987 and has been renewed twice in referendums by more than 70 percent of the vote. The commission in 2013 would rightly name the program after it greatest advocate.

But ELAPP was only one of Platt’s many environmental accomplishments. She was a relentless defender of Tampa Bay and helped form the Agency for Bay Management. This group brought together all the regulatory agencies, industries and citizen groups involved with the Bay to identify problems and develop solutions. “There was a need to put our heads together. It is easy to criticize; it’s hard to come up with solutions.”

The collaboration led to enormous progress on improving the Bay, and Platt credits local companies for addressing pollution issues.

“I was amazed at how they came around … I don’t think they had any knowledge of how they were hurting the Bay.”

Companies such as Tampa Electric Co. and Mosaic, she says, worked to clean up their operations without great resistance once they realized the threat to the Bay.  She says getting local governments to improve sewer treatment systems was more difficult because of the costs involved. But ultimately they would join the effort. Tampa Bay now is healthier than it has been in decades. Platt, who retired from the commission in 1994, continues to serve on the Agency for Bay Management.

The environment was not Platt’s only concern. She was a relentless proponent of open and ethical government, a leading supporter of public libraries — our interview takes place in the Jan K. Platt Library in South Tampa — and literacy efforts.

She had to finally give up fishing a few years ago, given the side effects of successful cancer treatment. But she is happy her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter are devoted to her favorite past-time and that “I am the recipient of their catch.”

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And despite the enormous comeback that Tampa Bay has enjoyed, thanks in large part to her efforts, she warns the estuary’s welfare is hardly assured.

“It requires constant vigilance. We need to not only appreciate the Bay but also protect it. You should not be afraid to stand up and speak out because the Bay is too important.” social-media-profile-image

 

Finding Wild Florida at Myakka

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By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, the Tampa Tribune

Unlike many aquariums that focus on sharks, dolphins and other offshore species, The Florida Aquarium, in telling the Florida water story, illustrates how intrinsically tied those coastal species are to swamps and wetlands far removed from the shore.

It is a fascinating story, one that includes creatures that range from otters to tarpon, and makes one appreciate the remarkable diversity of Florida’s natural riches and understand the importance of maintaining the integrity of our natural systems.

The water story’s lessons were underscored to my wife and me recently during an anniversary visit to Myakka River State Park, one of Florida’s oldest and largest state parks.

Myakka River flows through the nearly 30,000- acre park east of Sarasota on its way to Charlotte Harbor, famed for its spectacular fishing, particularly for tarpon.  The health of that estuary’s fishing, and the tourism industry it supports, is dependent on Myakka and its other freshwater sources, including the Peace River.

Pollute, dam or divert those freshwater sources and Charlotte Harbor’s water quality and marine life will inevitably decline, as will the enterprises that depend upon them.

Fortunately, visionary leaders took steps to preserve much of the Myakka wilderness.  Today it remains a remarkable place to see native flora and fauna, with the river widening into two lakes – the Upper and Lower Myakka – within the park, and the terrain including marshes, swamps, hammocks and pinelands.

Wildlife is abundant and can be seen simply driving along the park’s seven-mile main road. Those who drive slowly in the early morning and late afternoon are almost certain to see deer browsing. We also saw wild turkeys, including a long-beard gobbler. Surprisingly, we did not see the wild hogs that ran amok when we first started visiting Myakka decades ago, an indication that traps located through the park are having an impact on the destructive nonnative species, first introduced to the state by Spanish explorers.

Still, the telltale tractor-like rootings of the hogs are visible in much of the park. With mature female hogs giving birth at least twice a year to six or more piglets, park officials know there is no eliminating them.  They just hope to keep their numbers, and threat to native flora and fauna, manageable.

Myakka 104.jpgBig gators are the star attraction, and when drivers pull over to look at these large creatures that typically sun themselves where the Myakka River flows under the Park Road Bridge, it can look like a bear sighting traffic jam at Yellowstone National Park.

The gators also can be viewed on cruises of Upper Myakka Lake offered at the park’s concession area. The tours take place on impressively large (up to 75 passengers) and exceedingly slow (5 mph) airboats, but the captain’s narration is funny and informed, and one sees many of the estimated 500 to 1,000 gators in the park, along with lots of shorebirds. You learn about alligator natural history, including that they open their mouths while laying along the bank, not as a defense display but to regulate heat. They also can live more than 30 years in the wild and much longer in zoological facilities.

 

Myakka - Lenora 071 copy.jpgBird watching is terrific throughout Myakka park, particularly on the wooden “birdwalk” that goes out into the upper lake. One evening we saw white pelicans, three eagles, ospreys, avocets and countless shorebirds and ducks. The limpkin, rare in most of Florida, can be spotted along the river, lakes and marshes. Its eerie, jungle animal-like howl is common, as are the “Who Cooks for You” call of the barred owl and the screech of the red-shouldered hawk.

A neat park feature is the Canopy Walkway, where one can walk among the tree tops on a suspension bridge 25 feet above the ground and then climb the stairs of a 74-foot tower that allows a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape.

There are camping facilities for trailers and tents and, if one is fortunate enough to get reservations, five cabins. The cabins, built in the 1930s, are rustic but comfortable, each with shower, kitchen and a large fireplace in its main room, which has two beds. There is electricity, but blessedly, no television, and don’t expect Wi-Fi or a phone signal.

The park has nearly 40 miles of trails and several primative campsites. The trails will lead you through a diversity of ecosystems. I went on a fantastic tromp to the Lower Myakka Lake, a section of the park where cars are not allowed and hikers must obtain a permit.

Led by a member of the Friends of Myakka, whose members work to preserve the park and educate visitors about its treasures, we hiked several miles through pine and palmetto forest and then hardwood hammock to Deep Hole, a sinkhole in the Lower Myakka Lake that retains water during the most severe drought. It is crammed with husky gators – both in the water and on the banks –  and surrounded by vultures. What a memorable sight. Most of the gators are lounging but occasionally one in the water would suddenly crunch a fish – apparently, the lake is full of tilapia, an exotic. With gators being mostly nocturnal feeders, one can only imagine what the place must sound and look like at night.

Our group also sees red-headed woodpeckers, white pelicans, eagles, deer and many other creatures, as well as coyote and bobcat sign.

The state park is part of what is called the  Myakka Island, the remaining native habitat in the 550-square-mile watershed.  Development pressure remains acute, and park advocates hope to preserve enough to ensure a reasonably functioning ecosystem. But that is a complicated task.

Using the example of the bobcat, former Myakka naturalist B.J. Benshoff aptly puts the conservation challenge in perspective in her wonderful book, “Myakka,” (published by Pineapple Press and available at the park gift shop.)

“The home range of a male bobcat averages 7.5 square miles. About 4.5 square miles are required for a female. Bobcats require a mix of habitats, such as hardwood swamps, pine flatwoods and marshes, so the kind of space is as important as the amount of space.”

“The quality of habitat is also an important consideration. It is estimated that a one-year-old female bobcat and her three kittens will consume at least 3,800 cotton rats, 3,200 cotton mice and 700 cottontail rabbits by the end of the mother’s second year. All this prey must be within the home range that she shares with an adult male during mating season and other predators (e.g. birds, snakes, foxes, coyotes) using her range.”

Yet every new development eliminates habitat, introduces exotic species, including dogs and cats, that can threaten native species and, perhaps most critical of all, makes it more difficult to conduct the burns that ensure the land remains productive for wildlife.

Myakka - Lenora 020.jpgOne quickly realizes the wisdom of state voters who in 2014 overwhelmingly endorsed Amendment One, the referendum requiring lawmakers to invest more in conservation. Florida lawmakers, alas, have been reluctant to comply with voters’ directive.

Yet one doesn’t leave the park preoccupied with politics. Rather, Myakka State Park, with its diverse array of ecosystems and stunning wildlife numbers, leaves you with a profound sense of wonder at the beauty and complexity of wild Florida, an appreciation for the wilderness that remains, and, after observing the joy of visitors to the park, encouragement that Floridians will not squander their priceless natural gifts.social-media-profile-image

 

A Restored Tampa Bay—The Positive Side of the Regulatory Equation

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By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune

To hear some elected officials tell it, regulations are the devil’s spawn – they destroy efficiency, increase prices and kill jobs. In fact, during the political season, the word regulations is almost always preceded by “job-killing.”

There is some truth to the claim that bureaucratic red tape and command-and-control policies hamstring enterprise and deter innovation, the reason officials should take care when adopting new rules.

But the idea that environmental regulations aren’t necessary is absurdity. Indeed, prudent regulations not only protect the environment and public health but also benefit the economy, something our leaders in Washington should keep in mind as they seek to reform the regulatory system.

A 2013 study by the Office of Management and Budget a few years ago found that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules over the past decade had an estimated cost to the economy of $45 billion but had achieved $640 billion in benefits. Such broad calculations from a White House office can hardly be treated as gospel. But there is plenty of local evidence of the value of environmental protections.

Tampa Bay is a telling example, as I pointed out when I worked at The Tampa Tribune Editorial Department. Prior to the adoption of strong state, local and federal clean water regulations, Tampa Bay was a polluted soup of runoff and discharges. Regulations changed that. Among those that helped save Tampa Bay was the Clean Water Act of 1972 that, among other things, required municipalities to clean wastewater discharges.

No one can argue that those regulations haven’t been beneficial. Forty years ago, pollution and development had caused Tampa Bay to lose 81 percent of its original 76,500 acres of seagrasses and 44 percent of its original 25,000 acres of mangrove and salt marshes.

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Now, thanks to those reviled regulations, Tampa Bay is healthier than it has been in generations.  The Bay’s seagrasses have grown by more than 9,000 acres since the 1990s, and scientists say Tampa Bay is as clean as it was in the 1950s, when the region’s population was less than 500,000. Now it has close to 3 million residents.

Today, visitors to The Florida Aquarium get a vivid view of Tampa Bay’s comeback on Tampa Bay cruises where they can see porpoises, manatee and other marine life. The Bay’s revival is a direct result of pollution restrictions.

The seagrasses that were being choked out by cloudy water that prevent growth now receive enough light to grow. That means more habitat for marine life, including popular sportfish such as snook, trout and redfish. Healthy grass beds filter water while also deterring erosion.

Those allegedly “job-killing” regulations not only cleaned up Tampa Bay but made the area a more appealing place to live, work and visit.

Does anyone think that Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik would be pursuing a $1 billion development project on Tampa’s downtown waterfront if Tampa Bay had remained a putrid mess? Or that all the investment and growth the region has enjoyed would have occurred if elected leaders had taken a hands-off attitude toward the polluters?

Does anyone think Tampa would have landed the recent College Football Playoff National Championship that brought so many visitors to the region, not to mention four Super Bowls and numerous other sports championships, had it continued to allow Tampa Bay to become a cesspool?

There is no question that regulators sometimes go too far and impose laws without adequately weighing the cost-benefits. They also sometimes fail to consider how market forces could advance their goals. Still, the positive side of the regulatory equation is overlooked far too often during political debates. Restrictions, without question, should be based on sound science and common sense.

No doubt, maintaining clean water and air involves costs and sometimes may indeed eliminate certain jobs.  But the reckless destruction of our wonderful resources is, in the long run, a far greater threat to Florida’s economic prospects.social-media-profile-image

The Singular Brand of Thom Stork

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By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune

The story goes that Thom Stork’s first meeting with The Florida Aquarium staff after he was named CEO of the struggling attraction in 2002 was tense. The staff, who took their environmental-education mission seriously, worried the marketing whiz who’d spent most of his career generating buzz for the Anheuser-Busch Theme Parks wouldn’t appreciate their efforts.

So, Thom began the meeting by asking, “All right, where are we going to put the roller coaster?” That was Thom, quick-witted, attuned to others and with a talent for saying the right thing at the right time. The joke, acknowledging their concerns, dispelled the tension.

Thom died of cancer last month after leading the Aquarium to unprecedented success during his 14 years as president and CEO. It is a painful loss to those who knew him. He was a man who knew how to get things done, but who also had a talent for making life more enjoyable — more fun — for those around him.

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As the staff quickly learned, Thom was deeply committed to educating visitors about Florida’s marine resources, but he also sought to ensure that families enjoyed their visit and wanted to return. He spent time observing and conversing with visitors to determine what they wanted.  These Stork-focused inquiries resulted in the addition of play areas, where parents could let their kids run loose, as well as interactive exhibits, and restaurants.

The marketing master also started eco-cruises around Tampa Bay and held special events that attracted crowds to The Florida Aquarium. He put up a fish aquarium at Tampa International Airport and stingray pools at the Tampa Bay Rays’ Tropicana Field and just last autumn at Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center.

Attendance steadily rose to record highs of more than 800,000, and the Aquarium consistently operated in the black under his leadership.

But as Thom attracted more visitors, he also maintained focus on its education mission, increasing classroom space and its offerings to students. Last November, the Aquarium celebrated its 1.5 millionth student, a milestone that delighted him.

Marketing executives are sometimes characterized – or derided –  as being all   “personality” and Thom, to be sure, had buckets of personality (not to mention a touch of flamboyance, with his trademark bowties and snazzy suits, usually accompanied by suspenders). He never met a stranger, and whether before a group of disadvantaged schoolchildren or corporate executives, he inevitably put others at ease.

But beyond his remarkable personal skills, he was a visionary, one whose keen sense of how to please visitors was matched by a resolve that The Florida Aquarium play a key role in “Protecting and Restoring the Blue Planet,” which became the Aquarium’s motto.

Thanks to the Aquarium’s increasing success, it could devote more effort to its environmental research and conservation efforts. Thom was particularly proud of the Aquarium’s pioneering research on the annual staghorn coral spawn, which could help reverse the massive dying off of coral reefs that is taking place around the world.

And typically, Thom managed to establish a research partnership with Cuba’s National Aquarium without stirring up any political whirlpools. He kept the focus on what was important: two countries working together to save imperiled resources.

Thom was involved in numerous civic groups, believing he had an obligation to improve the community. He was not just a name on a board list. He invested time and sweat into his volunteer work because he deeply cared about making Tampa — and Florida —  better places to live.

As his board, staff and people throughout the community – including myself – will testify, Thom had a gift for friendship.  If he was your friend, he was going to go to bat for you whatever the circumstances. The Tampa Bay Times’ columnist Dan Ruth recently wrote a wonderful piece about how when he was laid off by The Tampa Tribune, Stork promptly sought to help him “rebrand” himself and find another job.  All this even though the sometimes-acerbic Ruth was not always kind to the Aquarium.

Stork was similarly kind to me when The Tampa Tribune went out of business last May. He shrugged off my thanks for his efforts on my behalf saying, “This is what longtime friends do.” I ultimately decided not to pursue another full-time job, but I know Thom later supported the creation of this Water Stories blog.

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I don’t know a more devoted husband, father or grandfather. The pictures in his office were devoted to his family, not his career.  His friends also knew him to be man of quiet faith, who appreciated the power of prayer.

Thom never got to enjoy the retirement that he planned for 2017. He deserved many more good years with his beloved wife, Donna, and his family and friends.

The board likely will find a worthy successor who will build on the success Stork brought to The Florida Aquarium. But if the CEO position can be filled, there will be no replacing Thom Stork’s singular brand of leadership, generosity and good will. social-media-profile-image

A Life Lesson from The Florida Aquarium

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By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune.

I have been a fan of The Florida Aquarium since its supporters came to The Tampa Tribune Editorial Board in the early 1990s to unveil their vision of an attraction that would entertain and educate visitors while generating revenue for environmental conservation and research.

But, I also must admit the Aquarium was the source of one of the dumber things I wrote in my 30-some years as an editorial writer.

Backers sought taxpayer support for the construction bonds, and the arguments for the investment seemed strong: Every aquarium in the nation was successful and the independent consultants’ report projecting nearly 2 million visitors per  year had the project safely paying its operating costs and $84 million debt service.

I wrote something silly, like the likelihood of “the public being at risk was about the same as a great white shark attacking the Tampa Bay Convention Center.”

Actually, the Aquarium’s challenge was far more formidable than I imagined. It was the lone attraction in a seedy Channel District that offered little. Attendance in the early years was below expectations and the venture quickly needed a bailout and many readers ridiculed my stance.

It provided an embarrassing lesson about blissfully accepting consultants’ rosy assurances.  But the bigger lesson I learned was about staying the course despite setbacks. The Aquarium, in the long run, provided a critical example of  the importance of investing in the future and staying the course with vision and resolve.

Though its lonely years in the Channel District were frustrating, the aquarium soon ignited investment throughout the neighborhood.

Former Tampa Bay Lightning Governor, David LeFevre, once told me The Tampa Bay Lightning’s decision to locate downtown was a direct result of the community’s decision to build the  Aquarium.

Now the Aquarium is part of a thriving district that offers a sports arena, condo towers, a cruise ship terminal, restaurants, bars and retail shops. Soon, the University of South Florida will develop its new medical school nearby, part of a $1 billion development plan by Lightning owner, Jeff Vinik, aimed at attracting corporations, residents and retail to the neighborhood.

None of this would be happening were it not for The Florida Aquarium. It is highly unlikely, for that matter, that Tampa would have hosted the Republican National Convention,   Women’s Final Four, Frozen Four and countless other major events if the Aquarium had not been built.

Yet the Aquarium is much more than an economic catalyst.

It has become a major attraction in its own right; one that is helping Tampa to attract more visitors who stay here a night or more, rather than briefly stopping by on the way to Disney World or the beach.

With education and conservation as its top priority, the Aquarium was created to tell the Florida water story.  It instructed visitors about the state’s ecosystem; with alligators, otters, tarpons, sharks and many other lively creatures.

Still, the Aquarium staff, particularly under innovative Thom Stork, the late Aquarium president and CEO, realized the need to offer ever more fun and interactive experiences to keep families coming back.

But there has been no retreat from the education-conservation mission. Indeed, the aquarium’s vision is “To protect and restore our Blue Planet.” There is no mention of increasing attendance or revenues.

The Aquarium’s increasing financial success is allowing it to focus more than ever on research—just as those original advocates envisioned.

Its Center for Conservation is on the forefront of research efforts to save coral reefs, sea turtles and coastal sharks. It works with local restaurants to promote sustainable seafood. Ecotour cruises on Tampa Bay allow people to thrill at the sight of porpoises and other wildlife, while also learning about the Bay’s natural history.

The Aquarium is partnering with Tampa Electric to develop a research, recreation and education center near Big Bend Power Plant in Apollo Beach. They also are collaborating with Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission on operating a fish hatchery at the site.

All this has taken time. I was clueless in the editorial decades ago about the financial riptides the Aquarium would confront.

But The Florida Aquarium was able to survive it all and today—thanks to the enterprise and commitment of its Board and staff—is enhancing the economy and the environment. Turning the tide on the health of our blue planet, particularly here in Tampa Bay and the Gulf, will require more grit, more commitment and more support from our community.  In the Water Stories that follow, it will be my great honor to share examples of our challenges and successes. social-media-profile-image