Monday, May 30, 2011

Venture Out! Megalops atlanticus

Me with my first "small" tarpon in Florida Bay, caught on the fly

I live in the sportfishing capital of the world. Millions of people fly halfway around the globe each year just to get out on the emerald waters of Florida Bay and try their luck with a rod and reel. Deeper water charters run trips for sailfish, kings, grouper, mahi, and tuna, but in my opinion the best bang for your buck is running off Islamorada and into the bay for the Altantic tarpon (Megalops atlanticus). These "silver kings" as they're called, can reach lengths up to 8 feet and weigh up to 350 lbs. Dive bars and fishing outposts line their walls with vintage photographs of the historic fights that famous anglers, actors, sports heroes, and past presidents have had while fishing for these coastal monsters.

Once on the line, a tarpon is known to explode out of the water in attempts to break the line or shake the hook. This the angler's most tense moment and as well, the reason they came to the Keys.

A few weeks ago, coworker Adam Chasey and I set out to film and photograph tarpon for a short documentary series we're working on with National Audubon and Disney. Knowing that we didn't have the time or money to invest in a month-long trial and error process of hiring fishing guides, we went to the one place we knew we could find the megalops.

For years, Robbie's Marina has been known as the tarpon hotspot. With access to both Florida Bay and the Atlantic ocean coupled with a constant stream of fishing charters disposing of their leftovers, tarpon arrive in droves along with jacks, snapper, and of course, brown pelicans.

The image I envisioned was a tarpon lunging out of the blue water with jaws open straight towards the camera. I didn't know how I would accomplish this considering the logistics of enticing a wild tarpon to jump, or the risk of losing another camera, or even just battling the hot Florida sun for hours on end, but I welcomed the challenge. Check out the next Venture Out! video to see how we did it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


The parched mangrove flats region of Taylor River in Everglades National Park

While South Florida waits for the summer rains, I've been enjoying heading out to my favorite backcountry locations to see how the prolonged dry season continues to reshape the landscape. Places that I could normally access by motorboat have now limited me to using a push pole or kayak.

Shallow sediment flats of Florida Bay along the Bob Keys

On Florida Bay, even the tides seem to become a little more drastic as the river of grass has turned into a mere trickle, limiting the supply of freshwater expelled into the bay.

Rolling rain clouds over Florida Bay off Flamingo point in Everglades National Park

Still, big thunderheads and towering cumulous clouds develop in the early mornings and late afternoons. And just when we think we're getting the first big rains, after only a few hours the storm passes and we're left with just the afterthought of a summer that never seems to come.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Venture Out! Beta Project

I always flipped through REI or Patagonia magazines thinking, "man, how do these people get to do this stuff?" I mean, here I was hiking in the woods, swimming in the springs, rappelling down cliffs too, why didn't I ever get a call to test out their gear? Well, someone must have heard my silent gripes, because last month I was given the opportunity to be an official tester for Columbia Sportswear along with Adam Chasey and Garl Harrold of Garl's Coastal Kayaking.

Their new product, Insect Blocker is a type of cloth that is designed to keep biting insects from biting through your shirt or pants while in wetland areas. Columbia figured that since we spent the majority of our time in the Everglades and swamps of Florida that we would be perfect candidates.

From what I've found, keeping insects at bay is one of the toughest tasks in the Everglades, especially in the summer. Bug suits are stuffy and may as well be portable saunas as they're terrible for keeping you cool. Lightweight shirts are often too lightweight and the bigger deer flies and mosquitoes can bite right through the gaps. So, Columbia designed a shirt that would breathe while offering protection through some brilliant way of infusing permethryn with the fabric.

The research and development center at Columbia gave us one month to test out the shirt and pants, asking our opinions along the way. After a month, Kristen Strott, head of R&D at Columbia and Mark Going, photographer for the company, booked a flight from their office in Oregon to come and see for themselves how the gear fared in the Everglades.

They specifically asked us to take them camping in the most brutal and blood-draining hostile place we could think of, so we picked Alligator Creek in the salt marsh of Everglades National Park. We planned to paddle the 7 miles to the campsite and stay one night amidst the noseeums, deer flies, and mosquitoes to put the gear and ourselves through the ringer. While I was a little uneasy about this type of masochism I was incredibly stoked that a clothing company would invest this much time and effort into making sure their product worked before putting it on the shelves.

Now, I'm not allowed to reveal too much about Insect Blocker, but what I will say is that it's not a magical forcefield. It works where the clothes are touching and I never once felt overheated. Yes, good old fashion bug repellant works too - but honestly, our skin is a porous living thing, and I avoid putting that stuff on at all costs. I mean seriously, it melts plastic.

While it was fun romping around for Columbia, it was even more rewarding to show a couple Oregonians a few of the reasons why we live, love, and breathe the Everglades. Here's video I put together of our trip. I hope you enjoy it!

Quick Trip

Camilo Lopez braves one of the waterfalls on the outskirts of Pico Bonito National Park

What a whirlwind. I feel like I was just packing to go to Honduras and after a full week of exploring, waterfall climbing, camping, soccer, swimming, and hanging out with my old students along the Cangrejal River my head is still spinning trying to process everything that happened. As soon as I can get some time to breathe, I will process the images and put together some videos and slideshows to share with you. Until then, you'll just have to wait!

Monday, May 9, 2011

La Cuenca

Cangrejal River in Las Mangas, Honduras

I'm so excited to be back in Honduras and staying in my old village Las Mangas along the Cangrejal River. I have about a week to be here and there's so much I have to catch up on after having left three years ago. While it's hard to be certain of anything in the Cangrejal watershed, there are a few things I think I can count on. I know I'm going to eat a bunch of beans and tortillas, I know I'm going to swim in the river, I know I'm going to go camping, and I know I'm going to hurt myself in some way. I can only hope that the weather the stays clear, that I don't really hurt myself, and that I finally get that bot fly I always wanted, felt I deserved, and never got. Either way, I'm sure it's going to be a great adventure.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mother's Day!

A mother alligator defends her young in Everglades National Park

While filming the next Venture Out! episode with the Columbia Sportswear team in the Everglades, we came across this American alligator. She was vocally aggressive and we soon noticed that she had 4 hatchlings staying cool under the cut bank, wallowing in the only muddy water left in the cypress dome. Keeping guard on the fringe, hissing with jaws agape and hind legs poised to pounce, she let us know we weren't welcome. You have to respect her courage, putting her babies first, even when raising them in the toughest of conditions. So this photo goes out to all the mamas out there, in rain or drought, doing their best to make sure their babies grow up. Happy Mother's Day!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Venture Out! Everglades Invader

A nine-foot Burmese python hides amongst the leaves in an upland hammock

Many of you have heard the stories about pythons taking over the Everglades. While I wish this were another Skunk Ape story hyperbolized by one sighting, for those of us who live and work in the park this is a very real and scary problem. Burmese pythons (Python molurus bivittatus) are one of the world's largest snakes and unfortunately have been released into the park. Due to their incredibly high survival rates and south Florida's favorable climate, their populations have exploded over the last few years. It is estimated that anywhere from 5,000 to 200,000 pythons are currently residing in the Everglades. Research biologists in the park are working hard to find new ways of controlling their numbers.

Trey Kieckhefer, wildlife biologist with the University of Florida

Last week I had the chance to accompany wildlife biologist Trey Kieckhefer to get a better understanding of the problem we're facing in the Everglades. One of his studies involves implanting a tracking device under the skin of nine pythons and rereleasing them into the park. While this many seem counterproductive to limiting the number of these invasive reptiles, the "Judas Snakes" as they're called, help lead biologists to other pythons during the breeding season and offer clues as to their behavior in south Florida. Normally when biologists encounter pythons in the field, they take them back to the lab for further research or euthanasia.

Biologists use radio telemetry to track the movements and habits of select pythons

Trey currently holds the record for finding the largest python in the park, at a staggering 16.9 feet. You would think a snake this big would easily be detected by the millions of tourists and workers that pour through the park entrance each year. However, as you will find in my next episode of Venture Out!, regardless of size, the Burmese python is difficult to locate even with radio telemetry and GPS tracking.

Enjoy the video and pray for our Everglades!