Sunday, April 29, 2012

Dolphin Days

I didn't plan on doing a video. In fact, I was ready to publish the below blog solely on dolphin photos until I came across this image, and it just sang to me. It typified the sunny afternoons spent in the slipstream of dolphin tails, watching them careen through the emerald Bay. But the image needed a little more motion if I were going to successfully share the experience with viewers. My still imagery is always reliant on the wild imagination of my audience to animate the rest of the story. However, there are just some things that a photo alone cannot capture; like the sound of a dolphin kiss. So, enjoy!

There was a three-week period in March where Atlantic bottlenose dolphins seemed to be the running theme to my final days in the Keys. It was as if they followed my boat waiting for good light and their chance to shine in front of the camera.

Everywhere I turned, I found pods of dolphins feeding in the shallows, playing behind my wake, or riding the bow, showcasing their acrobatics and boasting free range of Florida Bay. No matter how many times I've seen them though, it's always a treat knowing that in some capacity they're as curious of me as I am of them. Surely, it's a sign of intelligence when a mammal spends a great deal of its time exploring its curiosity, learning and interacting from the world. Or, as scientists like to say, "making sense of the senses." Not to get too far into detail here, but recent studies are showing that this highly sophisticated level of brain function can be attributed to neurons known as spindle cells. These cells are found in other complex-brained animals like chimpanzees, whales, and apes. Biologists hypothesize that spindle neurons are the building blocks to cognitive learning and comprise the foundation for elaborate social interactions. For someone who works around skittish wildlife that constantly flees at the snap of twig, to have a wild animal approach me for once feels like a gift, a subtle ego-stroke even.

The real gift, however, came from my friends at Dolphin Cove. Jessica Lundstrum, Emily Campbell, and Jessica Lili are dolphin trainers who spend all their time interacting with these incredible animals. I'm sure everyone who ever visited Sea World at one point wanted to quit their job and take up dolphin or whale training. Thousands of people come down to the Keys to dive the reefs and to also spend an afternoon in one of the several swim programs they have around the islands with rehabilitated dolphins. Just before the busy season picks up, however, they need to acclimate the animals to strangers. This is where it pays to have friends at Dolphin Cove. I believe the text I received read like this, "Hey Mac, we need people to swim with dolphins this morning, can you come in?" It was 75 degrees and sunny. My reply? "Nah, I have some things to do around the house... uh...  yes!"

Not 30 minutes later I was sitting on the bedrock bottom blowing big air bubbles while four bottlenose dolphins circled and squeaked around me. I strapped on my GoPro and got some fun clips of the playful animals as they tried desperately to figure out what that blinking red light on my head was. I couldn't believe I waited two years to do this and even more so, surprised when the staff thanked me as I left, which seemed so backwards; like Willy Wonka thanking Augustus for drinking from his chocolate waterfall. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Man's Best Friend

In this world there are few bonds stronger than that of a man and his dog. In the Keys, where bars and restaurants kindly open their doors to people and canines alike, many of the four-legged animals begin to socialize and create their own circle of friends. While most locals know each other in the small communities, their pets are often more ubiquitous than their owners. There's Layla, the barrel-bodied pitbull who's bull-dozing gait clears tables and chairs if left unattended. Then there's the half-blind basset hound, Beauregard, a dive bar junkie who lumbers along mopping the beer-soaked floor with his ears. But while these dogs are well-known for their quirky personas and general presence, there's only one dog who actually engages, entertains, and receives invites at every social gathering. Meet River.

River attempts to place a coconut husk in my hand for one more throw while Badger looks on    

River, an Australian shepherd and labrador mix was adopted by Garl Harrold four years ago. Within the first few months River managed to get her tongue stuck in a Kong ball and Garl faced either a $4,000 surgical procedure or the option to put her down. Fortunately, it was a good year for Garl's Coastal Kayaking and he footed the bill. To this day, it seems she has tried every possible way of repaying her debt with the hundreds of coconuts she fanatically peels. Piles of husks litter the front lawn and Garl is always quick to offer a fresh coconut water to anyone that visits the house. Her half tongue has left her uncontrollably drooling, sliming anyone that dares to walk near her mouth. After years of shucking the hardened coconuts her canines have eroded down to what looks like a dentist's solution for delinquent dogs. Garl has tried to ease her into tennis balls, racquetballs, and even baseballs, but she destroys them all the same as if there were something delicious waiting at the center of all round things.

Garl paddles River in Florida Bay on one of his sunset cruises

While Garl is out leading trips into the wilds of the Everglades he has to leave his dog behind. At home, unleashed and unbound River commonly takes off to explore the neighborhoods and retrieve anything that strangers offer to throw. When she's not out on her own, friends and coworkers come by and voluntarily pick her up to spend an afternoon with the legendary dog. Unfortunately, her forever-loving labrador naivety has landed her in the cars of strangers excited to claim her for themselves. That is, until her captors cease from throwing objects, and finally bored, she follows her internal compass back home. So River, this post is for you. Even though you can't read, I'll feel better telling the world that you have made my last few years brighter. Oh, and I'll go ahead and confess that I may have dropped your name once or twice at Sharkey's to get the locals discount. So thanks.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Spoonbill Monitoring: Central Everglades

A storm feeds the River of Grass with freshwater in the vast Water Conservation Area of the Central Everglades

While my work generally has me boating and paddling around Florida Bay and the Southern Everglades, the Tavernier Science Center also works closely with the district throughout South Florida. This relationship ensures that we have a comprehensive data set for roseate spoonbills and other wading birds nesting all along the River of Grass watershed. Since nesting starts later the farther North you go, I was invited with coworker Adam Chasey in early March to accompany Robin Bennet and Mark Cook on an aerial survey of bird colonies in the water conservation areas.

"Waterfront properties" in West Palm.

We left out of West Palm Beach and flew over the sprawling city. It looked so alien on the fringe of such a subtle environment.

Morning showers created a rainbow arching over Alley North colony

You all know by now how I am on small airplanes so I was relieved to learn we'd be flying in style; a 407 helicopter, which is one of the smoothest rides out there. A few weeks prior I tried to access these colonies by airboat with University of Florida biologists, but failed miserably when our vessel got stuck in the dense sawgrass and cattails. That's another story though.

Thousands of white ibis nest on a tree island in Water Conservation Area 3

Our main goal was to get spoonbill counts and see if we could spot bands which would tell us if our birds from the Bay were moving north to find other suitable nesting grounds. This turned out to be a tall order, however, as we learned the hard way. I thought that with a helicopter we'd be able to set down and explore the colonies on foot to find nests and adults within a photographable distance. What we learned after walking 30 feet into the waist-deep mire revealed that these tree islands are far different from the mangrove islands on the Bay. Too easily turned around and unable to see above the sawgrass which lacerated our arms and legs, Adam and I returned to the helicopter and attempted to photograph spoonbills from the air.

A flock of spoonbills takes flight over the Everglades. If you look closely, the second from the left bottom has a band on 
its right leg, hinting that our Florida Bay birds may be more mobile than we originally thought. 

Thanks to our phenomenal pilot, Jake Wells, we were able to fly wing to wing with a small group and in no time, spotted our first band! For someone who spends most of his days looking up at spoonbills soaring across a blue sky, my heart melted as I flew side by side with these pink beauties. What an experience and better yet, what great data!