Snorkeling Safety at the Jetty

Snorkeling Safety at the Jetty

The St Andrew Bay pass jetty is more like a close family friend than a collection of granite boulders. The rocks protect the inlet ensuring the vital connections of commerce and recreation. One of the treasured spots along the jetty is known locally as the “kiddie pool”, which is accessible from St Andrew’s State Park. There are similar snorkeling opportunities throughout northwest Florida. Jetties provide an opportunity to explore hard substrate or rocky marine ecosystems. These rocks are home to a variety of colorful sub-tropical and migrating tropical fish.

sergeant majors

Snorkelers and divers who visit are likely to see a variety fish like sergeant majors, blennies, surgeon and doctor fish, just to name a few. Photo by L Scott Jackson.

Exploring a jetty is more like a sea-safari adventure than an experience in a real swimming pool – it is a natural place full of potential challenges that first time visitors need to prepare to encounter.

Divers and snorkelers are required to carry dive flags when venturing beyond designated swimming areas. These flags notify boaters that people are in the water. Brightly colored snorkel vests are not only good safety gear but they help you rest in the water without standing on rocks which are covered in barnacles and sometimes spiny sea urchins.

Long Spined Sea Urchin

According to the Florida Department of Health, most sea urchin species are not toxic but some Florida species like the Long Spined Sea Urchin have sharp spines can cause puncture injuries and have venom that can cause some stinging. Swim and step carefully when snorkeling as they usually are attached to rocks, both on the bottom and along jetty ledges. Photo by L Scott Jackson

Dive booties also help protect your feet. I found out the hard way! A couple of years ago my foot hit against a sea urchin puncturing my heel. The open back of my dive fin did not provide any protection resulting in a trip to the urgent care doctor. My daughter later teased it was an “urchin care” doctor! Sea urchin spines are brittle and difficult to remove, even for a doctor. Lesson Learned: “Prevention is the best medicine”.

After a couple of weeks of limping around and a course of antibiotics, I recovered ready to return one of my favorite watery places – a little wiser and more prepared. I now bring a small first aid kit, just in-case, to help take care of small scrapes, cuts, and other minor injuries.

Gloves are recommended to protect hands from barnacle cuts and scrapes. Shirts like a surfing rash guard or those made from soft material help keep your body temperature warm on long snorkel excursions. Along with sunscreen, shirts also protect against sunburn.

Properly Prepared Snorkeler

There’s opportunity to see marine life from the time you enter the water with depths for beginning snorkelers at just a few feet deep. Some SCUBA divers also use the jetty for their initial training. Most underwater explorers are instantly hooked, and return for many years to come. Photo by L Scott Jackson

Finally, know the swimming abilities of yourself and your guests, especially when venturing to deeper areas. It’s good to have a dive buddy even when snorkeling. Pair up and watch out for each other. Be aware that currents and seas can change dramatically during the day. Know and obey the flag system. Double Red Flag means no entry into the water. Purple flags indicate presence of dangerous marine life like jellyfish, rays, and rarely even sharks. Local lifeguards and other beach authorities can provide specific details and up to date safety information.

Follow these beach safety tips for helping your family enjoy the beach while protecting coastal wildlife.

An Equal Opportunity Institution. UF/IFAS Extension, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension. Single copies of UF/IFAS Extension publications (excluding 4-H and youth publications) are available free to Florida residents from county UF/IFAS Extension offices.

 

Ecotourism in Northwest Florida

Ecotourism in Northwest Florida

Wakulla Springs is home to some of the best wildlife watching in all of northwest Florida. It’s not unusual to see manatees, alligators, and dozens of species of birds in one boat trip. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

What do you imagine when the word “ecotourism” comes to mind? I know  I usually daydream about a trip my husband I took to Costa Rica several years ago, surrounded by lush tropical rainforests as we ziplined through the canopy. I might also think about visiting a National Park, following a neatly maintained trail and stopping at signs placed at just the right spot so visitors can read and understand the special features of the place. Ecotourism, done right, brings a visitor to a unique place, tells its story, and immerses the visitor in the sights and sounds in a way that treads lightly on the location. I always know I’ve been on a good ecotour when I’m tired, happy, and have learned or seen something new.

A colleague with The Conservation Fund has stated that sustainable tourism includes: “Authentic experiences that are unique and specialized to the place (its culture, heritage, and natural resources), emphasizes quality over quantity, focuses on distinctive destinations, unspoiled landscapes, and historic buildings, and differs from mass-market tourism by favoring locally-owned businesses, thereby increasing circulation of money in the local economy.” The truly wonderful thing about ecotourism is that local touch; it exists solely because of the place, so it cannot be outsourced. The best storytellers about those places are usually the people who have lived there for many years, so by its very nature, ecotourism provides jobs for local residents.

Northwest Florida has hundreds of unique locations for visitors and locals to explore…we have centuries-old forts, clear-blue springs, endless rivers and creeks to paddle, trails on the coast and up our modest hills. We have caves and underground caverns, waterfalls, pitcher plant prairies, fishing, wildlife watching, and reefs for snorkeling and SCUBA diving. While millions come here for our quartz-sand beaches, other options that highlight our natural ecosystems deserve more attention and notoriety.

A few years ago, several Extension Agents received funding for a project called Naturally EscaRosa. The idea behind that project was to help promote and create businesses that sustainably used our agricultural and natural resources. The website (www.naturallyescarosa.com) has a list of over 100 businesses and locations where locals and out-of-town visitors can explore the less well-traveled areas of Escambia and Santa Rosa County. As you move east down the coast, Walton Outdoors, the local Visit Florida affiliates, and other privately managed media groups have done similar work, providing a showcase for these treasures in our midst.

This summer, try one of the local ecotourism or agritourism venues near you! Moreover, when your friends and family visit from out of town, encourage them to do the same. We cannot have a successful economy without a healthy ecosystem, and supporting these local and regional businesses is good for both.  

For more information on sustainable ecotourism, visit the Society for Ethical Ecotourism (SEE), and for information on starting or visiting an agritourism business, try Visit Florida Farms. And as always, reach out to your local County Extension agents, and we will be more than happy to point you in the right direction to discover to places to explore with your family.

 

 

Nature Tourism – Bald Point State Park

Nature Tourism – Bald Point State Park

Some of the most picturesque and scenic natural areas along north Florida’s Gulf Coast are found in Bald Point State Park. The 4,065 acre park is located on Alligator Point, where Ochlockonee Bay meets Apalachee Bay.

Easy access to water activities at Bald Point State Park.
Photo: Les Harrison

Bald Point State Park offers a variety of land and water activities. Coastal marshes, pine flatwoods, and oak thickets foster a diversity of biological communities which make the park a popular destination for birding and wildlife viewing.

These include shorebirds along the beach, warblers in the maritime oak hammocks, wading birds, and birds of prey in and around the marsh areas.  The boardwalk and observation deck overlook the marsh near the beach.

During autumn bald eagles and other migrating raptors, along with monarch butterflies are frequently viewed heading south to a warmer winter.

Bald Point offers access to two Apalachee Bay beaches for water sports and leisure activities, and these facilities include a fishing dock and picnic pavilions at Sunrise beach, North End beach and Maritime Hammock beach.  Grills and restrooms are also available, but pets are prohibited on the beach.

Pre-Columbian pottery helped archaeologists identify the park’s oldest site, placing the earliest human activity 4,000 years ago. These early inhabitants hunted, fished, collected clams and oysters, and lived in relatively permanent settlements provided by the abundant resources of the coast and forests.

In the mid-1800s and late 1900s, fishermen established seineyards at Bald Point. These usually primitive campsites included racks to hang, dry and repair nets. Evidence of the 19th to 20th century turpentine industry is visible on larger pine trees cut with obvious scars.

Bald Point is an excellent location for both wildlife viewing and birding.
Photo: Les Harrison

Among the varieties of saltwater fish found in the brackish tidal waterway are redfish, trout, flounder and mackerel.

Today’s visitors may fish on the bridge over tidal Chaires Creek off of Range Road, and in Tucker Lake, by canoe or kayak. Sea trout, red fish, flounder and sheepshead are common catches, and this is an excellent area to cast net for mullet or to catch blue crabs.

Bald Point State Park is open 8:00 a.m. to sunset daily, with a charge $4.00 per car with up to eight people, or $2.00 per pedestrian or bicycle

More information is available at the Florida State Park site.

There are numerous trails where the visitor and explore Florida.
Photo: Les Harrison.

Celebrating Choctawhatchee Bay – National Estuaries Week

Celebrating Choctawhatchee Bay – National Estuaries Week

Rocky Bayou Aquatic Preserve - Niceville, Florida

Rocky Bayou Aquatic Preserve – Choctawhatchee Bay, Niceville, Florida – Photo by Laura Tiu

September 17-24, 2016 was the nation’s 28th time to celebrate America’s coasts and estuaries during National Estuaries Week.  This week helps us to remember to appreciate the challenges these coastal ecosystems face, along with their beauty and utility.

Estuaries, semi-enclosed bodies of water with both fresh and saltwater, dot the Gulf Coast of the United States from Brownsville Texas to Key West, Florida. These estuaries are important as they serve as drainage basins for many of the large river systems, and play a significant role in the nation’s seafood industry.

Florida’s six major Panhandle estuaries, which includes Perdido Bay, Pensacola Bay (including Escambia Bay), Choctawhatchee Bay, St. Andrew Bay, St. Joseph Bay and Apalachicola Bay, are unique ecosystems teeming with life and diversity. Critical habitat includes important seagrass beds that support both the larval and adult stages of fish and invertebrates. In Choctawhatchee Bay, there is also critical foraging habitat for the federally protected Gulf sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus desotoi) and stream habitat for the endangered Okaloosa darter.

Choctawhatchee Bay is in Okaloosa and Walton counties in the Florida Panhandle. It is approximately 30 miles long and from three and a half to six miles wide, with a total area of 129 square miles. It is relatively shallow varying from 10 to 40 feet deep. Large portions of the western half of Choctawhatchee Bay are militarily restricted (Eglin Airforce Base).  The Bay is fed by the Choctawhatchee River and numerous small creeks that feed into several bayous.  The only opening to the Gulf of Mexico is the East Pass, which ironically is at the Western end of the Bay in Destin, Florida.  This is where the saltwater and freshwater mix.

Continued industrial and residential development in the watershed regions that drain into many of these estuaries has impacted them in a number of ways. Pollution comes from storm water runoff, lawns, industry and farms. The shorelines are impacted by development, which causes sedimentation and in turn loss of vegetation.  This reduces water clarity and habitat for wildlife.

Many organizations work to protect this estuary and reach out to others through education, restoration, and recreation events. Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance (CBA) is one such organization committed to ensuring sustainable utilization of the Choctawhatchee River and Bay.  They, working with their partners, provide leadership for the stewardship of the Bay. Alison McDowell, director of the CBA, notes that 75-85% of commercially and recreationally important species that are caught in the Gulf spend part of their lifecycle in the Bay. McDowell says a key factor in the Bay’s health is monitoring the water quality and reducing erosion, and the Oyster Reef Restoration program started in 2006 does just that.

There are often opportunities for the general public to join in some of the conservation efforts taking place in the Bay. For more information, like the Okaloosa or Walton County Extension Facebook page.

Kayaking Choctawhatchee Bay

Kayaking Choctawhatchee Bay – Photo by Laura Tiu

 

 

Biking to a Healthier Community

Biking to a Healthier Community

The bridge over the Winooski River was a scenic stop on our bicycle tour. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

The bridge over the Winooski River was a scenic stop on our bicycle tour. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

If you told me earlier this summer that I would “accidentally” bike 18 miles one afternoon, I’d have laughed. I’ve always loved biking, but rarely have time for long distance rides. As part of the mobile workshops for an Extension professional development meeting in Burlington, Vermont, fifteen of us met up with the coordinator of Local Motion, a grassroots bike advocacy organization. Their mission is “to bring the joy of walking and biking within reach for all Vermonters by helping Vermont communities become great places to walk and bike.” The purpose of the tour was to get an on-the-ground lesson in community development and learn how the group has worked with residents to overcome challenges in implementing a successful project.

Burlington’s “Island Line Trail” is a classic rails-to-trails project–not unlike the Blackwater Heritage Trail in Santa Rosa County–that has resulted in significant economic development and increased use by area residents. The original rail service operated from 1899 to the early 1960’s. Since the 1990’s, 14 miles of railway has been converted to a biking/walking trail. Part of the Island Line’s charm is the diversity of scenery it encompasses.

Sweeping views of Lake Champlain were a highlight and major attraction of the trail. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

Sweeping views of Lake Champlain were part of what kept us riding far beyond our initial endpoint! Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

Starting in the heart of downtown Burlington, there are museums, shops, and restaurants within blocks of the trail, many of which cater directly to and exist because of the trail users. The entire stretch runs adjacent to Lake Champlain, providing scenic views along the path. Throughout the trail there are residential areas (which are highly desired because of their proximity to the trail), public parks, and a community center. After crossing a bridge over the Winooski River, we embarked upon a 3-mile open causeway with sweeping views of Malletts Bay on both sides. The trail also includes one of the country’s few bike ferries, which is located where a swing bridge used to operate for the railway. It was the constantly changing scenery and surroundings that kept a handful of us going far beyond the initially planned 6-mile trip.

The causeway over Malletts Bay includes a bike ferry, one of the few in the country. Photo credit, Carrie Stevenson

The causeway over Malletts Bay includes a bike ferry, one of the few in the country. Photo credit, Carrie Stevenson

In addition to providing a recreational trail for local residents and visitors, Local Motion is dedicated to promoting bicycle safety and education. Workshops for hesitant adult bikers interested in biking more attracted over 450 adults last year, while 7,300+ kids participated in bicycle safety camps and training. As a result of all of the activity, youth bike rentals increased by 43% in 2015 over the prior year.

Much of the success in Burlington is transferable to Florida. In the Panhandle, we are looking at connecting existing trails to create a large-scale multi-county, multi-state bicycle trail.  The successes in Vermont were inspirational and instructional as we embark upon our new project and a design workshop in late September.

Bay County Deploys First Super Reefs in Panama City Beach

Bay County Deploys First Super Reefs in Panama City Beach

Super Reef Deployment Location Graphic

Earlier this year, Bay County completed an artificial reef project in Gulf waters approximately 3 nautical miles (nm) south of the Panama City Beach Pier (Pier Park) and 11 nm west of St Andrew Bay Pass in Small Area Artificial Reef Site D. On May 14, five Super Reefs were deployed, each weighing approximately 36,000 lbs and rising 18 feet from the ocean floor. Typical artificial reef modules are only about 8 feet tall. This was the first time Super Reefs were deployed in western Bay County in the Panama City Beach area. The project provides marine habitat comparable to sinking a large vessel.

Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association (MBARA) supported Bay County and Walter Maine during the deployment efforts. MBARA provided this YouTube video documenting the deployment and post-deployment dive survey. During the survey, divers noted baitfish already utilizing the new habitat. The Super Reef module coordinates and details were verified as follows:

 

Patch Reef # Latitude Longitude Depth (ft) Permit Area
BC2015 Set 17 (1) 30° 10.196N 85° 54.607 W 74 SAARS D
BC2015 Set 18 (2) 30° 10.179 N 85° 54.567 W 75 SAARS D
BC2015 Set 19 (3) 30° 10.176 N 85° 54.603 W 75 SAARS D
BC2015 Set 20 (4) 30° 10.153N 85° 54.594 W 73 SAARS D
BC2015 Set 21 (5) 30° 10.138 N 85° 54.602 W 73 SAARS D

Previous monitoring and research suggest it takes 3 to 5 years for new reefs to reach full development of the associated marine ecosystem. Bay County will work with local anglers, divers, reef associations, and agencies to evaluate the performance of the new reef materials and the reef design.

Bay County artificial reef projects seek to use material that meets program goals and objectives. In this case, larger reef materials were selected to support larger reef fish such as amberjack, grouper, and snapper. Individual reef modules were spaced to support fish forage areas and accommodate multiple users including anglers and divers.

FL Artifcial Reefs FB

 

 

Funding for this $60,000 project was provided by Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission’s Artificial Reef Program. Additional reef projects were deployed by the Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association earlier in the week. The Bay County Artificial Association (BCARA) is also planning new reef deployments in Bay County. Learn more about Bay County’s public artificial reefs at http://x.co/reefm. Florida Sea Grant hosts a Facebook page focused on news and information related to Florida’s Artificial Reefs. You can visit the page for latest information from around the state at https://www.facebook.com/floridaartificialreefs.

 

 

 

Walter Marine’s Maranatha deploying one of the five Super Reefs placed 3 nm south of Pier Park. The Super Reefs weigh greater than 18 tons and are 18 feet tall. Photo by Bay County Artificial Reef Coordinator, Allen Golden.

Walter Marine’s Maranatha deploying one of the five Super Reefs placed 3 nm south of Pier Park. The Super Reefs weigh more than 18 tons and are 18 feet tall. Photo by Bay County Artificial Reef Coordinator, Allen Golden.