WEEKI WACHEE — Five hundred years after Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon set eyes on Florida's coastline, hoping to find gold and other riches, another young explorer has taken to the water.
But Justin Riney's yearlong trek by paddleboard through the myriad tiny nameless inlets, bayous, rivers and springs has nothing to do with wealth. Rather, Riney's mission is to draw attention to the aquatic ecosystems that he feels are the state's lifeblood.
Six weeks after leaving Pensacola on New Year's Day, Riney, 31, took time Wednesday for a rare midweek stop from his journey at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. Most of the day was spent visiting with park employees — including the legendary mermaids — and resupplying before heading back out to the Gulf of Mexico.
"The past few weeks it's been a little rough weather-wise, so it's nice to get a little break," said Riney, who planned to camp overnight at the park. "Tomorrow, I'll be back at it."
The founder and chief executive officer of Mother Ocean, an environmental awareness organization, Riney said he launched Expedition Florida 500 last year to encourage others to embrace the state's historic, ecological and sociological characteristics and to work collectively toward improving the quality of the state's environment.
"I want people to be as excited about this as I am," said Riney , who regularly shares his experiences with about 4,500 followers on Facebook. "If that inspires someone to act for positive change, then I feel I've done my job."
So far, Riney has covered more than 450 miles on his 14-foot Quiksilver paddleboard. Loaded with 150 pounds of gear that includes food, water and clothing, plus a GPS system and cellphone, he normally averages between 10 and 15 miles a day before making shore by nightfall.
However, bad weather can play havoc with his itinerary, as it did last week as he attempted to cross an area of the gulf near Waccasassa Bay. Halfway between Kelly Creek and Yankeetown — a distance of about 13 miles — Riney found himself trapped in 25 mph winds as temperatures began to plummet. Tossed into the choppy water, he struggled to right the craft and keep his gear from falling overboard.
"My biggest concern through it all was hypothermia," Riney said "When the adrenaline rushes through you and your mind is focused elsewhere, you're not aware that you're in a dangerous situation."
Although essentially a solo journey, other paddlers have joined Riney from time to time, and several have provided a welcome hot meal and hospitality.
"I've met many nice people so far," he said. "I think that when you are doing something positive, people want to be part of it."
Riney's journey from Hernando County will continue southward to Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, where he will take part in several waterway cleanup efforts and educational talks. Once his coastline journey is completed in July, Riney will embark on an inland water journey that will include visits to major rivers.
Logan Neill can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1435.