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Clearwater aquarium offers two-hour ecotours on Intracoastal

CLEARWATER BEACH

It's a hunt, but no animals were harmed during the making of this fun.

The captured were counted and later released.

It's the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's Sea Life Safari, a two-hour ecotour offering a leisurely cruise down the Intracoastal Waterway with narration about the local marine environment. The excursion features a net pull for sea creatures.

Dolphin sightings are common — about "200 live in the area," said Kathy Lloyd, the tour guide on Monday's morning cruise.

Luke Conrad, 6, of Ohio was all smiles as he saw one following a tugboat, leaping over its wake.

He was born with spina bifida and wears braces on his feet. They were created by Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics, the same company that fashioned the prosthetic tail for Winter, the aquarium's celebrity dolphin.

Luke's mother, Journie Conrad, said she hoped her son would be inspired by Winter. They would visit the dolphin later in the day.

"It's something he's really looking forward to," she said.

The Sea Life Safari leaves from the aquarium's parking lot three times a day during daylight saving time. In winter months, it departs twice a day.

The 40-foot catamaran cruised along at 10 miles an hour, fast enough to create a cooling breeze in the summer heat.

It passed under the Clearwater Memorial Causeway Bridge, where brown pelicans, a white egret and a couple of fishermen were looking for their next meal.

That's near where the crew cast a trawl net, pulling it slowly through the water for three minutes. Any longer would endanger the lives of the catch, they said. Collection sites vary continually and are "based on weather and tidal conditions," Lloyd said.

She led a collective "heave-ho" as the crew pulled in the bounty: 38 sea creatures and a few egg casings. Most of the catch — 26 —was pinfish, abundant in these waters.

Staff members said they have pulled up octopi, crabs, starfish and seahorses — as well as a golf cart, a file cabinet, an exercise bike and a stereo.

Farther down the Intracoastal, a stone crab awaited its rescue in the aquarium's crab trap. One claw was shorter than the other, leading one to believe that one claw had been harvested and was growing back. This practice of taking only one claw ensures sustainability of the species.

On the way back, the boat stopped at Compass Cay, a one-tree island where passengers waded in blue-green waters and picked up coquina and other small shells that had washed ashore.

Then it was time for the highlight of the trip, when the catches of the day were passed around, most of them in transparent containers.

Lloyd commented on the various species as they made their rounds.

A grunt fish is sometimes called a "mild white fish" by restaurateurs, she said. The fish makes an audible grunt by grinding its teeth while the air bladder acts an amplifier.

She said American Indians used the abrasive filefish to "sand their boats and file their nails."

The group got a look at a rare lookdown fish. Its slanted "forehead" gives the appearance that this very thin fish is peering down.

A sea squirt, "nature's squirt gun," is a lumpy, rubbery yellow filter-feeder that shoots a line of water when squeezed.

Lydia Olmstead, 7, of Missouri got lots of laughs when she accidentally sprayed a volunteer.

"It was pretty neat," she said. "I liked the sea urchin, too. It felt like little pins touching your skin."

if you go

Sea Life Safari

What: Clearwater Marine Aquarium's two-hour ecocruise down the Intracoastal Waterway.

Where: The boat docks next to the CMA's parking lot, 249 Windward Passage, off the Clearwater Memorial Causeway.

Hours: Cruises are at 11 a.m., 1:30 and 4 p.m. daily

Cost: Adults, $21.35; seniors (60-plus) $19.95; children (3 to 12) $13.75. (Combination prices are available that include admission to the aquarium.) Space is limited to 30 passengers. Reservations are suggested, but walk-ins are welcome if not full.

For information: Visit cmaquarium.org or call (727) 441-1790, ext. 223.

Clearwater aquarium offers two-hour ecotours on Intracoastal 07/23/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 3:40pm]
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