Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Perspective: Dolphins and a long paddle

Editor's note: The three members of the second Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition are filing weekly dispatches of their 1,000-mile, 10-week journey to highlight the value of keeping an open pathway through the state for wildlife. Here is the story of the third week.

It was hard to want to leave our perch, nestled among the swamp cabins on stilts that dot the rivers and creeks of Chassahowitzka, but a falling tide carried our kayaks west to Seven Cabbage Cut and the next leg of our journey, skirting the saltwater edge of the Nature Coast. The overcast light at dawn and its flat gray reflection gave way to a brilliant blue sky, helping us to discern the white crowns of bald eagles topping the handful of palm trunks that stick out above the salt marsh and give the place its name.

Not unlike the mangrove seedlings colonizing this stretch of coast, we drifted slowly north through the shallow water, over oyster bars and between islands. We ate lunch in our boats, floating, as the marsh grass flats didn't invite stopping.

After crossing the Homosassa River, we witnessed three dolphins feeding in a small bay, stirring up mud and mullet as they pumped their tales and swam in tight circles. Pelicans and terns took part in the commotion, diving and focusing our attention on the dolphin's rapidly changing location.

We paddled fast from spot to spot trying to film the frenzy, and were ultimately rewarded by a single dolphin who stayed nearby a long time afterward, working the shallows and creating a formidable wake as it rushed right alongside our kayaks to and fro, rolling over slightly to eye us through the crystal clear water and emitting a high pitched sound that is audibly captured in our video recording.

This dolphin encounter was an uplifting welcome to the saltwater realm, and helped carry us in high spirits for the final miles into Ozello. (I didn't realize until arrival that we'd been in our boats for eight straight hours and paddled more than 15 miles.) Surrounded by the St. Martins Marsh Aquatic Preserve, an expanse of protected estuaries teeming with life, Ozello is a tiny town jutting out from Florida's Gulf Coast. We were hosted by the Ozello Civic Association to a group dinner and a warm spot to camp indoors.

We returned to Crystal River on our rest day to explore Three Sisters Springs, paddling and swimming among manatees, then seeking refuge indoors from the passing front as the manatees sought the warm waters of the springs. We then paddled the spring-fed and crystal-clear Rainbow River before bicycling north through the coastal forests of Gulf Hammock to Cedar Key.

When we arrived in Cedar Key, Aquaculture Association members fed us a dinner of local seafood. Our interactions with local people have made the journey all the richer. These coastal communities depend on a near-pristine environment for their economic and cultural survival, and they actively welcome visitors to come experience their way of life.

Follow their progress here in Perspective, at FloridaWildlifeCorridor.org, wusfnews.wusf.usf.edu/term/florida-wildlife-corridor-expedition and on social media: Facebook.com/FloridaWildlifeCorridor; Instagram: @FL_WildCorridor; Twitter: @FL_WildCorridor. Follow Ward's photography at Instagram.com/CarltonWard and Facebook.com/CarltonWardPhotography.

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