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Take It Outside Planner: Learn to dive, visit Corkscrew Swamp and catch a lionfish

'Bug hunters': learn to SCUBA dive

Are you planning a Caribbean vacation? Is diving for lobster in the Florida Keys on your bucket list? Then you should learn how to scuba dive — now, this spring. While you can get certified in less than a month, don't settle for the least expensive or shortest course. Shop around and talk with friends who dive. Think of it this way: If you were learning how to skydive, would you sign on with a school that advertises the cheapest parachutes? And remember, learning to scuba dive is sort of like getting a driver's license. Sure, you can get behind the wheel of a car, but that doesn't mean you're ready to race in the Grand Prix. One advantage to getting your training out of the way now is you will be ready for the two-day "mini" season for lobster, scheduled for the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday in July. Then you can tell your friends that you are one of the "bug hunters." That's because the Caribbean spiny lobster, or Panulirus argus, like all crustaceans, comes from the same phylum as insects, Arthropoda.

Day trip: CORKSCREW SWAMP SANCTUARY

If you're looking for a good day trip, check out this sanctuary established to protect one of the largest remaining stands of bald cypress and pond cypress in North America. No need to bring your waders — a 2.25-mile boardwalk winds through pine flatwoods, a wet prairie and the old-growth forest that contains trees 500 years old. These bald cypress trees, relatives of the redwood, stand 130 feet high and can have girths up to 25 feet around. Bring your binoculars, because Corkscrew Swamp is also a great place to see wading birds, songbirds, raptors and the sanctuary's legendary Painted Bunting. And bring the kids, as Corkscrew is an ideal outdoor classroom.

INVASIVE PREDATORS: CATCH A RECORD LIONFISH

Lionfish, an exotic species native to the Pacific, was introduced into the Atlantic Ocean in the late 1980s. It's a mystery how or exactly when the first lionfish found its way into the wild, but many scientists suspect the invasive species probably got a foothold somewhere in South Florida and worked its way into the Gulf of Mexico. In less than 30 years, lionfish have spread all the way up the East Coast to the Carolinas and as far south as Brazil. The lionfish has no natural predators in this part of the world, so the venomous species has spread virtually unchecked. There is really no way to get rid of them except to strap on a scuba tank, drop down and take them out. Lionfish may look nice in an aquarium, but on a natural reef, these creatures upset the natural balance and compete for food with local species such as grouper and snapper. Lionfish can eat more than 20 small snapper, sea bass or other reef fish in a single day. Divers do not have to kill every lionfish on a reef or wreck to make a difference. Removing just 25 percent of these invasive predators from an area can make a difference. That's why the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission is encouraging divers to not only spear these invasive creatures, but target the big ones, record fish. Shoot one larger than 18.78 inches and you might just set a state record. Divers can qualify for prizes by length (must be in millimeters) and weight (grams) for largest and smallest lionfish. The state also has divisions for junior and hook and line anglers. For more information, go to MyFWC.com/Lionfish and click on "State Records Program."

FLORIDA HIKING BOOTS: Light and cool

Many hikers and backpackers in the Sunshine State don't like high-top boots because they tend to be hot and heavy. Vasque's new Inhaler II may change all that. These high-tops are light, cool and ideal for Florida's hot, wet and sometimes, muddy trails. Price: $159.

Take It Outside Planner: Learn to dive, visit Corkscrew Swamp and catch a lionfish 03/30/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 30, 2016 10:43am]
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