1. The Education Gradebook

New signs provide an education along the Weeki Wachee River

Local artist Christine Weeks painted the educational signs, including this one explaining the importance of eelgrass.
Local artist Christine Weeks painted the educational signs, including this one explaining the importance of eelgrass.
Published May 10, 2017

WEEKI WACHEE — As director of the Springs Coast Environmental Education Center, Cheryl Paradis has had a lot of experience with young, beginning kayakers.

When they are out on the Weeki Wachee River, students in their kayaks resemble the bumper cars at the fair, going every which way, paddles flailing.

A recent visit by West Hernando Middle School sixth-graders at the center even included a student who felt the need to roll off her kayak because she did not want to share it with an eight-legged stowaway. She really, really doesn't like spiders.

Paradis handles all of it. She sees the school district's second-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders. The school district leases the center from Southwest Florida Water Management District at no cost. Swiftmud pays for student transportation to and from the center.

"We teach their mission statement," Paradis said. "We teach conservation preservation."

New this year for the benefit of her students and other river travelers are educational signs along the water, although the word "signs" doesn't really describe them well. They are more like small murals or big paintings.

"We see them when we're kayaking," Paradis said, but they are there for the public, too.

They were painted by local artist Christine Weeks.

"They were paid for by a Hernando County commissioners' grant," Paradis said.

Alys Brockway of Hernando County Utilities distributes grants from the County Commission and educates the public about water, Paradis explained.

Before turning her students loose on the river, Paradis meets with them, describes where they are going, what they will see and safety, including what to do if they should overturn or somehow find themselves out of their kayaks.

Her advice: "Stand up."

The river is shallow, and students can just stand upright. They wear life jackets, too.

She tells them to look for damsel­flies, water striders and snail eggs. They looked for eelgrass, a favorite manatee food, which is being planted while the invader alga Lyngbya is being removed on the river.

Jasmine Gibson, 12, paid attention to at least one of the new signs.

"I learned about eelgrass and what manatees eat," she said.

"I saw a sign about Lyngbya," said Sophia Bennett, 12. "It's like algae that floats on the water. I learned that while it's on the water, it's blocking out the sun from the eelgrass."

Nicole Dennis, had literal contact with a sign, one that perhaps suggested why she made contact with it.

"I ran into a sign that said, 'Current is 5 mph,' " she said.

Jim and Connie Gillette were kayakers who managed to wander into area with the sixth-graders. They winter in Spring Hill and summer in Michigan. They also learned from the new signs.

"This is eelgrass," Jim Gillette said. "And it's good for the manatees," his wife added.

And it adds to "stabilization of the river," Jim said.

Paradis is on the river a lot. She sees what her students are doing, but also observes the adults. And she sees how they observe the new signs.

"They'll do it all day long," she said. "All day long."