Kayaking Pennekamp: Bring Snorkel Gear… but Beware the Brazilian Pepper

Kayaking Pennekamp: Bring Snorkel Gear… but Beware the Brazilian Pepper

No visit to the Upper Keys is complete without stopping in at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which is known as the ‘first undersea park in the U.S.’ This unique distinction is also a good reason to bring along a mask and snorkel – or rent some there. There are several ways to enjoy the underwater scenery, and the one(s) you choose all depend on your idea of fun. The offshore reefs are a major attraction to visitors, especially near Dry Rocks where you can swim past the iconic Christ of the Abyss statue. Pennekamp has its own dive shop, and you can purchase a seat on a boat and either snorkel or dive one of the nearby reefs.

If you’d rather stay dry, never fear – there’s an option for you as well. You can buy a ticket for the park’s large glass bottom boat and watch the tropical fish and sea fans wave to you from under your feet.

Snorkeling near Largo SoundAnd if you want to go off on your own adventure, there are choices here as well. Rent a canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddle board, and you can explore the mangrove waterways that border Largo Sound. While that may sound a little daunting – it’s not really. You get a waterproof map and instructions on which paths to take (and which to avoid, such as the boat channels and the ones that take you out to sea)!

On a recent visit to John Pennekamp State Park, my husband and I chose to kayak the mangrove-lined creeks. We piled our gear bag in the middle of the double kayak, got some last-minute advice on how to jump off a kayak without flipping the whole contraption, and made off for Largo Sound. Our gear bag had all the essentials: snorkel gear (including fins), an underwater camera, a towel, water, a water shirt (rash guard), sunscreen, sunglasses, and chips and salsa. If the whole bag fell in, everything was salvageable except the chips.

A lobster hides under a rock at Pennekamp ParkI wouldn’t say it’s easy to jump off a kayak without flipping it, but somehow we managed to do that and snorkel right off our boat. In the green waters closest to John Pennekamp State Park, you’re not going to see the spectacular sites of the Pennekamp reefs (which are located between 3 and 8 miles offshore). You won’t find brain coral or the same variety of sea life here. However, especially in the deeper, broader waterways like Stingray Creek, you can still be rewarded with some captivating sights. For instance, we found ledges with a slew of lobster taking refuge underneath. (These are the smart ones; they’re protected within the state park, although that doesn’t guarantee they won’t still end up in a pot). We also saw fish and crabs and collected a few shells.

There are some caveats to seeing Pennekamp this way. Kayaking is easy; but we did see one couple flip their boat, and if you’re snorkeling, be sure to tie up to a tree or have a partner paddle nearby. The current in some places is swifter than you would think, and you need to be a confident swimmer. (Of course, you’ll get a life jacket, but a life jacket won’t keep you from floating off into a channel if you can’t swim well).

Kayaking the mangrove waterways of Pennekamp Park with James JaneskoAlso, be sure to pay close attention to the waterproof map, and ignore assurances from your partner that it APPEARS as if Spider Creek connects to Deception Creek. Note the name: DECEPTION CREEK. Also, if you do end up paddling (or, in our case, advancing via tree branches) down an extremely narrow path that doesn’t really look like a path, it’s a good idea to go back the way you came as soon as possible (this may mean pushing yourself out backward). This might seem like a grand adventure until you get home and realize that some of those mangrove trees that were passing over your arms and legs were actually likely riddled with the invasive Brazilian Pepper plant (lesser-known than its famous cousins, poison ivy and poison oak). While contact dermatitis won’t kill you, I know you can probably think of better things to do than have a corticosteroid shot into your backside. I know I can.

All in all, this Keys excursion really was a grand adventure. Given the choice of a shot in the backside and kayaking Pennekamp or sitting at home on my couch, I’d take the shot any day.

Cast of ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ Makes a Video for Bat Conservation

Cast of ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ Makes a Video for Bat Conservation

It’s a little known fact that Florida actually has a cave system, complete with stalactites and stalagmites – and even resident bats. For a state known for its shallow underground water system that prevents most people from even having basements, air-filled caves are an anomaly. You can find Florida’s caves at Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna, Florida, which is in the northwestern part of the state (between Tallahassee and Panama City).

Cave-ImageBats are often associated with caves (and also with Halloween), and the flying mammals were in the spotlight this week during National Bat Week.

Bats deserve their own week and all the attention they can get. For one thing, bats are frequently misunderstood and feared; there’s the whole vampire mythos, not to mention their prominence in Halloween décor.

Kid-friendly books like Stellaluna have helped us understand that not all bats ‘vant to suck your blood’! Stellaluna is a fruit bat and therefore a pollinator. Just like bees, bats like Stellaluna help to disperse seeds and pollinate hundreds of types of fruit trees, like mangos and bananas. Then there are the swarms of bats that frequently appear in my backyard at dusk to dive-bomb the mosquitos gathering there. Bats in the U.S. eat tons of insects, which helps decrease the use of pesticides and control some insect-borne diseases.

Bat White-Nose Syndrome Cleaning StationRecently I had the good fortune to visit Linville Caverns in North Carolina. Although this cave system differs from our rare Florida ones, one thing they have in common is a concern for the creatures that shelter there. At caverns around the country, you’ll hear about the fungal disease that is threatening bat populations across the U.S. White-nose Syndrome has reportedly killed as many as 6 million bats in North America, and is putting many species at risk for extinction. If you do visit a cave system, you’ll likely be asked to wipe your feet with a bleach/water solution upon exiting the cave, like we did at Linville Caverns. This is a precaution to help stop the spread of White-nose Syndrome.

Even celebrities are coming to the aid of bats. Check out this video hosted by Zack Snyder, the director for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and two of the film’s actors: Ben Affleck and Amy Adams.


Find out more about bats:

National Geographic’s 6 Bat Myths Busted
USDA’s The Real Story Behind Bats

Images: Christine Janesko

The Tree with a Taste for Salt

The Tree with a Taste for Salt

If you’ve ever been on a Florida beach, you may have seen strange cigar-shaped or lima bean-shaped pods floating in the water or lying on the sand. Although they may look alien, they’re actually the seeds of our native mangrove trees, looking to take root in some prime, beachfront real estate.FloatingBeans

The mangrove tree is one of the more unique and important plants in Florida. We have three main varieties: the red, black, and white mangrove. What’s immediately unusual about the mangrove is that it grows in (or near) saltwater or salt marsh. That’s because Florida mangroves either exclude or excrete salt depending on the species. The black mangrove excretes salt, and you can actually find salt crystals on its leaves.

Some mangrove seeds, like the ones from the black mangrove, above, begin sprouting while still attached to the parent plant. These ‘propagules’ fall off into the water, waiting to arrive at a shallow spot where they can take root. Sometimes you’ll see them attempting to take root on a crowded beach – not a good idea!

MangroveRootsThe roots of mangroves are also unique. The NOAA describes them as “a dense tangle of prop roots that make the tree appear to be standing on stilts above the water.” That probably describes the red mangrove best – it’s also the species that tolerates salt the best, living closest to the shoreline. The roots of all types of mangroves – whether above ground or in shallow water – allow them to take in oxygen in low-oxygen marshes and estuaries. The long, leggy roots also help the trees withstand wind and waves, which in turn protects the shorelines they inhabit.

Jim Janesko holds a fiddler crab in his handAlthough I identify mangroves with Florida, there are reportedly about 80 species of mangroves in tropical or subtropical areas all over the world. Everywhere you find them – Australia, the Americas, Asia, and Africa – mangrove forests protect shorelines from erosion and maintain habitats for many species of animals, like this fiddler crab at right, living in a mangrove forest next to Ponce Inlet.



Open Your Eyes


This lovely ‘ode’ to spring was written by a friend and fellow blogger:

Uncle Bardie's Stories & Such

In celebration of Spring.

Open your eyes, wipe the night away.

Open your eyes. It is morning,

the eastern sky awash with the sun and its many colors of light.

Slowly the world arises to do its daily dance.

The lonely and the loved gather themselves up for the new day.

Some waltz easily through the early hours;

for some, it is a difficult march

to be walked only after several cups of coffee.

Early runners dash onto city streets where they run their morning runs.

Their sneakers pound a steady beat.

From the houses, from the homes that the runners pass,

breakfast aromas seep out to them,

voices rise and fall in a chorus of conversations.

“Up and at ‘em,” they chant,

some with a slight tone of the resignation that is Monday,

many accompanied by the sound of running water

as they shower, they shave, they brush their…

View original post 207 more words

Cavern Diving: Yes. – Cave Diving: Nope!

Cavern Diving: Yes. – Cave Diving: Nope!

For many divers and non-divers alike, the idea of cave diving gives people the willies. A cave diver must undertake additional training that goes beyond recreational dive training. But there are many dive spots in Florida that are nowhere near the ocean that don’t necessarily require technical dive training (although more training never hurts).

That’s because Florida has a wealth of springs and sinkholes due to our porous bedrock and underground aquifer. Some of these form caverns that are popular recreational dive spots. Places like Blue GrottoBlue Spring, King’s Spring, and Ginnie Springs offer cavern diving (not to be confused with cave diving), which involves diving in shallower water within sight of the surface and with minimal or no overhangs (basically, anything that blocks your way to the surface). Most of these same places also offer cave diving, which involves deeper dives, extensive overhangs, and special training and equipment.


Not long ago, I had the good fortune to visit Blue Grotto as part of a work assignment. Located in Williston, Florida, Blue Grotto is technically a flooded sinkhole with very clear water and a maximum depth of 100 feet. Blue Grotto has an upper and a lower cavern; the upper cavern is well-lit and expansive.

DivingBellIt also has fun little quirks like an underwater diving bell (if you want to take a break and chat with your buddy), a small mermaid statue, some fish, and a resident softshell turtle named Virgil. The lower cavern has a safety line to follow all the way down to the bottom, but it is very dark and deeper than beginning divers should go unless accompanied by a dive instructor!

Another great spot is Blue Spring, which offers both a vertical cavern and a cave that branches off from the cavern at a depth of around 100 feet. Again, divers without cave diving training must go no further than the cavern (and there is a sign warning you as much)! Blue Spring, which connects to the St. John’s River, also involves a relaxing drift dive (with lots of fish) back to the main spring area. Unlike Blue Grotto, however, you have to trek nearly half a mile with all of your equipment before you get to the put-in for the cavern dive, so this is a more physical dive.

Cavern diving (as opposed to cave diving) is a great alternative to saltwater diving, yet still falls into the realm of recreational diving for divers who are just looking for a fun day out – but are still mindful of safety, as always.

Photo credits: Christine Janesko

Mutley, the Scuba Diving Dog

Mutley, the Scuba Diving Dog

And now for something completely ridiculous… a scuba diving dog? This Animal Planet video highlights the undersea adventures of scuba-certified “Mutley” and her owner, Gene. Not only did Gene create a custom scuba rig for his dog, he also made a rig for his cat, who seems to limit himself to the pool. Apparently, this story is not new, but it’s certainly unique. Everybody needs a hobby! Mutley is not from Florida, but I’d bet if she could pick her next dive spot, she would pay us a visit.

Photo credit: Animal Planet