Category Archives: Florida Animals

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

A Manatee Christmas

A Manatee Christmas

Here are a few natural things I associate with the holiday season: tangerines in my stocking (or now my kids’ stockings), fresh-squeezed orange juice from a backyard tree, and the chance to see manatees in one of our local springs.

Winter is manatee-viewing season because when the temperature drops, manatees seek the constant 72-degree waters of the springs. As big as they are, West Indian Manatees are sensitive to cold, and it’s a contributing factor to their status as an endangered species. (Other factors are injuries from boats and sadly, a mysterious ailment and a red tide this year that resulted in record manatee deaths).

During periods of colder weather (when the water drops below about 68 degrees Fahrenheit), large numbers of manatees congregate in places like Blue Spring on the East Coast and Crystal River/Homosassa Springs on the West Coast. During cold snaps, you can also find groups of them gathered in the waters next to power plants since power plants constantly pump out warm water.

There’s even a Manatee Viewing Center operated in part by the Tampa Electric Company, which is also a great place to see Tarpon and fiddler crabs and learn about native plants like mangrove trees.

ManateeBecause manatees seek protection in our warmer, inland waters and are by default in close proximity to people, there are protections in place to keep manatees safe and free from harassment. In most places in Florida, people are not allowed to touch manatees. In Blue Spring during the winter season (November 15 through March 15), there is no swimming, snorkeling, diving, or boating allowed, but you can walk out on the docks and watch them float by.

The exception to this rule is Crystal River, where people are allowed to swim with manatees, and there are many charter snorkeling and dive trips allowing tourists to see manatees up close.  There’s some controversy about this exception (as recently reported in this National Geographic article), but it’s a big tourist draw, and people are curious about these gentle giants.

Manatees are revered as well as endangered, and if you look closely, you will find manatee images all over Florida. They’re an integral part of natural Florida and easy to spot during the winter. If you’re in Florida, go see some sea cows this holiday season.

The Unlikely Upside of Reports of Florida Panther Deaths

The Unlikely Upside of Reports of Florida Panther Deaths

pantherOf course it’s bad news that a record number of Florida panthers – 17 – have been killed this year, mainly hit by cars. But wildlife experts and the media are reporting that there is a positive side to this news, and that is simply that the population of panthers is growing. For an animal that people believed would go extinct and is certainly still on the brink of extinction, an increase in sightings actually points to progress. The panther population had dwindled to about 30 panthers statewide two decades ago and now has reportedly grown to between 100 and 160. It’s all due to genetic restoration (breeding Florida panthers with their cougar relatives in Texas) and the conservation efforts of biologists, state organizations, and concerned citizens. Check out this WFTX-TV story on the Florida panther – with a reminder for people in the Collier County panther-crossing areas to observe posted speed limits to protect Florida’s most endangered state symbol.

Learn more about the Florida Panther from the FWC’s Florida PantherNet and the Florida Panther Protection Program.

Image Credits: Florida Department of State Division of Historical Resources, Florida PantherNet

In Praise of Vultures

In Praise of Vultures

I’ll be the first one to admit that the vulture is not a favorite bird.

Let’s face it; there’s not a lot of love for the vulture. The two types we encounter here in Florida – the black vulture and the turkey vulture – are protected species, not endangered. But even if they were endangered, I very much doubt you’d see their likeness on t-shirts, or knickknacks, or license plates with “save the vulture” slogans.

Vultures don’t typically grace the covers of nature magazines and you’d be hard-pressed to find a sports team calling itself “the mighty vultures” (although I’d be willing to bet someone, somewhere has used the name just to sound ominous). Vultures are symbolically associated with death, although – interestingly – the ancient Egyptians associated them with motherhood because of the way vultures fiercely protect their young.

VultureoceanIn our culture, however, vultures are not so revered. Vultures have two strikes against them. First, they don’t conform to our ideal of beauty when it comes to birds. Vultures tend to have wrinkly, bald heads, and some types are nearly all black and appear hunchbacked. (There are some vultures – especially the ‘Old World Vultures’ native to Europe, Africa, and Asia – that are arguably more attractive). Second, they eat roadkill (or things that just plain died). Therefore, people find them disgusting.

But, if you think about it, vultures actually do us a service. Vultures clean up our streets. If it weren’t for vultures and other scavengers, we’d have to spend more taxpayer dollars on roadkill cleanup services. They actually keep our cities and streets cleaner and more sanitary. And vultures are actually clean animals since the strong acids in their stomachs kill bacteria and disease (even anthrax). Therefore, what comes out is cleaner than what goes in the vulture.

“Vultures are very important to our environment. Without them, there would be dead animal bodies lying all over,” said Raptor Clinic Technician/Volunteer Coordinator Beth Lott who works with the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland, Florida. “I like to think of them as nature’s cleanup crew.”

Vulture,_Turkey_KenSladeBecause vultures are so disliked, they are actually more likely to suffer injuries deliberately inflicted on them by humans, according to the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey. The bird rehab facility often receives vultures that have been hit by cars or otherwise attacked. Just like they would an injured eagle, osprey, or hawk, the Audubon center takes them in, nurses them back to health, and releases them, if possible.

“People do injure these birds often – sometimes on purpose,” said Lott. “Vultures are often hit by cars, mainly [because] they eat roadkill, and they are shot fairly frequently as well. We get roughly 40 vultures a year, consisting mainly of black vultures, but we get turkey vultures too.”

Lott says vultures have been given a bad rap. “I am not sure if the Audubon Magazine has ever featured vultures on their cover. I have seen a few knickknacks of vultures, but they are few and far between,” says Lott. Yet vultures are actually one of the most intelligent birds the Audubon Center works with. “They have to be wily,” says Lott.

So the next time you see a vulture at the zoo or even by the side of the road, try to consider its good qualities – its intelligence, its nurturing side, its usefulness as the garbage collectors of our streets. And here’s a thought: vultures could be awfully helpful in the event of a zombie apocalypse.

Photo credits: Don DeBold, Dick Daniels, Ken Slade

Great Horned Owls Have a Habit of Stealing Eagle Nest ‘Penthouses’

Great Horned Owls Have a Habit of Stealing Eagle Nest ‘Penthouses’

The bald eagle is our national symbol, and many people think of eagles as the top predator of the sky. However, there is a stronger bird that often takes on (and trounces) the eagle – and that bird is the great horned owl.

Both the eagle and the great horned owl are raptors – birds of prey that are distinguished by their curved beaks, powerful talons, keen eyesight, and carnivorous diet.

Claws1aWhen birds of prey kill or fight, they use their talons – and the great horned owl has an advantage when it comes to talons. The great horned owl can apply 500 pounds of pressure per square inch with its talons – while the eagle can manage about 300 pounds of pressure.

So why would these two top predators fight? It’s because of the eagle’s enviable real estate, says Beth Lott, raptor clinic technician/volunteer coordinator for the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland, Florida.

“Great horns rarely make their own nests. They tend to steal other birds’ nests,” explained Lott. “If they can get eagles’ [nests], it’s like the penthouse. So they like eagles’ nests, and sometimes they get into fights with the eagles over the nests because they roughly nest around the same time.”


Migratory eagles return to Florida around October, although there are some “early birds,” says Lott. Eagles are “nest faithful,” and bonded pairs return to the same nest year after year. Eagles’ nests are usually high up and roomy and can weigh as much as six tons.

“Slowly, through October and November, [they’re] establishing their territory again,” said Lott. Eagles not only have to deal with nest-stealing owls, they also have to fend off other eagles, she said.

Eagle“During eagle season, there’s lots of territory fights between the eagles, so a lot of times we get the injured ones in,” said Lott. “You can see talon marks on them.”

AudubonSignIn fact, treating injured raptors (eagles, owls, falcons, ospreys, kites, and more) is one of the main missions of the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey. Since its opening in 1979, the center has treated and released back to the wild more than 17,000 birds. Some of the injuries they see are natural – results of skirmishes between birds like eagles and great horned owls or from baby birds falling out of nests. But more of them are caused by human factors, says Lott.

With eagle season right around the corner, however, the center is likely to see some injuries resulting from territorial skirmishes, and some of these will be between eagles and great horned owls.

“The great horned owls are known as the tigers of the sky. They’re one of the top predators of North America,” said Lot. “Sometimes the great horns win and sometimes the eagles win… but [the owls] are stronger.”

Want to know how you can help the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey? Check out this page on how to donate your time, money, or needed supplies:

Photo credits: Tony Hisgett, Curtis Bouvier, Wknight94, Christine Janesko

Goliath Grouper: the ‘Barking’ Fish


One of the most amazing sights that I have seen underwater thus far is the goliath grouper.

With ‘goliath’ in its name, you can imagine this is a big fish. Full grown, goliath grouper (also known as the jewfish) can weigh as much as 800 pounds and measure more than eight feet in length. I’ve seen fairly large stingrays and sharks, both in tanks and in the ocean – and both species are really impressive. But there is something really jaw-dropping about a 500-pound, sour-faced fish.


According to the Florida Museum of Natural History, Goliath grouper tend to be solitary fish, and they are territorial around places of refuge like caves and ledges – like the ones located off Jupiter Inlet called the “Tunnels.” During a dive trip to this area, our group was lucky enough to see several of the giant fish.

One fish in particular demonstrated this territorial behavior. He tried to scare us with his menacing glare as we playfully swam through the shallow rock tunnels.

I’m sure he was probably trying to tell us these were his rocks and tunnels. In fact, twice he positioned himself just outside the opposite opening of the rock overhangs, slack-jawed and challenging us with his stare. Our dive group pressed on through the tunnels, and the grouper moved aside, likely frustrated at this alien invasion into his world.

He expressed his annoyance a short time later by quickly swimming away while eliciting a deep, rhythmic booming sound like a bass drum. It could not only be distinctly heard, but felt.

“We call it ‘barking,’” said Divemaster Maria Rintone. “They go, ‘boom!’ ‘boom!’ and they smack their gills, and you can actually feel the vibration.”

When the goliath grouper ‘barks,’ it is contracting its swim bladder, said Rintone. The barking is meant to warn intruders or to locate other goliath grouper. The sound travels a long distance underwater. The goliath grouper’s “bark” is truly worse than its bite, since it’s essentially a gentle giant.

Jay Janesko, father of Jim Janesko, with Goliath GrouperAs the largest grouper in the western Atlantic, the goliath grouper was once a prized catch (and photo opportunity) for Florida fishermen of previous decades. However, they have been a protected species since 1990, at which point they were so overfished, they were on the brink of extinction.

According to the Ocean Research and Conservation Association (ORCA), goliath grouper are vulnerable to overfishing because of their slow growth and long life span. It takes up to eight years for a goliath grouper to become sexually mature. Happily, the goliath grouper has been making a comeback, although groups like ORCA and others argue that their numbers indicate they still need protection and that they could possibly adapt to becoming a predator of the dreaded lionfish.

If you’re a diver, Florida’s Southeast coast is a great place to encounter goliath grouper. Contact the Jupiter Dive Center in Jupiter Inlet or other dive shops farther to the south to find out about the best spots to see the goliath grouper. They are an ocean treasure and an amazing sight.

Photo credits: Jupiter Dive Center, Jay Janesko

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