Category Archives: James Janesko

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.

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.


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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