Tag Archives: Diving

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.

If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Eat ‘em

If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Eat ‘em

The lionfish is not wanted in Florida waters. It’s also incurring the wrath of Caribbean island nations and fishermen and divers around the Gulf of Mexico and the southern Atlantic.

Essentially, it’s the fish version of an uninvited guest that crashes your wedding and eats all your food – or perhaps all of your other guests.

On this side of the world, it’s also an invasive species.

The lionfish is a fierce-looking creature, with fantastic brown and white striped, barbed fins that fan out around its body. Its fins deliver venom to its prey, which consists of reef fish, lobster, shrimp, and pretty much anything else it can bite down on. Basically, the lionfish has a voracious appetite and it is not a picky eater.

So how much damage is it doing? According to the World Lionfish Hunters Association (yes, there is such a thing), lionfish can eat other fish one-third their size and their stomachs can s-t-r-e-t-c-h to 30 times their size.

“They are known to eat small schools of up to 20 reef-dwelling fish at a time,” writes Scott Harrell, executive director of the World Lionfish Hunters Association. “Furthermore, studies have proven that one lionfish can reduce the number of all species of fish that it is able to consume by up to 80 percent within just five weeks of establishing its range.”

To try to combat its rampage on our reef fish, environmental groups have declared open season (literally) on the lionfish. In April, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) held a Twitter and Instagram promotion asking people to send in their photos of lionfish kills in exchange for a “Lionfish Control Team” t-shirt. Spear fishermen and divers responded enthusiastically!

Photo credit: FWC

Photo credit: FWC

Beyond just hunting them down, some environmental organizations have suggested another tactic – turning the lionfish into fish food for humans. Many people react with concern at the idea of eating a fish with venomous barbs, but the lionfish is quite safe to eat, aside from its fins. Even the fins are not very dangerous to humans – unless you happen to have an allergy to lionfish (read more about lionfish hunting and lionfish venom here). Cooking a lionfish at 350 degrees Fahrenheit denatures the toxin, according to those World Lionfish Hunters (who I am assuming have eaten their share of the invaders).

In fact, the lionfish is said to be a tasty fish, and a marine biology student I spoke to recently on a dive trip told me lionfish “takes like snapper.” Here’s a link to restaurants serving lionfish on the menu: http://lionfish.co/eat-lionfish-here/

Even if you don’t plan on running out and buying a speargun, there are things you can do to help, says the World Lionfish Hunters Association.

You can:

  • Promote the consumption of lionfish; eat it, ask for lionfish at your favorite seafood restaurant (especially when it is not on the menu) and suggest it to your friends.
  • Donate to organizations that promote lionfish management and conservation.
  • Spread the word… (especially to enthusiastic fishermen and divers).

For more information, check out The World Lionfish Hunters Association, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and National Geographic for all things lionfish.

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Photo credits: FWC, The World Lionfish Hunters Association