I’m on a Boat!

(Thanks, Cyndi, I still think of you when I type that phrase.) Anyway, this morning I tagged along with a school group on a boat tour. Second manatee sighting! Two of them surfaced next to the boat, and one was huge and lifted its whole tail out of the water for us to see. I’m proud to say I’m actually the one who spotted the “footprints” on the surface of the water and pointed them out to the captain.

Once again the manatees appeared and disappeared far to quickly for me to get any video evidence, but shortly afterward we ran into a huge pod of dolphins. This isn’t the greatest video ever but at least it proves I did see some marine mammals today.

After watching them for a while we dragged a trawl net behind the boat for a few minutes and then made the kids haul it in hand-over-hand (heh heh). We didn’t catch anything earth-shaking that I hadn’t seen before, but there were a few squid…

…and a flounder. (Click and zoom in to check out its eyes, which are both crammed together on one side of its flattened body.)

I had the kids sort out some of the fish into a bucket with ice to bring back and feed to our turtles and other critters.

A week and a half left until I leave Jekyll…

I Can Now Die Happy

A few months ago I wrote about camping for a night at Manatee Springs State Park in northern Florida, in a fruitless attempt to see manatees in the wild. Turns out I didn’t need to go Florida.  Yesterday I saw one a five-minute drive from where I live and work.

Yesterday morning I wasn’t teaching, but instead was preparing for the new school groups arriving later in the day, putting together binders and posting schedules and calling to confirm reservations. Around ten a coworker came back from taking a class to the dock and excitedly told everyone in the office they’d seen manatees. “The kids were bonking them on the heads with their dip nets accidentally! That’s how close they were!”

Me: “Wait, this was just now? Do you think they’re still there?”

Her: “Sure, probably!”

Me: (bolts out of office to get my camera, binoculars, and car keys)

I have the best boss in the world, because when I breathlessly explained to him that there probably manatees at the dock RIGHT NOW and I’d already finished all the really crucial preparation for the groups coming and I’d be back in twenty minutes and could I please please please PRETTY PLEASE go look for the manatees, his response was basically “of course you can.” Seriously, how many people have a job where they’re allowed to leave in the middle of the work day to go look for interesting wildlife? Soon I was on the road driving faster than I probably should I have as I zipped around the island’s southern tip toward the dock overlooking the salt marsh.

Manatees in the U.S. are strongly associated with Florida, and many people – including people who live on the coast of Georgia – are not aware that during the warmer months of the year manatees from the Atlantic coast population migrate north into Georgia’s salt marshes. I certainly didn’t know this before I moved here. The problem is that the water here is naturally murky with sediment, making them impossible to see except in the brief moments when they surface to take a breath. As a result, very little is known about the movements and habits of manatees in Georgia.

I was thankful when I arrived at the dock to see that there was no one else around – I knew if I actually saw one I would probably start jumping up and down and making high-pitched noises, and I’d just as soon there not be any crusty local boaters or fishermen around to witness that. I’d seen images before of the characteristic swirls left on the water’s surface by manatees passing below, and almost as soon as I’d stepped out onto the dock I saw what looked like those same patterns on the water in front of me, but with the water so opaque there was no way of really knowing what was down there. So there was nothing I could do but walk slowly back and forth along the length of the floating dock, keeping my eyes peeled.

At the dock’s far end I turned around and looked back, and my eyes were caught by a round gray shape protruding from the water near the end of the boat ramp, in the direction I had just come from. Hang on, there wasn’t a big rock in the water in that spot, was there–NO. OH MY GOD. I did then what I am always telling my students not to do and ran down the length of the dock, because the round gray shape had a snout… and it was slowly moving.

Guys, I literally was almost in tears. I’m not sure why finally seeing a wild manatee made me so emotional but it did. It quickly submerged again but after a few more minutes of waiting I was rewarded with a second glimpse of its whiskery nose when it came up to take a breath. I would have stayed longer, but I really did have to get back to work, so I went back to my car and drove away bouncing around in the seat with happiness.

Both times the manatee surfaced, it did so too briefly for me to get my camera on it, so unlike some of my previous epic wildlife encounters I don’t have a sweet video clip to share with you. Instead you’ll have to settle for my artistic interpretation of what I saw.

In conclusion: MANATEE.

P.S. Later in the day I told an eighth grade student I’d seen a manatee at the dock that morning. He responded, “What’s a manatee?” Sometimes I despair for the future of humanity.

Supertide Part 2: Dead Baby Dolphin

That may be the most morbid blog post title ever. Warning: there are dead baby dolphin photos ahead. Look away now while you still have a chance.

After my camera died while I was exploring the beach during the unusually extreme low tide caused by the previous night’s so-called supermoon, I kept walking down toward the south end of the island. Eventually I wandered up away from the water’s edge toward some driftwood near the high-water mark left by the morning’s equally extraordinary high tide. Behind the chunks of driftwood my eyes picked up a large finned shape. “Man, that’s a big dead fish that washed up,” I started to think, but this was quickly replaced by “OH HOLY $#@& THAT IS A DEAD BABY DOLPHIN.”

It was about three feet long, and right in the middle a large round chunk had been taken out of its abdomen. Later I walked back down to look at it again with two of my coworkers (one of whom lent me her camera, if you’re wondering where the heck the photos came from if mine was busted), and the only explanation any of us could think of for that missing chunk was a bite from a big shark. If anyone has an alternate theories feel free to share them in the comments.

Hey, I did warn you.

Bottlenose dolphins are quite common around here, but all marine mammals, common or otherwise, are protected by law under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources has a phone number for people to call to report dead or injured marine mammals, which I must admit is one phone number I thought I’d never need to know, but I looked it up on their website when I got home. A woman took my name and phone number, and a few minutes later a DNR officer in the area called me back to get a description of its location and condition. In addition to dolphins, Superfund sites are also common around here, and I know one thing they do with dolphins is test their tissues for the build-up of pollutants.

So that was my Sunday afternoon. Just when I thought I was running out of inspiration for interesting blog posts, too…

Manatee(less) Springs

As previously mentioned, I spent Saturday night camping at Manatee Springs State Park in Florida with a couple coworkers, in hopes of finally seeing these gentle aquatic mammals in their natural habitiat.  (The Columbus Zoo in Ohio has a fantastic manatee exhibit, so I’ve seen them in captivity before, but it’s not the same.)

The eponymous spring bubbles with water at a constant seventy-two degrees Fahrenheit year round, so it’s a popular hangout for manatees in winter when the temperature of the surrounding rivers drops.  Unfortunately, in the time we were there we saw no sign of any manatees – the weather had been quite warm lately, despite the fact that the park says their “manatee season” lasts until the end of March, so perhaps they’d already moved on.

Manatees or no manatees, we were determined to enjoy ourselves.  The crystal clear water of the spring (and the Suwanee River, which it runs into a short way away) meant for great turtle- and fish-watching, and we even saw what we were pretty sure was an otter splashing around.  An armadillo came blundering into our campsite after dark (if you’ve ever run into an armadillo in the wild, you know that they are NOISY buggers) and the vultures roosting all around the dock were very picturesque in the morning mist.

In a way, part of me is glad that we didn’t see any manatees after all.  If we had simply driven up, parked our car, walked over to the spring, and there they’d been, it would have reduced them to a tourist attraction.  It would have robbed them of some the otherness they possess as wild creatures.  I still hope I see one someday, and in ideal world it will happen completely unexpectedly and serendipitously.

Okay, now to get to work on putting together Festival of the Trees.  Look for it sometime in the next couple days… I still have a lot of submissions to go through.

Wassaw Island Wilderness

No kids here at the center the first half of this week.  The downside of this?  My coworkers and I didn’t actually get paid for what we did today.  The upside?  What we did was awesome.  Our bosses arranged for us, along with some of the interns from the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, to visit the Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge with some staff members from the UGA Marine Extension Service as guides.  While Wassaw Island is technically open to the public, there is no causeway or ferry service to get there.  Between that and the fact that it’s never been farmed or logged, Wassaw is one of the most pristine, undisturbed barrier islands around.

To get to the island we took skiffs, small open boats that hold ten people each.  Of course, the weather picked today to turn really cold – I think as we set out for Wassaw the temperature was hovering around forty.  That may not sound cold to you northern folks, but when 1) you’re acclimated to south Georgia and 2) you’re out on the water in an open boat with the wind whipping around you, let me tell you, it’s frigid.

(That’s me on the right, with friends and coworkers Jon and Sarah, who should definitely update their blogs more often.)

When we arrived on the island our guide told us we’d probably be hiking about five miles round trip, through the woods to the beach and back.  Five miles, okay, fine.  But then he said something about wading through a pond.  Wait, what?!

Luckily we didn’t end up actually having to wade, as cold as it was.  No, we walked across the potentially alligator-infested pond on the narrow, wobbly trunk of a fallen palm tree instead.  The water probably wasn’t more than a foot deep, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t nervous.  Crossing a green swamp, scaling the steep sides of dune ridges, bushwhacking through thickets of palmettos… it was all I could do not to start humming the theme music to Indiana Jones under my breath.  This was turning into quite an adventure.

We even found a snake – a scarlet snake, a species I’d never encountered before.  My photos of it aren’t that fantastic, because we had to press on rather than spending time on a photo shoot, but it’s a coral snake mimic.  Remember, red on black, friend of Jack.

After this, I admit, I stopped taking photographs.  We made it to the beach alive (whew!) and enjoyed being the only ones there, watching the antics of the plovers and dolphins and picking up as many sand dollars as we could carry.  The best moment of the day, however, came on the return boat trip.  We stopped to get a better look at a Bald Eagle soaring overhead, and someone said, “Hey, dolphins.”  I turned around and saw a pair of bottlenose dolphins watching me from the surface of the water, no more than two or three feet away, close enough to reach out and touch.

Eagle overhead, dolphins around us, the wind in our faces… I can think of worse ways to spend a Monday afternoon.  My job may sometimes be a bit stressful, and living in Georgia may occasionally make a Yankee like me feel like a fish out of water, but you know what?  Overall I have no complaints.

Sea Otters

When this trip was in the planning stages and I found out we were going to Monterey, I thought man, it would be really cool to see a sea otter in the wild.  But you probably need to go out on a boat for that and we don’t have time for a boat tour of the bay.  Oh well, maybe if we’re really lucky we’ll get a glimpse of one from shore.

We got so much more than a glimpse.

Our day driving up Big Sur ended at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, a place I cannot recommend highly enough for anyone who likes wildlife and is thinking of visiting the coast of central California.  We had gotten out of our car and were walking out to a point that was supposed to be good for viewing sea lions when a man passing us going the other direction stopped to tell us that there was a pair of humpback whales off the north side of the point.  Well!  We skedaddled the rest of the way up the trail and sure enough, there were the whales, giving us good views of their backs and occasional glimpses of flukes every time they surfaced.  Sadly there wasn’t anyway to get good photos of them with the limited zoom of my camera, but we watched them until they moved farther out, then checked out what other wildlife was around.  Sure enough, there were sea lions and more harbor seals on the rocks below.  But what we really wanted to find were sea otters.

As we walked back, we kept scanning the kelp beds offshore, sometimes mistaking a bobbing piece of kelp for a bobbing otter head.  Finally, score!  A ways out was a group of otters.  We watched them through our binoculars, thinking, wow.  Two seal species, sea lions, whales, and now sea otters, all in one day.  It doesn’t get any better than this.  Or does it?

To our amazement, the otters seemed to keep pace with us as we moved further along the shore back toward our car, and they were actually coming in closer.  And closer.

And closer.

Soon we had picked our way out onto another conveniently-placed outcropping of rocks to watch sea otters foraging practically right beneath our feet.  We had front-row seats to behavior you see on nature shows on the Discovery Channel but never expect to witness in real life.  The otter closest to us would dive briefly, and come up floating on its back with a rock balanced on its chest and a pawful of what appeared to be sea urchins, which it would smash against the rock to break open and then eat.  It knew perfectly well we were there – occasionally it would glance up at us – but was comfortable enough with our presence to let us sit there and watch it for what must have been half an hour.  At one point the other otter it was with lost track of its location and spent a minute looking around and squealing unhappily, until it finally spotted its friend (or parent?) and swam over to reunite with it.  (Okay, I’m being a little anthropomorphic, but can you blame me?  They’re such charismatic, expressive animals.)

After this, seeing the sea otter exhibit at the Monterey Bay aquarium the following day was something of an anticlimax… more to come.

Seals at Big Sur

I’m back from the Pacific coast!  And I have a whole slew of photos and video clips to share with you.  Our first day of sightseeing was spent working our way up along the Big Sur coast via the Pacific Coast Highway.

We started out in Cambria, and in the morning after breakfast we went for a walk on the beach and discovered a group of harbor seals hauled out on some rocks.  It was hard to get decent photos of them, but believe me, they were cute.

There were signs warning against disturbing the seals, but they clearly weren’t the least bit disturbed by the people clambering out a little way onto the rocks for a closer look: a few glanced sleepily at us before returning to their naps, and one was curious enough that it actually flopped down into the water and swam across the space separating our rocks from their rocks, popping his head out above the surface practically at our feet and looking up at us.

We also happened to glance down at one point and notice that between the rocks we were standing on were some pretty awesome tide pools, full of sea stars and anemones.

A short drive up the coast we scored our second marine mammal species for the day: elephant seals!  Elephant seals used to be hunted extensively were actually believed to be extinct at one point, until a last remaining population was discovered on an island of Baja California.  Their numbers have since recovered and now they breed along the California coast.  At this time of the year only young males are on California’s beaches; apparently they come there to molt.  For “young” males, these were some really massive animals, many times the size of the harbor seals.  Every now and then a couple would rear up and start practice-sparring with each other, long snouts swinging in every direction.  One of the biggest ones was asleep practically right under the boardwalk.

A face only a mother could love.

But the day’s adventures weren’t over… to be continued!