Sunday, February 23, 2014

Florida Fauna

Cormorant right off shore

As I mentioned before, we saw a lot of art museums in Florida. My family visited two places regularly whenever we went to a new place: an art museum and a zoo. As a family we appreciate animals and birds. Both my parents and I are birders and we are all fans of getting to see animals and wildlife whenever we get the chance. I did a lot of birding in Florida. We saw Anhingas, cormorants, ibises, pelicans, and tons of gulls and sanderlings. The favorites were the tiny sanderlings that fed at the shore, running in and out of the waves. Birds were everywhere. It was wonderful.

Great Egret just hanging out near the Ringling Art Museum

Birding was done on the beach and in the car, but we spent plenty of our time looking at other things. Our first full day in Florida, we headed out to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, to see both their star (Winter, the dolphin from the movie Dolphin Tale) and the rest of the aquatic residents. Clearwater's Aquarium is a rescue and rehabilitation center for marine creatures. Winter, the big attraction, is a dolphin who lost its tail in the lines of crab trap. The aquarium has taught Winter to swim with a prosthetic tail. We watched one of the training sessions as they explained how the dolphin got around regularly with and without the tail. Winter was interesting but I was more captivated by some of the other less famous residents.

Winter with her prosthetic tail

There were injured turtles who couldn't submerge after collisions with boats or fisherman which was heart-wrenching. I was so happy to see that these beautiful but damaged creatures had a place to go where they would be taken care of. There were otters, one of which had been hit by a car and the other that had been orphaned at too young an age for rerelease. But my favorite was a dolphin named Nicholas whose mother had beached herself (because of an illness) when Nicholas was very young. Both dolphins had been horribly sunburned and Nicholas' mother had died. The dolphin was now 11 and was quite the flirt. He'd swim by and check us out and pose for the camera. The white on his topside is where he was sunburnt. But my favorite part of the aquarium was talking with the volunteers and trainers. Everyone was so passionate about helping injured animals. It was incredible to see these beautiful animals being rescued and cared for.

Nicholas flirting with us

On Thursday my parents and I ended up in downtown Tampa to see the well recommended Florida Aquarium. After touring I can see why it was recommended. I don't remember the last time I visited an aquarium that I enjoyed so much. This had fish and birds I'd never seen in zoos or aquariums before. There was whole section on seahorses and other similar style fish, most of which were new to me. There were local Florida birds in vast open areas of the exhibition (one poor man even got pooped on by a Roseate Spoonbill). The main tank had a wall sized glass and benches set up, to just sit and watch the schools of fish swim by. As we were heading out a woman with a penguin in a cart stopped to tell us about them. The aquarium was both educational and beautiful. The fish and birds were well kept. Everything was sparkling and clean. It was lovely to see so many creatures well cared for at both aquariums.
Roseate Spoonbill with great aim

Seeing animals in aquariums is one thing, but seeing them in the wild is always a huge thrill for me. On Wednesday we drove north to Crystal, Florida to swim with manatees. Sadly I have no pictures of the day. I didn't bring my camera on the boat and I don't have anything that would work underwater. We had hoped to get the chance to swim with these incredible creatures and I'd found a number of companies that offered excursions. We chose Manatee Tour and Dive, because it didn't have pictures of people touching or hugging manatees on their website. I wanted something that respected the space that creatures need in the wild. They were a fantastic organization. We went for a two and a half hour tour with Captain Casey who took us out snorkeling to see these incredible animals. I had no clue how big manatees really are. They are like small cars underwater. My favorite encounter happened by accident. As we were heading back to the dock, Casey turned the boat back around after spotting a lone manatee out by an underwater spring. It was incredibly clear water and there were hundreds of fish around. But it was the manatee that made me catch my breath. We watched it surface to breath twice, completely undisturbed by us. The second time it rose, it stopped to watch me for a second and then returned to the bottom to rest. It was huge and slow and covered in algae and I realized just how beautiful and old these creatures look when they aren't in a zoo and scrubbed clean. Gentle giants of the water. So beautiful. So peaceful. It was an amazing day and an amazing trip.

The curious Epaulette Shark that walked rather than swam

Sandy the Penguin in his rolling glass wagon

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