Gulf Islands National Seashore, Okaloosa Area, Fort Walton Beach, FL, 3/1/12

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Colorful Plants on the Keys

Palms, mangroves, many trees, bushes and grasses are plentiful on the keys.  It's very lush.

A tangle of mangrove roots. These amazing trees come in red, black and
white varieties.   3/7/14 at Crane Point Museum and Nature Center

If I were a botanist, I'd study mangroves -- how they
propagate, help to create land, deal with salt water, are
protective nurseries for young sea life, and so much more. 
3/7/14 at Crane Point. 
 But, every once in a while a spot of color will catch my eye. 

While at Bahia Honda State Park, I went into the butterfly garden. 
I spotted the Zebra Long-Wing Butterflies (pictured above) and the
bright orange Gulf Fritillary, too.  3/5/14 

The Butterfly Garden. 
While mostly green, I found a few bits of color. 
3/5/14 at Bahia Honda SP. 
Very tiny orange petals/leaves.  Do you know what it is? 
3/5/14 at Bahia Honda SP. 

Small, but the butterflies like it. 
I think it's called a Bay Bean or Seaside Bean.
3/5/14 Bahia Honda SP. 

Another small flower that attracted the butterflies. 
What is it?  3/5/14 at Bahia Honda SP. 
A little daisy? 
3/5/14 at Bahia Honda. 

At Crane Point we saw this large bush.  The sign 
said it was Sea Lavender.  3/7/14  

The Sea Lavender's little white flowers were 
very fragrant.  3/7/14 

Also at Crane Point we saw this little flower that the 
Zebra Long-Wing Butterflies were enjoying. 
Do you know what it is?  3/7/14 


Seed pods of the Blackbead tree with bright pink arils. 
The black seeds are used to make jewelry, thus its name. 
3/7/14 at Crane Point.


The copper-color bark of the Gumbo Limbo tree.
3/7/14 at Crane Point.

I have a few more days here in the Keys; so, don't be surprised if I update this particular blog with more spots of plant-life color!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Dolphin Research Center

The Dolphin Research Center (DRC) is close to where I'm staying on Grassy Key.   Gary & Mary are members and gifted me with a free pass for the day (thank you!).  I arrived when they opened at 9am on Saturday, and left shortly before closing.  I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

The facility has a large front lagoon with young dolphins and a few of their mothers, 11 total.  One of the trainers referred to it as the "day care" of the facility.  This type of grouping is how dolphins live together in the wild.

I was a bit taken aback by how much all of the dolphins people watched,
as these two are doing with me.  One eye watching me, and the
other watching their friends and family under water.  3/8/14

Here are the same two dolphins.  The trainer had one of them wave at me.
You could tell that they enjoyed my reaction and waves back.  3/8/14

The dolphins all know their names and each responds to a unique symbol (square, circle, triangle, etc.).  In addition, researchers believe that the mother gives each of their babies a unique whistle when born.  They liked to be talked to and become enthusiastic when you clap and cheer for them.  And, to my surprise, some really liked their picture taken as well.

Every 45 minutes is an activity at the facility -- training, playing, interactions with guests, power point presentations with information about DRC's history, research, and the 3 resident sea lions.  A bulletin board posts the activities and their locations (front or back lagoons).

The back lagoons are smaller in size and smaller groups of dolphins will often have the run of a couple of them at the same time.  In one of these lagoons were two mothers and their babies, both born in November.

Mother watching her picture being taken as baby
surfaces behind her.  3/8/14

Mama and baby under water.  3/8/14

Two large male dolphins stay together in the deeper, larger back lagoon.  The largest is 23 years old and weighs in at 650 pounds.  They are both very athletic.

The large muscles just in front of their tail gives
them the amazing abilities to tail walk, high jump, and
the propulsion to speed swim.  3/8/14
One of the big boys jumping on cue for a "trainer for the day" participant,
with the whole Gulf of Mexico behind them.  3/8/14
The DRC has programs that allow for interaction with the dolphins, including swimming with them, training them, or just shaking their "hands."  You can also be a researcher for the day.

Here are the two new mothers interacting with guests.  The trainer places
a paint brush (loaded with paint) in the dolphin's mouth, then the guest
holds the t-shirt (stretched on a board) over the water
 so the dolphin can paint it.  3/8/14
Most of the dolphins at the DRC were born there.  A few were rescued from the wild and determined to be too young or hurt to return to the wild.  One dolphin is badly scared from a bull shark attack. 

The DRC publishes their research findings in scientific journals.  And they recently started a college associate degree program at the facility.  I found the trainers and students very friendly and open to chat about their program, the facility and the animals in their care.   I'm still an educator and researcher at heart; so, I especially enjoyed that aspect of DRC.

In addition to the dolphins, the facility houses three sea lions (unable to be released to the wild) and some large parrots (most given to the facility by their owners).  There was a cute water park for kids, gift shop, food stand, photo booth, and a beautiful shady garden in which to sit and relax.

The DRC: a very memorable experience.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sharks, Tornados and Food

Here's a story of Gary and The Big Fish, as told by Mary:

"Gary finally hooked a big shark last night! A crowd on the dock watching, he fought with it for nearly 45 minutes (fortunately a volunteer took over the pole for a few minutes so Gary could rest). At one point, both Gary and shark took a brief break. Ultimately though, the shark tangled the line around the snorkel area buoy line and then he was stuck. Sharks can't breathe if they can't swim, so ...

Gary hamming it up for the camera. (Mary, 3/5/14) 

" ... Gary and another brave soul grabbed a skiff from shore and paddled out to cut the massive man-eater free. Reel life heroes. As we watched, the shark had stopped struggling and disappeared from the surface. All concerned onlookers feared the worst. Fortunately though, upon the approach of the rescuers, the shark mustered up the strength to break the leader and swim free!!!"

A big thank you to the owner of the borrowed skiff.  (Mary, 3/5/14) 
It was an exciting night of shark fishing ... and all the while some of the park guests were playing bingo in the close-by pavilion.

A good calm night to play bingo.  3/5/14 

The next day brought its own excitement as well.  I woke up to my smart phone telling me we were under a tornado alert.  It was a warm morning, 10-mph winds from the SE, and very humid.  I watched the sky and the Doppler Radar (iMap Weather Radio).  It was coming closer, with a chance that it might swing toward the mainland and miss us completely.

It was so muggy that I was most comfortable inside my little apartment with the AC on.  I'm not a fan of AC; so, you know it had to be really humid.

About 3:25pm, I looked out my window and saw that the sky was half bright and half dark.  I grabbed my camera phone and went out on my second-floor deck.

Looking SW at the wall cloud passing by.  3/6/14

About 30 seconds later, this picture shows the wall cloud moving quickly.
The temperature dropped a good 10-12 degrees during that time.
Gratefully, there was no rotation.  3/6/14
The rest of the afternoon and evening it rained, hard ... and blew hard.  A good night to watch a couple of movies.  I heard that a couple of tornadoes touched down on the mainland with minimal damage.

Although, not as exciting as sharks or tornadoes, the food here is just as notable.  Some highlights include the 25-cent peel & eat cold shrimp for Happy Hour at Sparky's Landing.  The cocktail sauce was perfect.  We sat out on their deck, watching the fish surface in the lagoon to eat our discarded shrimp peels.  I'm also hoping to try their seafood gumbo, made only on Tuesdays.

Based on their good review on Yelp, we went to King Seafood and weren't disappointment.  I would definitely have their Seafood Soup again (a small bowl was actually quite large, $5).  And their Cuban sandwiches looked wonderful.  Gary was impressed with their Imperial Sandwich.

On a day out exploring some local State Parks, I stopped at
 Keys Fisheries Restaurant and Marina and had their
famous Lobster Ruben to go.  3/5/14
And, the day after the big storm, the three of us ate out twice while exploring more of the local parks and preserves.  For lunch I had a very good grilled burger at Hog Heaven, a sports bar on the water with a tiki-motorcycle theme ... complete with rattan Harleys.  And for dinner that same day, we stopped for Happy Hour at Cabana Breezes where the Key West Sunset Ale was an especially good beer to go with the conch fritters, ocean-front seating, and perfect weather.

For anyone who enjoys seafood, the Florida Keys is a good place to be.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Jolly Roger Travel Park:
Getting Aquainted

My youngest brother Gary and his wife Mary are full-timers who are work-camping at The Jolly Roger Travel Park in the Florida Keys.   They generously invite me to join them, where ever they might be at for the season.  So, I decided to take them up on their offer during this trip.

The Jolly Roger Travel Park is about half-way down
the Keys to Key West.  3/4/14
This is a nice RV park, mostly populated by rigs that are 30-40+' long -- primarily class A's and 5th Wheels.  Although, a few C's, B's, and tent trailers are here too; and up to 5 tent sites at any one time.  Campgrounds and RV parks in the Keys are some of the most expensive in the Lower 48.  So, this is a destination for wealthy retired folks.  And many of these RVers return year after year.  During the winter months, the park is at full capacity.

RV spaces are fairly close to each other,
but the park has maintained lots of large
trees, palms and grassy areas.   3/4/14
Unfortunately, I'm not allowed to sleep in my Prius here.  But, I got a heck of a deal on an efficiency apartment at a rate that is comparable to tent sites at the local state parks.  (Thank you Jolly Roger management, and Gary & Mary for hooking me up!) 

View of a sunset from my 2nd floor efficiency apartment.
Looking above the RVs, I have a peek-a-boo view of the water.  3/1/14
Both guests and staff are very nice here.  Everyone is easy going.  And the staff work exceedingly hard to please.  The place has -- a dock, a little harbor, a swimming/snorkeling area, fishing areas and cleaning station, an open-air pavilion next to the water (w/electrical outlets), restrooms with nice showers, a pool, a laundry room, free wifi and satellite TV, accessible facilities, along with potlucks & activities sponsored by both guests and staff.

Pelicans are plentiful here.  Along with a few egrets,
they beg for scraps as fishermen clean their catch.  3/1/14

Using the pelicans as my models, let me show you around the waterfront area of Jolly Roger Travel Park. 

This is one of the slips of the dock.  A sailboat is moored just off shore.  3/1/14

Looking northeast toward the dock and the Gull of Mexico beyond.  3/1/14

Looking southeast from the dock toward the RV Park.  3/1/14

Looking from the dock toward the eastern side of the
open-air pavilion.  3/1/14

The swimming and snorkeling area, just east of the dock.  3/1/14

Why did the ibis cross the road?
Taken just outside of Gary & Mary's 5th Wheel.  3/2/14
Last night I went out on the dock while Gary fished for sharks (catch & release).  Three times a shark took the bait, and three times he lost it either to a broken leader or becoming unhooked.  He had just upgraded to 100 lb test line.  All the same it was exciting to hear the zing of the reel while the shark ran with the bait.  The last one even jumped out of the water.

Also, I loved just watching the sharks.   The water was clear and calm and we could see them using a flash light.  Some thought they were nurse sharks, others thought they were bull sharks.   One was 6-7' long with several remora suctioned to it.  We could also see crab (one in a conch shell), lobster, sting ray, and other small fish.  It was a fun time while several park guests joined us, offering suggestions and more bait ... ooooh'ing and aaaaah'ing at the predators below.

Getting ready to fish for shark at sunset.  3/3/14

The last of the colors of sunset with a sliver of the moon
in the upper right, and its reflection in the lower right.
3/3/14
Gary is sitting here with me now and says he's going to catch one tonight for sure!  He's borrowing a larger pole, with heavier line and leader.  And the bait will be nice and "ripe;" so it'll smell especially appetizing to the sharks.  Hold your nose and stay tuned.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Louisiana and Putting on the Miles

After spending time in the City of Rocks State Park, I had a good visit with my friend Bri in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.  Often, I set my route in order to meet up with my traveling friends.  Such a treat!

From TorC, I made quick time through Texas using Walmarts to overnight at Fort Stockton and Houston.  I made it to Louisiana and took another traveling friend Cyndi's recommendation to camp several nights at Holbrook Park in Calcasieu Parish (County).

Hobrook Park was a great place to stay for $4 (elect $12) --
nice bathrooms, free showers, picnic tables, BBQ grill, nice
 host, and waterfront sites with amazing views.   2/22/14

A little fishing dock just in front of my campsite at Holbook Park. 2/21/14

Sunset on the little lake.  Holbrook Park, Sulphur, LA  2/21/14

My campsite at Holbrook Park.  2/21/14

Beautiful sunset at Holbrook Park from inside the Prius ...
I put up the no-see-um screens to keep the mosquitoes outside.  2/21/14

On Saturday the mostly-empty campground was filled with locals enjoying
the nice weather.  My Prius (middle left) was joined by many other vehicles,
surrounding my campsite.  2/22/14

After such a wonderful stay at Holbrook Park, I found that Calcasieu Parish has several other campground parks.  Since my plans were to explore the coastal area, I decided on Intracoastal Park next.  Here, I found the same inexpensive camp sites and amenities as Holbrook Park.

Although I typically prefer forested campgrounds, the activity on the
Intracoastal Waterway made up for the lack of trees and privacy.
Pictured above is a tug pushing a barge westward.  2/13/14

The Ellender Draw Bridge for LA-27. 
It's a vertical lift bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway,
as seen from my campsite.  2/23/14
Only once during my 3-day stay at Intracoastal Park did I see the vertical span of the Ellener Bridge go up.  A barge with 2 tall masts needed pass by.  Four blasts of a very loud air horn sounded as it was about to lift.
 
Near my campsite, left to right,
the northern approach to the Ellener Draw Bridge, fish cleaning station,
and a west bound tug boat on the Intracoastal Waterway.
This park is a popular local fishing and crabbing spot.  2/23/14


Inlet and boat ramp, guarded by pelicans on either side.
Taken just east of my campsite.  2/24/14

I had planned to spend only one night at Intracoastal Park, but I accidently killed my 12v battery on Saturday night and needed to wait until Monday to get it replaced.  I had planned to explore the Creole Nature Trail on Sunday, but really enjoyed the Intracoastal Park instead.  My Prius, being a hybrid, was a challenge to jump or tow by the local towing companies.  But, a third driver knew his hybrids and gave me a jump.  He then followed me to get the replacement battery (just to make sure I didn't stall out).  A traveling friend correctly summarized the experience by saying, "Bummer + Serendipity = made it an adventure!"  After my car was fixed, I did my laundry then returned to Holbrook Park for a shower and a good night's sleep.

In the morning, I continued my drive east.  I stopped at the Atchafalaya Visitor's Center in south central Louisiana. It was a combination rest area and museum about the Atchafalaya River Swamp, the biggest river swamp in the world!  They even had a cute animatronic show where a raccoon, turtle and alligator talk about the area   The coffee was good and the displays were very nice too.  My route east on I-10 was a raised roadway over this swampland.  An interesting place to which I hope to return and explore.

The next few days were spent putting on more miles, overnighting in Grand Bay in western AL, Live Oak in northern FL, and Napels in southern FL before reaching my destination (and turn around point) in the Florida Keys.

On my last day of driving, I made a couple of quick stops at Big Cypress National Preserve.  This is one of my favorite places from a couple of years ago.

The H.P. Williams Roadside Park usually has good wildlife viewing
opportunities.  I love how the Old Man's Beard hangs from the
trees.  Here a cormorant overlooks from high in a tree.  2/28/14

Brown Water Snake sunning itself at the
H.P Williams Roadside Park in the
Big Cypress National Preserve.  2/28/14

At the Oasis Visitors Center on the east side of the preserve is a boardwalk
that keeps you a safe distance above the resting alligators.  2/28/14
I really enjoyed my stay in Louisiana.  Now, I'm here in the Florida Keys resting up from the miles.  The weather is perfect.  And I'm enjoying a visit with my brother Gary and his wife Mary.  I'll have pictures in my next blog post.