Based on his years of working for Audubon of Florida's Tavernier Science Center doing field research, my friend, Mac Stone, is putting the finishing touches on a beautiful new book about the Everglades. In June, I accompanied him on a photo quest to fill in a few missing shots, such as an underwater image of a shark swimming across the grass flats of Florida Bay (yeah, right, that should be simple enough!?). Mac knows the intricacies of the channels, flats, cuts, and islands of the Bay, as well as the behavior of many of the critters who live there.
Garl Harold , owner of Garl's Coastal Kayaking in Key Largo is a good friend of Mac's. Having intimately explored and led groups in kayaks and on trails throughout the Everglades for years, Garl is a guide-extraordinaire. (So says his company's perfect rating at Trip Advisor as well!) And Garl was just itching to get out in his new Twin Vee, recently purchased to expand his trips into further reaches of the Bay.
So, beginning the adventure with an Audubon scientist and a renowned Everglades guide --am I off to a good start for a story or what?! Despite having lived in North Florida for 30+ years, I still miss the the tropical wilds of my youthful exploring -- Florida Bay, the Keys, and the Everglades. I relished the journey home.
Knowing that it may be most challenging, we began our first morning on some promising grass flats in the Bay. Fishing buddies said live shrimp should draw in some sharks, so Mac, camera ready, tied a net sack of shrimp on his belt and jumped in, while Garl, who could spot anything that moved within a hundred yards, kept watch from the boat. Meanwhile, I snorkeled over to a small nearby mangrove key to see what I could find.
Mangrove Snappers! What did I expect?!
Actually, the stilt-rooted red mangroves housed a myriad of creatures, from fish to lobsters, from sponges to sea anemones, and so much more ... a nursery and safe haven just teeming with life. The school of snappers followed me around as I explored the underwater jungle.
Meanwhile overhead, a small flock of Magnificent Frigatebirds circled lazily above their nests in the boughs of the mangroves. That beachless "inaccessible-looking" island is home to an amazing amount of wildlife.
After awhile - no sharks in sight - we moved on to another island with deeper water around it. There was eye-popping sealife wrapping each dangling mangrove root. I tried my best to make some photos showing the drama, beauty, and habitat.
Hours had passed and still no sharks. I began to console Mac, suggesting that he consider alternative creatures that live on the seagrass beds. Here's Mac making some test shots on a young lobster... as drama goes, a sorry substitute for a shark, even I had to admit. I knew Mac wasn't going to stop short of a shark.
The guide in Garl was also sticking to Plan A. His innate gps led him snorkeling a little further afield... and soon we heard Garl calling - "Shark!" We raced over and there in a sand patch (think: like a golfing sand trap) were not one, but three sharks ranging from 3 to 5 feet. As they cruised up over the grass flat, Mac got his shot! You'll see it in his book.
Toward the end of the day, we headed to a favorite sunset spot. A nursery of young mangrove-islands-to-be. We could only get so close in the boat because of the shallow water, but the field of mangroves was enticingly lovely... and treacherous.
Wading barefoot through knee-deep saltwater carrying a tripod and camera is risky enough, but as we got closer, our legs plunged deeper and deeper into the mud. Extracting one leg required driving the other one deeper. More accurately than "wading", you'd call it lurching and struggling and trying to keep upright. At least it was good exercise. I made it to the nearest little mangrove and took root beside it... stuck firmly to above my knees. I could still barely reach the camera controls, but wanted it up at normal level so it looked down on the tree. I made this one photo and felt very grateful to make it back to the boat without any catastrophes.
That wide open beauty of sea and sky never fails to awe me. Many open-water shots later, I chose a couple details (above) to show the magic, rather than a panorama.
Mac's friends, Jerry and Linda Lorenz, graciously hosted us in their very cool conch house in Tavernier. A shower and bed never felt better... though short-lived. Up early, we were to meet Garl at 6 AM to head into Everglades National Park proper.
Mac needed underwater shots of the periphyton that is ubiquitous in the shallow waters of the Everglades. This multi-organism mixture that grows on underwater surfaces creates a fantasyland (by some people's measure) as the water levels rise and warm in summer. Garl knew of a place in Nine Mile Pond to find some "great green gobs" of mature stuff. A 20 minute paddle led us to a shallow open area filled with periphyton. Mac was in his element. I have to say, it was pretty surreal swimming through it.
We re-loaded the kayaks and Garl then took us to one of his favorite cypress domes. Driving down the main road in the Everglades, these domes appear as interesting tree islands in the "river of grass", but not many visitors would think to pull over and slog right into them. There is no dry land, at least not in summer. Just cool clear water, knee deep or so, flowing around the buttressed bases of cypress trees, which are adorned in orchids, ferns, lichens, mosses, and bromeliads. That is, a Swamp. A mysterious, enchanting, beautiful swamp.
Setting gear down in a swamp takes getting creative. Cypress knees make pretty good hangers.
Butterfly orchids were bountiful (below, and 3 photos above). As were cowhorns (2 photos above.)
Oh, and owls too... barred owls. Pals of Garl's.
I made a couple attempts at photographing the fish's eye view, but mostly I was drawn to the air-scapes above.
And I loved the artforms. The tilandsia - an epiphyte or airplant - lent opportunity for artistic interpretation.
Amazingly, we made it back to Key Largo in time to hop in the boat for another sunset tour of the Bay. We were joined by National Geographic wildlife videographer Zoltan Torok and Garl's wonderful dog, River. Mac was the guide on this journey and took us far and wide across Florida Bay. We stopped at one spot along the edge of a natural cut through the seagrass to try some fishing. Garl hooked into some nice fish in no time, but the biting flies were ferocious and drove us away.
At another spot, we noticed many spiny lobsters crawling across the sea grass around our boat.... in broad daylight. They are usually out only at night unless they are marching during a migration. Very strange. While Mac and I tried to make photos of them, it was all we could do to keep River from leaping into the water to "fetch" them.
That night, we feasted at Dillons Pub & Grill with a big group of Mac's old pals, including Jerry and Linda. The next day I dropped Mac off at the Ft. Lauderdale airport (he recently moved to South Carolina) and I headed for home, satiated for now by smorgasbord of Everglades delights.