Sunday, March 23, 2014

Day 5 - Saturday 3/22/14: Kayaking in the Mangroves and Airboat ride in the Everglades

Another late night but luckily we were able to sleep until 7 am, which helped, but it was still hard to get up.  After finishing packing we headed down to the breakfast room for some food.  This morning they had sausage, egg and cheese biscuits – yum!
By 8:15am we were all on the bus with our entire luggage loaded and ready to head to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park for our kayaking excursion with the Florida Outfitter’s guides. First we were given our life vests and paddles and then Sam – the main guide for the day – did the mandatory safety instructions and a basic training on how to paddle a kayak.  We found our “exit buddies” or kayaking buddies and divided up into three groups each launching in intervals.  While kayaking we learned all about the importance of the Mangroves to the Florida coastline and all of the animals that depend on the Mangroves for nurseries for their young, for habitat and for food.  We learned that there are three different kinds of Mangroves – black, red and white – red being the one most common where we were. As we paddled through the small, narrow canals and learned how to navigate the kayaks we also were able to see and learn about fire sponge, Cassiopeia jellyfish, sea cucumbers, star fish, and many other organisms.  Despite a few small rain showers everyone seamed to have enjoyed themselves tremendously.

Lunch at D.J. Diner and seafood grill was next on the agenda.  What a great place and what great service.  Within 15 minutes of our arrival we were all seated and had our food in front of us.  Chicken breast salads, BLTs, hamburgers and chicken fingers all tasted so great after our busy and fun morning.

Now it was time to head to the Everglades Safari Park for our final activity of the trip – an airboat ride through the Everglades to learn and experience more about this unique and one of a kind ecosystem.  Time was a little tight and fortunately they were able to get our rides started earlier than scheduled.  We were divided into two different airboats and off we went.  With in just a few minutes we encountered our first wildlife – an alligator sunning itself and a turtle looking funny sticking all his legs out.  We were told this was done by the turtle to keep his balance so he would not roll down the hill into the water.  The airboats now picked up some speed to take us out a little further.  The next time we stopped we were informed that the Everglades is actually a very slow moving river not a swamp as many people thing.  It actually moves 1/4 mile per day.  There are lots of different types of vegetation and wild life in the Everglades in addition to the alligators and turtles.  There are lots of different types of plants and fish.  We also got to see several other alligators and some were baby alligator – 6 months old or so.  As the ride concluded there was a small museum where we learned more about the different types of snakes, turtles and fish found in the everglades.  The tanks in the museum had a red snake/corn snake, a full-grown ball python, several rat snakes and some tiny, tiny turtles.

 Once back on the bus Kristen had us all sit back and close our eyes as she recapped the trip for us.  She brought us back to Tuesday morning when we first arrived and then went through all the activities and special events we had experienced all week.  Before we knew it we pulled in at the airport and it was time to gather our things and head on in to the US Airways terminal to check in. Our fear that it was going to take a long time to get us all checked in, were far from true.  The boarding passes had been printed out earlier in the day and within 25 minutes everyone’s had their luggage tagged and checked. Wow!! This place knows how to be efficient and take care of their customers.  Next was security and once again we got special treatment and were sent through the line where we did NOT have to take off our shoes, or take out our laptops.  It was fast, painless and efficient.  Awesome.  This gave us plenty of time to get dinner and enjoy it in a leisurely time before it was time to board the plane. The 2 hr flight went well and when we landed our 27 first time fliers in our group had become very experienced flyers.  Our luck continued and our bus was on time and already waiting when we got to the baggage pickup.  Usually everyone falls asleep our on the bus ride home, but not this group.  They were louder than ever and seamed to have got a second surge of energy.  Really!  At JFH all of our parents and siblings were waiting as we arrived.  Some had even made “Welcome home” signs.  

Friday, March 21, 2014

Day 4 - Friday 3/21/14 Dolphin Cove and Coral Reef Snorkeling

Our day started at 6:30 am and everyone was thankful for the extra two hours of sleep!   Our first activity for the day would take place at Dolphins Cove where we all swam and interacted with dolphins.  We had an instructional session before our group was divided into two smaller groups.  One group headed for the classroom to learn how to train animals and the other group was suited up with flotation vests to go swim with the Dolphins.  Those that were swimming were asked to divide into smaller groups of 4 or 6 before going into the water.  Each small group was able to interact with 2 dolphins.  We rubbed their bellies, scratched their backs, did hand shakes, kissed them and held hoops for the dolphins to jump through.  We also were pushed on our backs and stomachs by the dolphins and finally go a ride back to the dock by holding onto their dorsal fins.  This was probably by far the most exciting activity we have had all week!  The students were full of “That was awesome” and “That was so cool”!

Around noon we loaded the bus and headed to the Pilot House for lunch.  While there we celebrated Tristan’s birthday with cake. We got to sit down and enjoy a wonderful lunch of cheeseburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, chicken tenders, fish sticks and chicken salads. The atmosphere was cool and the service was great. After lunch we headed to a Bird Wild Life Sanctuary where we meet two very funny parrots - Pickles and Fredricka - along with lots of other birds. We also found crab spiders and tasted an edible plant called purslane. The area by the water was beautiful.

We now had about 30 minutes to go back to the hotel and repack our bags for our afternoon activity – Snorkeling at the White Banks Dry Rocks Coral Reef about 7 miles off of the coast in the Atlantic Ocean. Again we got fitted for wet suits however this time they were short sleeved and everyone agreed that they were much easier to put on! During the boat ride to the reef everyone was given their floating device, mask, flippers and snorkel gear along with instructions on how to snorkel, what to do and what marine life we could expect to see.  The first mate and captain stressed to everyone how important it was to NOT touch the coral. Once we were in the very clear and calm, very aqua blue and somewhat warm water, the short swim to the reef proved to be extremely rewarding.  Since this was an Atlantic Ocean reef the colors were somewhat subdued with more gray, brown, green and some purple. What color the reef lacked was easily made up in all the many different species of tropical fish – Smooth Trunkfish(black and yellow). We also saw sea turtles, barracudas, brain coral, stingrays, sea urchins, sand dollars and a group of squid.  The 90 minutes in the water went by very fast and before we knew it the siren went off and it was time to return to the boat. What a spectacular time we all had. 

We all enjoyed a quick shower and a wonderful dinner of pizza, pasta and salad from Tower of Pizza before we boarded the bus for our evening excursion – A Night Walk in the Everglades. This activity required us to use our senses of hearing and night vision (with some help from flashlights) to make observations of the wildlife in the park at night. It’s amazing what you can hear if you just stop talking and listen - fish jumping, crickets, other insects, and every now and then an alligator feeding.  If you stopped and shone the flashlight out over the water we could see sets of red reflective eyes in the distance.  At one place there must have been at least 15-20 alligators hanging out.  Gradually they began moving closer to us.  Most of the alligators probably were 6-8 feet, but we saw an alligator that must have been at least 12-14 feet long.  He is probably a pretty old guy.  We also took some time to observe the night sky.  With such a clear night we were able to see lots and lots of stars and we enjoyed locating a few of the constellations.  What a cool experience.
Back on the bus we settled in for the ride back and continued watching Finding Nemo – an all time favorite.   What a great end to such a great day.  It is so hard to believe that tomorrow is our last day here.  Tomorrow we will enjoy some kayaking in the Mangroves and also take a ride in an air-boat in the Everglades.