Get Your Hike On This Fall in Florida

With the start of the new fall season, comes crisper weather and bluer skies in Florida.  Although the leaves won’t change as drastically as those northern states (and by northern, we Floridians mean Georgia and above), this time of year is reminiscent of Thanksgiving, pumpkins, cider and, of course, the great outdoors.

apalachicola

Courtesy of holidaytripper.com

One great way to get in touch with a nature-loving, tree-hugging, leaf-crunching side is taking advantage of the hiking trails that vein out throughout the Florida landscape.

Below I describe four different trails from 4 different regions in the state below.  These areas include Northwest, Northeast, Central and South Florida, so your neck of the woods won’t be left un-explored!

Northwest:  Enjoy a serene hike through a swampland on higher ground where one doesn’t need to worry about getting their boots wet and soggy.  Apalachicola National Forest is just a short drive from the capitol in Tallahassee and entrance into this park is free!  The 1.2 mile loop is known as the Camel Lake Loop despite the “Camel Lake” being more a pond.

Sweetwater Preserve

Courtesy of Floridahikes.com

Northeast:  Grab your furry friend and hit the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail in Sweetwater Preserve because this hiking adventure permits dogs!  Just on the northern edge of Payne’s Prairie, a location of historic cattle drives across Florida, this trail is 2 miles long and is also great for novice to intermediate mountain bikers.  Check out this trail map for more info!

The Senator

Courtesy of jonathanturley.org

Central: If you ever find yourself in Seminole County packing a pair of hiking boots, be sure to stop by Big Tree Park.  The area is iconic to a 129 foot cypress tree dubbed fondly as, “The Senator,” which is among one of the oldest in the U.S.  Unfortunately, the natural giant was cut short during a 1925 hurricane but the park has been reopened and another tree planted in memory of this beautiful giant’s stature.  Although this trail is short at .3 miles, it is an emerald example of Central Florida’s natural beauty.

key biscayne

Courtesy of tripadvisor.com

South:  If you are ever down in Key Biscayne with a passion for salty sea air and a brisk hike with a lighthouse view, check out Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park.  The 1.5 mile hiking trail offers a unique view of the funky, above-water shack of Stiltsville.  On the way to the Cape Florida Lighthouse and the marina, several nature areas bisect the trail.

As you enjoy hot apple pies with melting vanilla ice cream, football rivalries, warm hues of orange and gold, remember a great way to stay active during this beautiful season is to enjoy some swamp-side, beachside and naturally Florida trails.

The Lion’s Share: Florida’s Lionfish Problem

Courtesy of the FWC, lionfish

Courtesy of the FWC 

A University of Florida researcher sees no end in sight for the eradication of the invasive fish in Florida waters that has been taking a lion’s share of reef habitats.

Tom Frazer, professor and interim director of the school of natural resources and environment, was published in this year’s issue of Reviews in Fisheries Science that shows troublesome lionfish may never be removed from Florida’s coastline reefs but may be kept under control in targeted areas. 

 

Frazer’s research took place on Little Cayman Island with the Central Caribbean Marine Institute based out of Princeton University.  The group studied the threats posed by lionfish to the reefs there such as eating native fishes and potentially reducing biodiversity in the ecosystem, he said. 

 

The spiny, ornate lionfish were identified off the coast of Florida in the 1980s, Frazer said.  Since then, they have skyrocketed in numbers and have now spread to Caribbean and South American waters as well as the Gulf of Mexico. 

 

The creatures were first seen within Bloody Bay Marine Park on Little Cayman Island in 2008, he said.

 

The research done by Frazer’s team off Little Cayman Island was conducted over several months in 2011.  The group measured and dissected the stomachs of lionfish removed off of 11 reef sites by local dive masters, he said. 

 

Voracious and venomous predators, these fish victimize valuable juveniles of native species such as grouper and snapper, he said. 

 

The dissection was done to find whether bigger lionfish have different diets than the smaller, he said.  Frazer’s research shows that smaller lionfish eat shrimp, a much less economically valuable resource. 

 

The reason lionfish are such a threat to the reef ecosystems is they are prolific breeders, Frazer said.  A mature female has the ability to lay tens of thousands of eggs every two to three days.

The growth rate of lionfish is so quick that scientists struggle to study them before maturity. 

 

Adults have no known predators, Frazer said. 

 

The REEF Headquarters director of special projects, Lad Akins, said derbies have been held throughout Florida in an attempt to keep the lionfish population under control.  In these competitions, divers and snorkelers try to catch as many fish as possible in a given time frame using spears or nets.

 

This year’s tournament in Key Largo hosted 11 teams that brought in 461 lionfish, he said.  The largest of the fish was 410 millimeters long.  Prizes were given for the most fish caught, the largest and the smallest.

 

The event was September 8. 

 

Akins added the effort to maintain control of the lionfish population in Florida and Caribbean waters must be sustained over time in order to work. 

 

Similar derbies have been hosted in Palm Beach and Broward counties, according to the REEF Headquarters website. 

 

In a phone interview, Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission public information specialist

Amanda Nalley said the possibility of completely eliminating lionfish is unlikely because they swim to depths that prevent divers from capturing them.  

Because of the increase in lionfish numbers, a temporary change has been made in the regulations for lionfish fishing, she said.  The change allows non-licensed divers to go after the species as long as they use equipment approved by the FWC such as pole spears, Hawaiian slings or other lionfish-specific devices. 

 

The limit for unregulated fish is two fish or 100 pounds per day, whichever is more. 

 

Commercial fish harvesters have no such limit but must report their catch, Nalley added.  These harvesters are also helping the cause by going after lionfish even if the fish are a by-catch caught along with their commercial game.  Lionfish can weigh up to 2.6 pounds. 

 

“I think that in order to make a significant impact on lionfish the effort will have to be sustained for a very long period of time and I’m hoping that, when we identify the locations that are most important, we can allocate the resource that is needed through that effort,” Frazer said.

Dolphins plus at Dolphins Plus

When the South turns back into the North again, the water eventually clears crystalline and brings you to the first welcoming island of the Caribbean, Key Largo, where Dolphin Plus introduces their favorite porpoises for the purpose of making friends.

The agency commits its time to the conservation and protection of marine mammals through educational programs including individual swims for their clients with the dolphins on location. Although the experiences offered come at a cost, Dolphin Plus works hand-in-hand with the Marine Mammal Conservancy which dedicates research to marine mammals internationally.

Sea lions are also present on-location.

The Marine Mammal Center’s website states dolphins are in the classification, cetaceans, which means “toothed whales” that range between five and 60 feet in length. There are 73 known species of porpoises including the bottle-nose dolphin and the sperm whale.

Dolphins use ecolocation to identify objects and other creatures in their environments. The sound travels to the nearest solid objects and bounces back to indicate the placement of the animals’ surroundings.

It is believed that millions of years ago, cetaceans lived on land but evolved fins and tails upon moving into their aquatic environment. Dolphins are closely related to hippopotamuses.

With the education provided by staff at Dolphins Plus, swimmers can make their experiences memorable in interacting with the 11 dolphins on the premises.

Johanna Phillips describes the experience of swimming with dolphins as “amazing.” Her opportunity to visit the dolphins was an undergraduate graduation present from her parents.

“It was so much fun swimming with the dolphins in the “natural swim” where the interactions are up to the dolphins,” the 22-year-old University of Florida veterinary student said. “If they didn’t feel like playing, they didn’t have to.”

According to Phillips, swimming on the side of the body and making eye contact with the marine mammals would allow you to swim next to them. She swam with five dolphins.

“It was one of the most incredible interactions I’ve ever had with animals,” she said.

Dolphin-enthusiasts are encouraged to engage theirselves in Dolphin Plus’s dolphin education programs which range in price and are available to individuals of all ages including the Marine Biologist for a Day and Dolphin Body Language Workshop.

Swimming with dolphin experiences start at $195 for a 45-minute swim but cost more depending on the program chosen.

For more information about dolphin swims at Dolphins Plus, visit their company website at http://www.dolphinsplus.com/.

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