I remember being out on the water with my family. I was three, and my father would place my hands on the leather boat wheel, empowering me to believe that I was steering. As I grew older, my dad showed me how to spot fish from ripples on the lake surface and how bobbers would move when fish were nipping at the bate. He taught me how to set a hook and clean a fish. We spent hours fishing, but in actuality, he spent hours teaching me to be patient, to observe nature, and to respect nature.
So it felt all the more appropriate for us to go on a fishing trip during my visit in January. We took a charter out to Lover’s Key near Estero Bay and dropped our lines several feet away from the mangroves.
Florida is home to several mangrove species, including the red, black, white, and buttonwood mangrove, and each type of mangrove can be located at different areas along the coastline. Mangroves have unique adaptations, including the ability to tolerate and filter salt water. The leaves of the black mangrove contain dense hairs that deposit salt, ridding the tree of excess salt that has yet to be excreted by the roots. Because of this process, early settlers once collected salt from these leaves.
The bridge between land and sea that are created by mangroves are among the most complex ecosystems observed today, housing birds in their canopies, binding shellfish to their roots, and offering a habitat for crocodiles, snakes, and fish. Additionally, mangroves act as nursing grounds for a plethora of fish and are a food source for mollusks, crabs, and insects. Also, the hardy trunks of mangroves offer protection for a great number of coastal cities during storms and hurricanes. A single hectare of mangroves has been valued to be worth $20,000 each year, contributing to coastal protection and fisheries, which is why mangroves are so fervently protected along Florida’s coastline.
It was a cold and windy day, so my mother bundled up. In contrast, my father wore his wide-brimmed hat to protect his face from the sun. She looked like a colorful Eskimo doll, and he looked like a tour-guide from the African Serengeti, and that disparity in itself was picture-worthy. We bated our hooks and watched flocks of pelicans take flight as we waited for the tension in our lines.
My mother caught a Sheepshead within minutes of setting anchor, but the rest of the day was rather quiet. Along the docks we caught a handful of Mangrove Snapper, but they were too small to keep. Cranes, pelicans, and several ibises stood perched at the root base of the mangrove islands and watched us as our lines skipped in the waves.
In our stillness, we were accompanied by a pod of dolphins swimming within the bay. They put on a grand and rare show for us leaping into the air and and bow-riding in the wake of our waves. As the day progressed and the clouds darkened, we made our way back to the docks. We cleaned our fish as dozens of pelicans and seagulls waited for the scraps, hovering inches from my face.
The following day we met Tim and Erik, environmental conservationists and biologists from Manatee Guides. What I thought would be a simple kayak trip became a manatee encounter mixed with an environmental conservation lesson, sprinkled with stand-up comedy – my family and I loved it! Tim and Erik were remarkably passionate about manatee safety, education, and conservation efforts, and I soon grew to understand why.
During the winter months, manatees migrate closer to the Florida coast to warmer temperatures. Because of this, there are often increased numbers of collisions with boats and propellers, as manatees often recover from cold winters in shallow water. Fishing lines, fertilizers (used to kill unwanted water plants), and flood gates can also create health and safety problems for manatees, which is why their protection and conservation is so vital. This is also why the recent proposal to reclassify the West Indian Manatee from endangered to threatened is so poorly founded, as the downlisting proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) does not include viable plans for reducing mortality rates.
The manatees were graceful, quiet, and remarkably placid. Several of them had barnacles on their skin, evidence that they migrated from the Atlantic. A mother and her calf surfaced several feet away from me, first appearing as looming gray clouds beneath the water. On several occasions the gentle giants peered up at me just beneath the surface, and I was able to make out their features and paddle-shaped tail fluke. The gentleness in their approach will be something that stays with me, and I have a new-found respect for their beauty. Happy reading!
For more information about Manatee Guides and Manatee Conservation.
NOTE: All blog posts, articles, and photographs are the intellectual and creative property of Melissa J. Koziol. Thank you for reading!