Sunday, April 22, 2012

Shoals, Shuttles, and Mississippiensis

I was awakened at 04:00 Friday morning by Craig's voice coming from outside.  He was talking to someone and given the hour, I was somewhat concerned.  I found him on the bottom step of the transom, carrying on a conversation with three bottle nosed dolphins.  He was asking where they were from, and they in turn were squeaking and stuttering back.  Here in the historical city of St. Augustine, the channel current is as high as two knots.  The dolphins were swimming along in it staying just behind our moored boat.  They were still around when we came out for breakfast.

We have seen dolphins all along the ICW as it shifts from densely populated narrow canals, where we can see into houses, to people-free and bird filled islands along shallow shoals.  We keep a diligent watch on our depth meter.

Motoring past one of the canal homes

As we pulled into our anchorage at Melbourne, we brushed an uncharted shoal and were therefore careful the next morning to avoid it although another anchored boat narrowed our route.  We were close to the Kennedy Space Center and I had hoped we would see the much publicized flight of the space shuttle Discovery being ferried on a 747 to Washington.  At dawn and just I was taking us between the other boat and shoal, I saw the 747 and her military escort heading straight towards us.  I yelled at Craig who had just raised the anchor and he scrambled back to the helm as I promptly deserted it for a photo.  She turned right ahead of us and flew up the waterway.     

We anchored overnight along the way at Titusville and Daytona and are waiting out some severe storms for a few days at St. Augustine.  Although the city is filled with great historical buildings and excellent restaurants, our favourite site is the Alligator Farm.  We wanted to learn more about the alligators we've seen along the way...
American Alligator (Mississippiensis) we watched in a lagoon at Cape Canaveral

and reluctantly attended, expecting a zoo with a few caged crocs.  We ended up the last visitors to leave at closing time at this alligator and crocodile conservation centre and plan to return again for a full day.  It is a research site for scientists from all over the world and holds all 23 species of crocodiles and alligators.  Walking in was a journey back in time as we realized these creatures shared the swamps with the dinosaurs.  Crocs and alligators make up the order Crocodylia, with only 2 of the 23 species identified as alligators.  The species Mississippiensis or American Alligator is the one we see in our travels here and there were over 100 in the centre.

This is how alligators spend their days: perfectly still to try to retain heat.

Feeding of a magnificent Salt Water Crocodile
We attended presentations, read scientific articles and information plaques, and saw all shapes, sizes, and colours of crocs and alligators:
Mugger Crocodile (Asia)

Indian Gharial

Flap at the back of the throat enabling it to eat underwater
An interesting phenomenon resulting from the centre is the congregation of hundreds of birds in the trees lining the alligator swamp.  They are nesting right above the alligators because it is safe from racoons and rodents.  It is noisy and busy with the chatter of newly hatched chicks and their parents fighting for space in the crowded trees.  We have seen flashes of pink as Rosette Spoonbills have flown by our boat and were thrilled to get close-up of a female feeding her young.

Roseatte Spoonbill and young
We had wondered why we were seeing wading birds fishing right next to alligators in our travels along the coast.  Scientists believe that the birds are able to sense if an alligator is hungry so they will share the waters when there isn't a threat.  We are much more of a threat to alligators than they are to us and they don't see us as food.  Locals we've talked to appreciate their importance to the ecosystem and are not afraid of them.  The centre has been around for over 80 years and staff are working hard to dispel myths and educate us about these ancient animals.  

Having said all that, Craig has the last word.  "I wonder if it matters if my kayak smells like fish."

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Phone Post

We are en route on the ICW so this brief post comes from my phone. We finally left Vero Beach to continue our cruise along the ICW. Anchored outside of Melbourne last night and Titusville tonight. See Our Location for our SPOT coordinates. The waterway is much quieter than we had thought for boat traffic but continues its wildlife extravaganzaby dolphins, pelicans, and manatees. We pulled up anchor this morning just in time to see the Shuttle Discovery ferrying on her 747 and both flying straight at us. Exciting to see her. More on a full blog entry this weekend entitled Shuttles and Shoals.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Space and Sea

Here I am with my hero, Captain Wendy Lawrence.  She is only seven days older than I am and has already been to space four times.  I haven't made it there once yet.  Captain Lawrence flew on the first space shuttle mission following the shuttle Columbia tragedy in 2003.  During her talk that we attended at Kennedy Space Center, she described the obsessiveness of their checks and rechecks as they responded to recommendations that came from the explosion analysis, particularly as they related to the heat shield tiles on the bottom of the orbiter.  Once the mission was finally launched and in spite of their diligence, she and the rest of the crew discovered a scenario they hadn't planned for in checking and repairing damaged tiles.  They had to improvise in space.  Improvisation was a prevailing theme throughout all of the tours we took through rocket and missile exhibits, accounts of all of the missions, and remains of launch pads.  During the final few seconds of descent to the moon, Neil Armstrong didn't like what he saw for a landing surface.  He took manual control of the module as it was speeding along at hundreds of miles per hour and with 15 seconds of fuel left, touched down 3 miles away from the planned site.  I wonder what would have happened if the terrain hadn't smoothed out.  After decades of planning and construction by thousands of people, his landing came down to a great deal of skill and a good amount of luck.   As we toured the Center for a mere 2 days (we needed a week) I could see parallels between space travel and sailing.  Both require skill, luck, and improvisation.  My sailing hero, Dan Cross, adds patience to the list.  We watched some footage of astronauts trying to repair the Hubble telescope in space.  After 8 hours out there in the dark in -200 degree temperatures and tethered to the shuttle, they were almost defeated by a stuck bolt.  It finally came loose but then they couldn't get a handle off that was in the way.  They decided to just break it off.  Billions of dollars, the top scientists in the world working in outer space, and the only solution was to break it off.  Good sailors are also incredible improvisers and I have the privilege of sailing with a master.  We have also been stymied by stuck bolts and Craig has lost a fingernail because of one.  We joke about gum and twist ties but we really don't laugh.  I wonder what the oddest space improvisation has been.

Hubble has sent back images from as far as 10 billion light years away (Hubble website).  Its information stretches and warps our ideas about distance, temperatures, size, and time.  As Craig observed, the images of galaxies reminded him of the structures of molecules.  We are part of a web that is part of another web to infinity.  This is what attracts me to both outer space and the ocean.  I am also challenged to pay attention, to question what I take for granted, and to be a creative problem solver.   I imagine these were the attractions for Captain Lawrence as she contemplated a career as an astronaut.  She's been to space but I don't think she's sailed from Buenos Aires to Florida.  
Mercury capsule
Saturn V Rocket
I thought my kayaking days were over without full use of my left wrist.  In spite of surgery, it remains inflamed and inflexible.  I was therefore delighted when we discovered the Hobie Mirage, a foot peddle model that allows me to paddle and/or peddle.  I am thrilled to be back on the water again and it is also inflatable for easy storage.  With mine and Craig's new Advanced Element inflatable kayak, we plan to spend the next few weeks exploring the mangroved islands and creeks off of the Intra Coastal Waterway as we make our way to North Carolina.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Still in Vero Beach

Great Blue Heron
Cue the Hinterland music theme
In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt designated Pelican Island as the first National Wildlife Refuge in the United States.   It is 12 miles from where we are moored in Vero Beach, Florida.  We've rented a car to spend as much time as we can there, in between munching on hotdogs at spring training Major League baseball games.  This 10 cm long Golden Silk blocked the path on one of our park walks with her 1 metre wide web which has natural ant repellent in it.   She wasn't poisonous to us but we weren't prepared to test the strength of her web.   One of these in Australia fed on small sparrows.

Golden Silk Orbweaver

Pelican Island Wildlife Refuge

Great Southern White Butterfly

Double Crested Cormorant

The cormorants spend a lot of time drying their wings to make it easier for them to take off.  They are great swimmers but flying isn't as easy and they flap around the pond several times before lifting off.  End Hinterland music.  Craig reminded me that the only alligator we've seen was in a pond next to a Home Depot and we saw this pair of Sandhill Cranes with their young in the movie theatre parking lot.  It seems Roosevelt forgot about the need to market the Refuge to the animals.

Staying still suites us for now.  We have temperatures in the high 80's with cool nights, and new kayaks on order to help us further explore the swamps and islands of the Intra Coastal Waterway.  Other boats are coming and going on a daily basis as they make the seasonal trek back to the north.  Not Alberta Crewed.  We are so lazy that we book the septic tank pump boat to come out to us, and will need a big set of bolt cutters to get us off of this mooring ball next week.