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."

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