Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Endings and Beginnings

This is to be my last blog entry from the Florida Keys for this season. It is never easy for me to leave behind new friends and new experiences, but I'm also always anxious to explore and enjoy find something different. Part of me wishes I could remain here to build on friendships and keep exploring the islands and life around me, as just today I had another first life-experience: my first sighting of the rare white-crowned pigeon.

Tonight, my boss had our farewell dinner for our group in Marathon at a nice pub overlooking the water. She was just finishing up with several conferences and we just had our last day sweeping public lands for invasive plants. An Americorps crew from Boston U. were there to, so we thanked them for their hard work on the lower keys and Crane Point, and wished them well on their next venture in Mississippi working on hurricane rehab projects. Alison shared some really bad jokes, and we told stories of coon bear, zombie-pythons, and other Keys-ish topics.

This past weekend was a blur, as my parents came in for a visit. We did 5 dives off Marathon on Saturday, visiting Flagler's Barge, Sombrero Gardens, and Sombrero Reef. We saw lots of lobsters, moray eels, and the bewildering variety of reef fishes. Some highlights were seeing tight clusters of basket stars napping in the daylight on purple gorgonians, a tiny baby filefish hiding on a rope sponge, and a rock beauty that would only swim upside down on the bottom of Flagler's Deck. The night dive is always fun, and we fed the coral by shining our light over the coral head to draw the plankton into the coral's tentacles. The next day, we woke up early for another 3 dives at Looe Key. We saw lots of midnight-blue parrotfish, a dolphin, sea turtles, and a reef shark.
Tomorrow is our last day at work: the morning I will present our year-in-review report, and in the afternoon, the director is taking us out on a boat trip! After that, it will be a night of packing and partying. It's hard to believe that this time last year, I had just made the decision to change careers.

I'll try to update this blog again next week, after I'm home and hopefully with some news about my next adventure. I have applied to many new job opportunities, so who knows where I'll end up next? I could be in Yellowstone chasing after river otters, or flying over the Oregon coastline observing terns and cormorants, or killing invasive plants in Washington, or studying fire ecology in Utah... among other dreams.

I look forward to being home again and catching up with old friends and family, and I wish all my friends from the Keys a farewell until we meet again!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Of Rabbitats & Red Cards

The Nature Conservancy receives grant money to treat both public and private lands, and some owners of private lands are very appreciative of our work. We've met a few hospitable owners who have treated us to frosty sodas, but what was really amazing was when the owner of Sundance cruise invited the Strike Force and two Americorps crew aboard their huge catamaran for an exciting sail out from Key West to Sand Key. The wind was really blowing, and we reached 14 knots! Move, zig! There was some 2-4' swells, so a few folks began turning green while snorkeling at the reef. Visibility was also reduced, and the shallow reef did not have much living coral. There were large schools of yellowtail snapper, and lots of parrotfish.

This week began our basic wildland fire training. It is a week long course for the S-130/S-190 certification, which is called a "red card". A lot of the course is reviewing real scenarios that ended in tragedy and understanding how to avoid them. What I found interesting are two misconceptions I had about dangerous fire situations: huge burns are safer because the fire behavior is more predicable, and more wildland fire fighter fatalities occur from falling trees and aircraft crashes than from the fire directly.

The folks being trained were from the Key Deer National Wildlife refuge, local fire department, and the Nature Conservancy. Wildfires on the keys are very rare, so the training is more to build up a strong force to assist with the upcoming prescribed burns that the refuge biologists will conduct to restore habitat for the Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit... what they like to call "rabbitat".

After studying up on concepts, we prepared our tools and Fire Line Packs for a field day of practice, which was conducted at a real wildfire burn area on Big Pine Key called Thunderstruck 2. I was selected to be Squad Boss , which meant lugging around this radio harness in addition to the line pack and tool. We established a control line around a simulated burn, and even had our lunch of MRE's rudely interrupted by a radio call to chase after spotfires that had crossed our perimeter. Then we had to make way for a simulated tanker drop, and then roll out hose to mop up the burned areas.

Also during the week, my friends threw me a nice birthday party; excellent food and wonderful companionship made for a very fun and memorable evening. I can't believe my time here is running out! Just one more week and then I'm gone, so there's much to do until then. Tomorrow, I'm meeting my folks in marathon for a fun day of scuba diving.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

I See a Manatee!

Serendipity comes in many forms. Originally, we had been prepared to go on a snorkel trip with the marine team last Thursday to monitor Staghorn coral "plantings" off Key Largo, but high winds can stir up the sediments, reducing the visibility such that the trip was canceled. I was dissappointed. Not to be deterred by Nature, we tried again on Friday with a fun cruise on the Bahia Honda Park's boat. Right before boarding the boat, we saw this huge manatee poking her head up in the canal. This was my first time to see one, and I was excited. At first, it was a game of hide and seek, since mats of seagrass and the boat were hiding her. Then she came out in the open, and we gave her a drink of fresh water, which she greatly appreciated. It's always a great day when you can check off an endangered species of charismatic megafauna from your lifelist!

After that, luck changed once again. The boat was late leaving the dock because they replaced one of the propellers, but shortly after passing under the old bridge, the prop flew off. The boat took us back ashore, so I just went to the edge of the beach, put on my gear and swam out till I was content. Nearshore, there are little meadows of seagrass beds. On the edges are lots of juvenile fish trying to take shelter along them. About 200 yards offshore, the seagrass turns into an expansive gorgonian flat that makes the swim worth it. Lots of octocorals, with many common reef fish swimming about, such as a scrawled cowfish and a large balloonfish. Also notable were many Rock-boring urchins hiding in the nooks n' crannies.

Hungry from a long afternoon, we had a tasty beer and sandwich at Rob's, and then returned to the house to visit with some friends who just returned from a fishing trip. We shared stories, caught some more fish, and then Topher and I stayed up late into the wee hours, going back to Rob's for some Red-headed drinks, and then back home for fishing in the canal... just not ready to let the fun end.

Ugh... I was desperate to get on a boat ride to a reef, so I struggled out of bed and Toto and I went off to Looe Key for a dive/snorkel trip. The water was cold, but helped keep me alert! Some reef sharks were there, and the biggest highlights were another Hawksbill Turtle let me swim along side him for a spell, and I saw a large school of midnight-blue parrotfish, which are an uncommon fish to see, and even more uncommon to see 17 in a school around the large coral heads. That evening was a trip to Key West for some evening entertainment. No rest for the weary!!!

This past week, we hooked up with the hardworking Americorps team again for another tough week of chainsaws & chippers. Volleyball monday night was really hard, since I was sleepy, tired, achy, and hungry. Tuesday night, we hit up Boondocks, a local tiki bar, for their qualifying rounds of karaoke. I got things started with an amazing rendition of "Times Like These", my first ever public singing performance. I think their mic was broke, since it didnt sound right. ;-p

Toto really lit up the floor with some amazing Billy Jean moves, and Lucky Charms sang some beautiful songs. Our group cheered them on from the tables, and then things got even more fun with group singing of Bohemian Rhapsody, Love Me Do, and Summer Nights. We returned the next night for the finals. Steve qualified as a wildcard entry, and all three of them ended up sweeping the prizes! Lucky won a trip to Jamaica, Steve a $50 coupon, and Toto a salon treatment. Very fun! Unfortunately, Topher became ill from a round of heat-exhaustion, so he's been recovering slowly.

Thurs night, we stayed up late to watch a film I wanted to see, "Into the Wild", which was very good. I was soooooo tired, but couldn't sleep after watching the movie that I went to nearby Spooky House (an unoccupied house that has an excellent view of the bay) and watched the stars, storms, and a shooting star as I let my thoughts ratchet down.

Last night was our going away celebration. The theme was to dress as an invasive species, so I was Coco Nuts. Also present was a bottle of Technu, the Humpback of Notre Dame, a couple of Tourons, a zebra-muscle, and a very invasive W. Bush... among other costumes. We floated a keg, jumped in the canal, and partied till 4am. There was awesome guitar playing by Randy, Bob, and Toto, and fun singing. Most of us jumped in the canal, one of my favorite passtimes here. We also saw a film-show of Lauren and Alison's Bahamian boarding attempt on a sunken vessel. My Strike Force was presented with certificates and a personalized photo montage, which was a really nice thought. The certificate reads: "The above named has successfully: assessed and treated over 1700 acres of pine rocklands, hardwood hammocks, refuge and private lands; mercilessly slaughtered over 150,000 exotic plants; held side jobs as mechanics, plumbers, chemists, GIS techs, foresters, garbage men, fire fighters, and teachers; travelled "several hundred feet without touching the ground"; endured inhumane hot temperatures and humidity; obscene amounts of walking and crawling, incessant oozing of poisonwood rashes, chaotic project logistics, ridiculously cool coworkers; a paucity of adequate hygienics, daunting exposure to ultraviolet radiation, and an inordinate preponderance of latin terminology. -- and for this, we are truly grateful."

So now it's another weekend... just one more weekend after this and I'm gone... there's no time for sleep! Party on, d00des!