Friday, March 28, 2008

Cayo Costa: Playing Slow

Some of the things I have enjoyed the most about staying on the island of Cayo Costa for the last month is the time to explore, learn, and create.
I had fun with my little camera. It fits in my pocket and it is not too expensive so I don't worry about taking it on the bicycle or kayak. Photography slows my pace so that I notice more about the world around me. Even if I don't know what something is, I may later look it up in a guidebook. If I do know what the subject is, I can look at it from different angles to study its form, texture, color, reflection, and how it all changes with the ambient light.

Can you figure out what I captured in the photo above?
I found this stingray washed up on the beach. There was still a gleam in its eye, probably a recent death.

This sea horse washed up too. It was still moving a little, but could not swim upright as it should. Isn't it an unusual form? Look at its tubular snout and prehensile tail. I used my hand as a scale and released the sea horse after taking this photo (another advantage of a tiny camera is that you can shoot with one hand).

One of the best things about Cayo Costa is the ability to move through nine different natural communities within a days walk. These prickly pear cacti are at home 300 feet from the Gulf shore.
I do have trouble capturing wildlife and birds with the small lens on my camera. I did get lucky one day (see the photo below). Look at the teeth on this strange tropical bird.

Not really. It's just a crab's claw. I don't mean " just". It's awesome what nature has designed.

One thing I didn't enjoy so much was sitting with the computer trying to install photos on this blog. You can see me at the "desk" behind the ranger station. The outdoor office was a breath of fresh air...but the slooooow connection really put me on island time, warping the logic of even attempting to connect with technology.

It has been a fast month playing at Cayo Costa. It's time to go. So long Cayo Costa! Maybe I'll come back and play, real slow, again next year.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Cayo Costa: Volunteer Work

Volunteering at Cayo Costa State Park in Florida for a month is fun and varied. It does not seem like work when I do things out of the routine of normal work and totally at will. Usually we were able to select our jobs. Above I am welcoming visitors to the island before I drive them from the dock to the beach on the tram.

Sometimes we pick up litter; by foot, bicycle, or as above, by kayak.

We help out with trail maintenance and sometimes clean cabins and bathrooms.

I enjoyed helping the state park post signs and rope off acres of beach to protect bird nesting areas. Above, Tom, Kathy, and I are on our way to a remote beach to help out. Some of the best parts about volunteering are all the wonderful people you meet and how much the staff appreciate the help.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Cayo Costa: Sea Wrack

Sea wrack. What the heck is sea wrack? Most beach goers avoid it like the toxic red tide. Sunbathers and shell collectors complain that it is smelly and want to see it raked up and removed.

That annoying scraggly line of debris along the high-tide mark, sea wrack, is an accumulation of seagrasses, algae, and animal remains which lie baking in the sun. This pile-up is a prime feeding place, alive with swarms of tiny amphipods, insects and larvae feeding on the weeds and stranded animal remains. Crabs and shorebirds forage here. I forage in the sea wrack too.

Yea, yea. I could walk the beach here at Cayo Costa, one of the best for shelling in the world, and find angel wings, sand dollars, coquinas and a godzillian more shells in a short walk, but look what I found in less than 10 linear feet of sea wrack. I'm not going to take them home and display them on a shelf or put them in a little basket in the bathroom. No, no. My little treasures are not going to collect dust. They will though, collect sun rays and sea spray until they return to dust.

This is a 10 inch conch shell encrusted with barnacles and nearly completely covered with something that looks like a white soft coral.

Isn't this color beautiful? I did some work with a naturalist who collects algae like this to make colorful sea art at home.

This coil looks like a snake skin. You can find dozens of these whelk (a gastropod similar to conch) egg cases on the beach or shores of the lagoon.

Next time you are at the beach, take a closer look through the sea urchins (below) and sea wrack. You'll find many fascinating things and can observe a world of activity within the debris. And it doesn't smell as bad as dumpster diving, I promise.

Cayo Costa: Kitchen Entomology

Anyone who loves bugs would have a field day in my camp kitchen. Look at the bug in the photo above flickering around in the corner of my kitchen tent. It looks big enough to have been banded by a biologist tracking its whereabouts. I'm not going to pretend to know what most of these visitors are, but they make it easy to find them.
So fellow naturalists, come to my camp kitchen. No walking, netting, or trapping needed. Just have a seat in my Cayo Costa kitchen. Take your shoes off, put your feet up, and watch what comes.

This 4 inch millipede gave me the creeps. It annoyed me even further when it pooped on my chair (or maybe it was annoyed that I wanted to use my chair and released its defense...foul smelling secretions.)
This chair is not the toilet, bud.

Look at this guy eyeing my bicycle through the screening. It made as much noise as gale-swept palm fronds in its attempt to get out.

These ants found my double-bagged homemade granola. I poured the granola on a white plate and shook it like an earthquake. The ants came marching out and I began munching again.
(hey, Cayo Costa doesn't have provisions, and I like my granola!)

Alright, who left the crumbs on my kitchen chair? At least these Palmetto bugs (that's what the Floridians call them...they hate to admit that they are just cockroaches) seem to be keeping the ants away. Damn, don't cockroaches just frequent dirty kitchens? Oh yea, my whole floor is dirt.

Well anyway, would you like to come to dinner next Tuesday?
And remind me to tell you to check your shoes before you put them on again. When I lifted mine, a lizard scurried out.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Cayo Costa: Transportation

As volunteers we are able to come to Cayo Costa on a Florida Park Service boat like the one pictured above. We hitch rides on it when we want to explore other nearby islands like North Captiva and Gasparilla or if we need to go to the mainland to get supplies. Visitors to Cayo Costa usually arrive by public ferry or they come on their private boats. The island is 7 miles long north to south and 1 mile wide east to west. How do we get around once on the island?

You can take this truck-pulled tram on a service road from the ferry dock across the island to the beach. As a volunteer I help with the driving.

On calmer days you can explore the bays, lagoons, and sandbars by kayak on the leeward side of Cayo Costa. Why don't you see me paddling? This kayak is peddle propelled. It is peddled like a bicycle leaving my hands free for the camera, binoculars and snacks! We don't venture into the open sea with these kayaks.

This is my favorite way to get around on Cayo Costa. There are several miles of flat trails through the coastal grasslands and oak pine forests. At low tide it is possible to "coast" on the shoreline (until you turn around and hit the wind).

But you can barely beat bare footin'.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Cayo Costa: Earth-friendly Cleaning

We forgot a sponge when we packed our camping gear for our month stay at Cayo Costa. You just don't go out and buy one here on the island. First you ride your bicycle for a mile, then you take a motor boat for a half-hour or a kayak for 4 hours, then a car for a half-hour minimum, pay money, throw away packaging, and then reverse the trip. So what does that take, a few hours and a few dollars? Or you can pick up your still-warm used tea bag and wipe the dishes clean, lickety-split (I don't mean lick and spit). Why would we want to use an old bacteria-laden sponge when a sterile teabag is available daily? If the wet teabag is dipped in sand it makes a great pot scrubber (did you really think we care about the bacteria?)

Yes ma'm, you can have a hot shower on the island if you heat the water in these solar bags and then lift the heavy things overhead. Make sure the dribble hits you where you need it most!

Or you can just take a relaxing cold shower, no fuss no muss.

Laundry is a bucket dance (or a swim in the ocean with the clothes on, then a rinse in the outdoor shower).

I like this whole house cleaning....just shake it out. Chemical-free, earth-friendly, green-clean, eco-whatever you want to call's just more, well.....wholesome.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Cayo Costa: Star Gazing

Beach Morning-Glory

Without electricity and lights near Cayo Costa, we get amazing views of the stars. The night of the total eclipse of the moon was awesome and fun. Campers had fires going, and spotting scopes set on the moon. Music and song flooded the campground as the moonlight faded. When the moon was completely shadowed by the earth, it presented itself in an unusual over-ripe pear color. No flashlights or headlamps were needed to navigate for several nights during the week of the full moon.

Walking around during the day, I notice how many stars surround me. All of these photos are taken within 200 yards of my campsite.

A Starfish (Sea Star) Drifted in with a Sea Urchin

This little 8 inch plant surrounds my camp but I can't find it in my guidebook.

There are a lot of sand dollars on the beach near here.

This 6 inch white flower is moon vine. It blooms only at night.

Obviously, stars are shining on us 24/7.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Cayo Costa: Camp Kitchen

I love cooking outdoors, don't you? Even mac and cheese can be gourmade with a side of canned stewed tomatoes with basil and a sunset. The camp kitchen is simple but complete with everything a not-wanna-be cook needs; sink (water jug over an earthen floor), stove (25 year- old Coleman), pantry (black box with latches), and fridge (cooler).

The food pantry is nearly raccoon and feral hog proof. There are no provisions on the island.

If you can find them on this table top, the condiments are added to pasta-a-la-outdoors, rice versatilie, or spicy beans non-delux. PB&J and crackers with cheese are readily available favorites.

Some of Dan's catches won't fit well in the skillet such as this sea trout. Sometimes it works out better grilling them over a campfire. Dan is not too interested in cleaning and filleting the fish, but he does gut them! Today he caught several species; redfish, sea trout, snook, sheepshead, and flounder. He usually keeps whatever he catches first and releases the rest since we don't have good refrigeration.

Keeping it simple and enjoying the outdoors more, the camp kitchen.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Cayo Costa: Friends Visiting

Good Morning Cayo Costa! Shelling before Sunrise.

I hadn't been on Cayo Costa very long when Florida friends, Kornelia and Carol, came to visit for a couple of days. They arrived on this ferry boat with their kayaks and bicycles stowed on top. I gave them a tour of the island. Take a look.,,,,,

Kornelia showing Carol where she just spotted some dolphines surfacing
while on a bike ride around the north end of the island.

Carol and Kornelia taking time to "catch-up" and cool off in the surf.

Kayak touring through a mangrove tunnel. We paddled
through three miles of open water to get here.

Don't you want to visit too?

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Cayo Costa: Out of Africa

Heading over to Cayo Costa Island on a Park Service Boat

Camp Site with Sleep Tent and Kitchen Tent

View of Coastal Savannah from Kitchen Tent

Morning Coffee

Why do I feel like I am someplace other than Florida? Africa keeps coming to mind. Is it our tent with its screening pulled back framing a view reminiscent of a sandy, palmy grassland in Kenya or Tanzania? Or the lack of electricity and running water? The unconditioned air that I'm not conditioned to? The quietness takes me far away; can this really be the States? No cars or machinery to break the sounds of the sea, birds, and swaying palm fronds. The night is a dark studded jewel like it is suppose to be and the day a vast scape of changing light and shadows. Wow, this is out of.....where are we?

Cayo Costa, a Florida State Park, is where Dan and I have chosen to do volunteer work for a month this winter. Cayo Costa is an undeveloped barrier island 6 miles off the southwest coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico. You can only get here by boat. We do a few hours of work per week and we get to stay in our tent for free. And free we are. Lovin' it!

I've been strolling around barefoot these hot days with a piece of fabric wrapped around my naked body. I feel like an African woman, especially when I balanced shower gear on my head for fun on my way to and from the outdoor shower (another story). It occurs to me after several days that this little "sun dress" I secure (and not so securely sometimes, by amature accident) with twists and knots around my chest is a piece of fabric I purchased years ago at an international fair in Toledo. I examine it further and find a label in the corner which reads "Printed in Tanzania." Could it be....the print is rubbing off on me?