November 30, 2010

Interesting Creatures and Sights of Santa Rosa Island, Florida

Wildlife abounds on Santa Rosa Island, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola, FL. We've heard about the massive schools of dolphins and the loggerhead sea turtles that nest on these beaches, but we have not seen them yet. But, there certainly is a alot of visible wildlife, if you are paying attention.

There was a huge wash-up of thousands of Portuguese Man-o-wars when we arrived. The wave action was intense at that time. But, a couple of days later, the waves calmed down and there were none in the water and hardly any left on the beach to be found anymore.

However, moon jellies and sea nettles are still very common on the beach and in the waters. But, they are basically harmless. We told Hilina to never touch the blue/purple jellysfish, but she can touch the top of the moon jellies if they are on the beach. She loves to touch the jelly-like surface but seems smart enough to avoid the tentacles.

The bathrooms are full of frogs. As Hilina told me "they are here to help us". Indeed, it must be quite the treat for them to sit on the humid walls and walk right up to snatch moquitoes against a white backdrop.

We saw these tracks all over the beach and wondered what they were. Turns out, they were ghost crabs. I could not take any pictures of the large 4-5" adults, as they will scamper into their burrows at the first signs of people. But, for whatever reason, the little ones are a little more brave.

Ants are very common on the island and very small. They make some pretty cool houses don't you think?

Of course, bird tracks of various shapes and sizes are all over the beach. From large heron steps to these tiny little sandpiper and plover footprints.

There is so much to discover, if you look carefully. Hilina was very impressed with this sea star and its hundreds of tiny tube feet.

Osprey nest in the tree tops and soar over the bay looking for fish to snatch.

Herons also wander the beaches. In my experience, herons are usually very skittish and it is difficult to get within a 100 feet before they fly off. So, I've rarely had luck photographing them. Not this time though. When I would be out in the water digging for clams and tube worms and doing general bio-searches, this fella would follow me from shore. Perhaps he figured I'd throw him a bite.

November 29, 2010

The BP Oil Spill Continues...And just doing our part to help

Gooey oil tar balls mixed with sand on those beaches BP told you were safe
Contrary to what you may have heard from official British Petroleum spokesmen and what you may NOT have heard from the media recently, the BP Oil Spill continues. No, the oil is not gushing from the well anymore. But, there remains millions and millions of gallons of oil out there in the Gulf of Mexico and it continues to wash up on shore.

BP recently claimed virtually all of it was cleaned up, naturally broke down due to bacteria, or evaporated. But, due to the use of dispersants at the well-head, a huge amount of it, perhaps most of it, never made it to the surface, but still lurks in the cold dark bottoms. With no sunlight and cold temperatures, it can not be broken down by photochemical processes or bacteria. But, what you don't see doesn't exist right? Out of site...out of mind perhaps?

Lines of tiny oil droplets on the beach
But, the BP Oil continues to wreak havoc on the pristine beaches of the Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola, Florida. This is not over yet. The beaches look beautiful and white at first glance and the local media and businesses advertise they are clean to attract tourism. I believed it too. At the areas of the island we'd explored the first three days, we didn't see anything either. But, I did see signs saying "Oil Response Team" dotted around the beaches and little flags. I met a park service worker who was driving by picking up the flags. I asked her what it was about and she said they were spots where oil tar balls had been found previously.

But, the first time we had personal experience with it occurred today. We were walking the beach at the end of the island when I saw a huge rag-like material stuck in the sand a few feet off the beach under water. I waded in to pull it out of the water and next thing I know my hands are covered in oil!   Eww...

Pulling out a large plastic sheet covered in oil residue
Down the beach I saw a convoy of Coast Guard workers sifting the sand trying to remove tar balls that washed up on the beach. I walked down to report my find. They marked the site but came back to tell me that due to OSHA rules, they were not allowed to enter the water to dig it out and it would have to wait for a special water response crew to come perhaps in a couple weeks. Seriously? It is 5-feet away! If I knew about that before I had moved so far from the site, I would gone back to dug it out myself.

Anyways, the crew left shortly thereafter (probably for Thanksgiving Break) and then I started to notice tar balls floating around all over in the waves. Forget OSHA...I started pulling out as many as I could and I left a pile of tar balls on the beach next to their worksite for them to deal with later. I spelled out "OIL" in the sand and added some arrows to help them find it when they return.

Two of the three garbage bags we managed to fill up in just 1 mile of beach
Later, we also found some garbage bags left on the beach. So, we picked them up and decided to start collecting garbage on the walk back. Within 1 mile of beach, I had filled three garbage bags with old plastic sacks, water bottles, beer cans, broken helium balloons, and all sorts of other trash. We left the glass and iron, because that stuff will disintegrate naturally and focused just on the plastic.

The nasty thing is that the oil really adheres to the plastic, so just about every plastic bag was covered in oily residue too! Plastic bags and deflated balloons are particularly nasty to sea life, because sea turtles, birds, and a variety of fish think they are jellyfish and ingest them, only to choke to death or die of starvation when it gets stuck in their digestive tract.

This is a beach worth saving!
By the time we got back to the campground, I could barely drag these heavy overflowing sacks to the trash bin. I separated out the plastic bottles and aluminum cans to be recycled and tossed out the rest. The way I figure it, we were just doing our tiny little part to try and help a beach that has given us so much enjoyment!

November 28, 2010

Gulf Islands National Seashore, near Pensacola, Florida

The Gulf Islands National Seashore protects numerous barrier islands along the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico in the Florida panhandle and the Mississippi coast. This national park unit protects some that are well out to sea and require a seasonal ferry to access, as well as, some sections right in the Pensacola urban sprawl.

The amazing white sand beaches are the result of almost pure quartz that has washed down over the eons from granite in the Appalachians to the north. Currents in the gulf sculpt these sands into long barrier islands, which not only provide important nesting and feeding grounds for sea turtles, marine birds, and a variety of endemic plants and animals, but also shield the mainland coast from the full brunt of hurricanes.

A heron with a fish a bit too large for its bill

After struggling with it for about 5 minutes, somehow he got it into his throat
We stayed at Fort Pickens Campground on Santa Rosa Island about 30 minutes from Pensacola. This is a wonderful campground, where you can walk from your campsite to the wild Gulf of Mexico side to the south and the tamer Pensacola Sound on the north. It is also very rare for an NPS campground in that it had electricity and hot showers. I suspect that is because in the summer, they realize people need air conditioners in their trailers and showers to wash off the sweat and salt after swimming all day to beat the heat.

The gulf-side beach just a short walk from the campground

Looking into Pensacola Sound from the campground
We also visited the Naval Live Oaks Area on the Gulf Breeze Peninsula. This area represents America's first attempt at managing timber. Virginia live oak was America's most important tree for building naval ships in the early 1800's due to its extraordinarily strong wood and straight grains. A 1 cubic foot chunk of this wood weighs 75 pounds! The USS Constitution in Boston was built from these oaks. But, extensive clearing of coastal live oak forests for both naval and merchant ships, often including illegal poaching on federal lands, caused President James Madison to sound the alarm to preserve an area for national emergencies.

Huge live oaks drapped in Spanish moss
Naval Live Oaks Area was the first federal forest reserve and they used it to test various growing techniques and to try and develop a sustainable harvest. Today, the area contains some of the last old growth coastal live oak stands on the Gulf Coast and a beautiful subtropical environment that seemingly takes you to a land a 1000 miles south.

The almost tropical live oak area with magnola and palmettos in the understory

The live oaks are also critical to helping coastal communities to survive the onslaught of hurricanes. When Hurricane Ivan rolled through the area in 2004, wind monitors discovered that these large oaks blocked the storms winds enough to reduce wind speeds by 15 mph! In addition, these barrier islands serve as a crucial wave break to absorb the energy of storm surges and to cut down on the energy supply entering the eye.

The pines were stripped bare and died. But, the palms and oaks have resprouted.
Hurricane Ivan certainly wreaked havoc on Santa Rosa Island. The sand pines, long-leaf pines, palms, and oaks were stripped of their leaves and branches and many of them died. But, this is a landscape evolved to deal with disturbance. It did not take long for the oaks to resprout new leaves. While many of the pines are dead, their seedlings are popping up quickly to take advantage of the new light that is available. Soon, this forest will recover to absorb the brunt of the next hurricane that rolls through.

Sand pines who survived and those who didn't.

November 27, 2010

The Turning Point...Santa Rosa Island near Pensacola, Florida

We have reached the beautiful white sand beaches of the Florida Gulf Coast. It is near Thanksgiving and yet the air temperatures is 75 degrees and the water near 70 degrees. I am swimming in late fall! This seems like an appropriate place to call it a trip and begin planning for our return back west.

Sunset through the clouds on Santa Rosa Island
But, with this sparkling white sand and warm air, there is something calling us to go further. Something calling us to get to those coral reefs of the Florida Keys and the mangrove swamps of the Everglades.

Or, perhaps it is best we head back?
Maybe it is appropriate to allow for this taste of the unknown and leave us wanting more...

Hilina checking out a heron on the bayside in the morning
Perhaps it is best to leave something on the agenda to return to and not be too greedy now. For, we know that on some cold winter's day in a year or two or three, we will remember our days on the Gulf Coast and decide it is time to make that pilgrimmage again to the sun and water of Florida.

Fort Pickens Campground on Santa Rosa Island
There is much to see there, but it is a long trip if we tried. My GPS says a loop around Florida is another 1,900 miles of driving. Have we not driven enough already?

Hilina climbing the white sand dunes
Well, keep watching this blog to see which way we end up going, I have a few posts to do on our stay here, but after that who knows. Heck, we were never supposed to get this far anyways and we've been known to change our minds before!

Sabal palms and stripped sand pines from Hurricane Ivan (2004)

November 26, 2010

Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, Natchez, MS

This is just a quicky extra-post from Natchez, MS. Before Natchez became a plantation home center of the Antebellum South, it was home to the Natchez Tribe of Indians. They were the last of the mound-building Mississippian cultures and the only active one still present when Europeans arrived in the region in the 1500's.

When the French arrived in the late 1600's, they documented this fascinating tribe in many documents and papers and it is one of the most important insights into how the Mississippian mound-building cultures lived. They documented all of the plants they used, hunting techniques, mound ceremonies, and social structures. At first the French and the Natchez got along very well.

Unfortunately, after initially being welcomed by the Natchez and given land access, the French began to push for more until there was a rebellion among the tribe. The tribe was already on the decline due to the effects of small-pox, malaria, and measels brought to the area by the Spanish over 100 years earlier. Finally, in a desperate act, the Natchez attacked the French fort on the Mississippi River called Rosalia.

The French responded by counter-attacking and wiping the tribe out of existance. The Grand Village of the Natchez is now a Mississippi State Park which you can visit just outside of Natchez.

It think the statement above is a very good insight into the thinking of the Natchez people before their obliteration. It comes directly from their cheif of the time and was written down by a visiting Dutch scholar and trader. I definitely think it is worth reading.

Antebellum Homes of the Natchez Area, Mississippi

In the Antebellum Period, prior to the Civil War, an elite weathy few ran enormous plantations with hundreds of slaves. With the massive profits of these endeavors, they decided to build grandiose neo-classical and neo-greek revival mansions that are so famous today. While the arcitecture and landscaping certainly is beautiful and impressive, it certainly sits in the back of your mind about under what circumstances they were built and by whose blood and toil it was made possible.

Melrose Estate - A National Park Service owned Antebellum Mansion
Natchez is one of the major centers of Antebellum homes in the south. That is because for the most part, the major battles of the civil war avoided the area and most of the plantations survived unscathed. Natchez National Historic Site preserves some of the structures and history of the antebellum period in Natchez. Included in this site, is the Melrose Estate, which is a mansion owned by the National Park Service.

Domestic Slave Cabins at Melrose Estate
John McMurran established a profitable law practice in Natchez prior to the civil war.  He also won election to state legislature and married into a respected local family.  Over time, he aquired five plantations, 300 plantation slaves, and 25 house slaves. He had the Melrose house built; construction was completed in 1849 on 132 acres of former cotton fields.  

One of the bedrooms inside Melrose Mansion
However, contrary to those famous views of long tree-lined driveways with spanish moss hanging from large live oaks and expansive cotton fields spreading out beyond, that isn't really the way it was in Natchez. Natchez sits on a high bluff above the Mississippi River, which is safe from flooding. So, it's a great place to build. It's also high above the swamps, so the mosquitoes weren't as bad. But, the soft loess soils erode quickly and the nutrients leach too easily, so it turns out to be a bad place to grow cotton.

From high on the bluffs of Natchez looking down to the lowlands of Louisiana

Historic Downtown Natchez
However, on the Louisiana-side of the river, the lowlands flooded frequently, providing a continuous supply nutrients. So, most Natchez plantation owners had their expansive fields on the Louisiana-side and then built their large homes in the town of Natchez to be close to the social activities. As such, there are many beautiful Antebellum homes, but they have no yards and are within walking distance of downtown.

An pre-civil war (and still operating) cotton plantation in Louisiana about 24 miles from Natchez.
The owners live in Natchez, just like they always did.

Beautiful Victoria-style home in Natchez

Another beautiful home in Natchez
There remains a great deal of money in Natchez. Many people still own farmland in Louisiana, while maintaining their fancy homes and street-side businesses in the downtown district. We were told that there remains a lot of "old money" from that by-gone era in the area. Some might call it "blood money". But, I'll won't quite go that far. But, I will say this, Natchez is a beautiful small city, with beautiful arcitecture and an interesting history and we really enjoyed our stay. 

Ferns and Spanish moss on a live oak at Melrose Estate