Don’t Forget Florida’s Forgotten Coastline

20140217_100305The Forgotten Coast of Florida near Port St. Joe, on the St. Joseph’s Bay, is one of the remaining intact ecosystems in the state and well worth a visit. This photo is near an Indian midden where you can view layer upon layer of broken shells left behind by Indian communities that shelled and fished on the productive bay.

Near the Old Salt Works Cabins on highway 30E, the bay is accessible down long weathered boardwalks. Visitors walk out into the muddy recesses or shallow waters where they can see urchins, tunicates, fiddler crabs, and juvenile fish that use the area as a nursery. 20140216_095052_4_bestshotPeppered through the sea grass beds we found the casts of horseshoe crabs from molting seasons before. My friend, Barbara, is an ecologist who spent the four days of our trip collecting casts and abandoned urchin shells. She described the sea grass beds along the bay as a treasure of Florida’s natural environments because they function as a nursery for numerous species of crustaceans and fish that are important economic species for the Gulf region and primary filters of pollutants that keep the water quality high.

We met a young family from the Atlanta area who were putting together a small catamaran to sail around an enclosed area of the bay on the St. Joe’s Peninsula that arcs like a curved arm protecting the shoreline from storms. Their young sons were busy seining for fish and other sea life. My friend joined them to teach a little ecology in the best environment in the world where children can see the ecosystem at work.

IMG_7142Earlier we had visited the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory and Education Center founded by Jack and Anne Rudloe, two of Florida’s important writers and educators about Florida’s marine wildlife. Priceless Florida, The Living Dock, In Search of the Great Turtle Mother, and Shrimp are just several of their many books. The lab and education center are filled with touch tanks and aquarium where families can learn about many species not easily seen from shore such as loggerhead turtles, and octopuses.

20140217_115901Later we visited the St. Andrews Marina which is a working marina where you can observe a variety of fishing vessels. The one pictured here has turtle-excluder devices (TEDs) that allow fast escape of turtles when they are caught up in the netting. Before this apparatus was invented, sea turtle deaths were much more numerous.

St. Joseph’s Peninsula State Park is a wonderful place to snorkel, kayak, fish, camp, and bike. Carl, Barbara’s partner in life and biking enthusiast, enjoyed the 27-mile round trip on a newly completed bike path from the Old Salt Works Cabins to the entrance of the wildlife refuge. The refuge on the last seven miles of the peninsula is a terrific walk where you can observe thirty foot dunes – how much of Florida’s coastline once looked before massive storms and human activities have diminished their size and capacity to shelter the coastline.

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