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Everglades Day Safari from Fort Lauderdale

May 4, 2018

I meant to do Everglades Day Safari back in September, but Hurricane Irma got in the way. Turned out to be a blessing. Early May is warm and breezy, perfect, and I didn’t even need bug spray. September would’ve been hot and buggy.

So I had a full day in Fort Lauderdale before the safari. A friend and I visited the Museum of Discovery and Science.

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The river otters, the museum’s showcase exhibit, live in a spacious set-up with a waterfall, caves, and a deep pool. They frolicked around, looked happy. But I suspect otters always look happy. I could not say the same for some of the other critters, sadly. I’ve worked with wildlife in captivity, at an aquarium and a wildlife center, I understand how difficult it is to keep such creatures healthy in zoos, but this place left me feeling down. I especially empathized with the poor lone, domestic bunny housed in the reptile room, displayed like in a pet store, but probably slotted for a snake’s dinner. In the meantime, she’s all alone (rabbits are very social) and surrounded by predators she can see and smell.

After the museum, I cheered up with lunch at Tacocraft. I ate there 6 months ago, and I itched to go back. It was just as good as I remembered. It offers chef-driven tacos with interesting ingredients, high-end tequilas, and I love the sugar-skull decorations. Then, we rented bikes from one of those overpriced bike-rental stations and rode 3 miles to the beach area, a somewhat frustrating trip proving I need a better biking GPS app.

The morning of my Everglades adventure, the van picked me up right on time at my hotel near the Fort Lauderdale Airport. Mark was a 5-star guide from the first moment we met, courteous, professional, passionate, and he knew his stuff.  He would serve as driver and tour guide for much of the day,

The van for the Everglades Day Safari only seats about 10, so you’ll spend the day with a nice small group. My fellow safari-goers were all women, three generations from Kentucky, one German 20-something, and moi. After a little driving, we’d all spotted lots of birds and ‘gators. Then, we arrived at our first excursion–an airboat ride through the stunning and expansive “River of Grass!”

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I saw lots of birds, including my first ever wood stork in the wild (through binoculars, but still.) And boy oh boy, did I see alligators. Many, many alligators, and I would see many more throughout the day, close up and far away.

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Photo op–the country’s smallest post office, tended by one guy

Next, a short hike through the Big Cypress Preserve.

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Eastern lubber grasshoppers don’t have to blend in. They’re toxic. They can even spray you with a noxious liquid if provoked.

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The Everglades houses a pharmacy: willow bark for pain, pond apples to boost the immune system, and hemlock for poisoning your enemies.

 

Lunch in Everglades City!  Some women fussed about the stink of the crab traps next to the restaurant, but I was pleasantly reminded of summers in Maine as a kid.

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Next, we arrived in Chokoloskee, where we poked through the quirky Smallwood’s Store Museum, then boarded a comfortable little boat ride through through Everglades National Park’s mangrove estuary, an area known as the 10,000 Islands. Some of these islands are actually made out of shells, the discarded food and tools of the Calusa, who apparently planned their waste into their infrastructure.

Our boat captain was the daughter of the folks who run the museum. She’s grown up in those waters, and I guess she’s driven boats since she was knee-high to a lubber grasshopper. I could’ve have held a full martini without spilling as she whipped passed the mangroves.

I’ve seen Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in the wild a hundred times. But I have never seen dolphins interact with a boat quite like this.

It was like a dance between the boat and the dolphins. They came right up to us, and our captain started driving off to make a wake for them. The captain and the dolphins seemed to know each other’s rhythms, and the dolphins leapt with feet of the boat, sometimes over the boat, we could’ve easily reached out and touched them. They knew the captain’s route, her way of moving through the water, and they kept in sync. You’ve never seen a boatload of women more thrilled!

I’d highly recommend Everglades Day Safari. It was a perfect introduction to the natural beauty of the Everglades, low stress and cost-efficient. I detest driving, and was glad to leave it in Mark’s sensible hands. I was able to move seamlessly between activities while learning as much as I could about everything. The all-inclusive price (except tips) made budgeting easy. I meant for this to be a fairly inexpensive getaway, and since I rode the Greyhound to and from Fort Lauderdale and stayed in a cheap airport hotel, I had a great time without breaking my bank.

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New Orleans

May 3, 2018

Ah, the Big Easy! I spent a few crisp days in early January exploring Nola. I really love how this city does a lot of things– like 300 year old oaks and a gondolier in the city park.

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They close off certain streets midday to make space for musicians and artists. There’s jazz everywhere and hollandaise on absolutely everything!

I went to several restaurants I can enthusiastically recommend: August is an understated but refined little place just outside the French Quarter, serving thoughtful, seasonal, chef-driven fare.  Deannie’s Bucktown Seafood is a fun diner-style eatery with a Lousiana kick, and Felix’s Oyster Bar laid-back bar and dining room serves up some of the city’s freshest oysters.

I ate a ridiculously satisfying fried black-eyed-pea sandwich in a hole-in-the-wall called Bennechin which specializes in in the comfort food Africans brought to the area. Sucre Salon‘s brunch was all about cakes, waffles, and caviar. Tempt by Andrew Nguyen at the Saint Hotel serves the chef’s signature global cuisine.

I found two fun karaoke bars. Cat’s Meow has fun hosts and a great stage and a live webcam so you can shout out to your people back home. It’s right on Bourbon Street, so it gets a lot of “bad” karoake–like bachelorette parties screaming (Summer Lovin’.) After I left Cat’s Meow, drunk, I got lost, and wound up on some of the seedier streets outside the French quarters. There, I found a local’s dive gay karaoke bar that reminded me so much of my neighborhood dive gay karaoke bar, I made myself right at home. It’s called Grand Pre.

After a bit of research, I bought souveniers at a place called Voodoo Authentica, because it seemed more like the “real deal” than any other place I saw. From even before I walked in the shop, I’d been feeling the spirits of the old city all around me.

This statue of slaves dancing in Congo Square mesmerized me.

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You see, slaves were given Sundays off. First, they attended church (mandatory) but afterwards they could take jobs to earn money in hopes of purchasing their freedom, or they could gather with loved ones. Problem was, slaves weren’t allowed to congregate inside the city walls, lest they start plotting revolt. So, the slaves jumped the ramparts to sing and dance together just outside the city limits.

The Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium put me in geek nirvana. I worked for a butterfly garden years ago, so I understand a bit of what goes into such a place. This one looked well-curated and the critters seemed happy and clean. The butterfly garden itself was not nearly as well-manicured as the one I worked for, and the butterflies, koi, etc. were allowed to have a little wing (or fin) damage or faded colors without being culled to make the place look “perfect,” which I liked.

Their little bug cafe was kind of lame, they just had a few samples. I ate a Cajun spiced waxworm and got a sticker proclaiming “I ate a bug!” After eating the cricket taco at Taquiza (an authentic and organic Mexican place in South Beach, Miami) a tiny waxworm was easy.  Just think, if the Western world would embrace the farming of insects, we could do away with the factory farming of mammals, which is resource-intensive, harmful to the environment, and hell for the creatures being eaten. Bugs make for great lean protein.

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How to Improve Your Personal “Triple Bottom Line”

August 26, 2017

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The Triple Bottom Line of a corporation, according to The Economist, consists of three Ps: profit, people and planet. It measures more than wealth, taking into account the social and environmental impact of a particular corporation. I’m always looking for ways to improve my personal TBL, and seeking products and services that do the same.

See, for most of my life, I considered myself bad with money. I always hated math, I resented paying bills, I just didn’t want to have to think about it. I took out big student loans and didn’t pay them back, I overspent, I didn’t save. After I got married, I let my husband deal with the finances, though he wasn’t particularly good with money either. At least when the rent went unpaid or we couldn’t afford a night out at the movies, I had someone else to blame.

When my marriage ended just as I entered middle age, I realized I’d better get a grip on my financial health. For the first time in my life, I really started paying attention to money.  My income as a tour guide and freelance writer is largely seasonal, inconsistent, and not likely to make me a billionaire, plus the cost of housing is high in Key West, but I long ago decided it was important to me that I enjoy my work and where I live. I also want to spend my money well, as in not supporting corporations that harm the planet or it’s inhabitants.

One of the first things I did after my husband moved out, for reasons largely explained by the Occupy Wall Street movement, was take my money out of the big banks. I moved my checking and savings accounts from Bank of America to my local credit union, where they don’t charge bloated fees for overdrafts and services like BOA. Once I had a relationship with them, they were willing to give me decent credit though my credit rating is “Fair” at best. I pulled my IRA funds out of Merrill Lynch, and invested with socially-conscious Aspiration instead.  I pay less in fees, and it’s much easier to make small deposits that add up over time than with ML. Plus, Aspiration donates ten cents of every dollar to charitable activities expanding economic opportunity.

I made other consumer choices, too. I cut the expensive cable with a hundred channels I never watched and got a Roku stick with a few good subscription channels. I stopped buying $12 bottles of wine for the house, opting instead for the more eco-friendly Bota Box. Each box holds 4 bottles of ok (not great, but ok) wine for just $21. The box and bag inside are recyclable, creating 85% less waste than if the same wine lived in bottles.

Next, I ditched my haircolorist and his products tested on animals for a subscription to cruelty-free, Leaping-Buffy Certified Madison Reed. I stopped buying plastic disposable razors in favor of animal-cruelty-free Angel Shave Club, which donates part of their sales to the Malala Fund which helps send impoverished girls to school.  As a bonus with each of these products, I get to spend less time and less scooter-gas money shopping for hair dye, razors, and wine.

I also shopped around for lower internet prices, and ended up getting higher internet speed for less money. I cut down my cell phone bill by taking a plan with less data. I really haven’t noticed any difference, it’s not like I use my phone to play video games or watch movies.

There’s real power in our pocketbooks. Consumer choices sway the way the world moves.  Money may not buy happiness, but it’s a tool we can use to help build a world we love.

 

Should We Release Genetically Modified Mosquitoes in the Florida Keys?

March 28, 2015

Lately, I’ve been tuning into the hoopla surrounding the possible release of a genetically modified mosquito called the Oxitec mosquito, creepily named after the corporation that created it. I’ve read several articles and papers (My favorite being a New Yorker article titled “The Mosquito Solution.”) I’ve joined in on a few arguments on social media. I’ve read a lot of the pro-release info provided on the Oxitec and Florida Keys Mosquito Control website. I’ve also perused anti-release literature by GeneWatch, and watched the trailer for the documentary Scratching Beneath the Surface on YouTube.

None of this is the end-all of research on the matter, but I’ve seen enough to form a tentative opinion.

Given that we don’t actually have malaria, yellow fever, dengue or chikungunya currently in the Keys, many residents, myself included, feel unmotivated to experiment with releasing genetically modified mosquito into our densely populated neighborhoods and the delicate ecosystem upon which our economy depends. We already know the effects of the pesticides used by Mosquito Control, and so far, we’ve been mostly willing to endure them for the sake of less bug bites. It’s the devil we know.

Supporters of the Oxitec release accuse protesting Keys’ residents of having a knee-jerk response to the words “genetically modified.” They’ve called protestors “ignorant” and “anti-science.” It’s an effective bullying strategy: no one wants to get lumped in among the climate-change naysayers, anti-vaxxers, and creationists; I certainly don’t. But I think we are right not to trust blindly trust any corporation that tell us their product is good for us. I think we are correct not to trust our personal safety, or the safety of the environment, to the FDA or any other government entity. The U.S. government has all too often sided with big corporations at the expense of the environment and the people. Scientists don’t always have our best interests at heart, and corporations rarely do. The Oxitec mosquito isn’t about humanitarianism: it’s about making money for Oxitec.

But what if these genetically modified mosquitoes do exactly what they’re meant to do: target a particular species of disease-carrying mosquito more effectively than pesticides, and with less environmental damage? So far, in places where Oxitec mosquitoes have already been released (Malaysia, Brazil, and Caymen Islands) and there’s been no obvious health or environmental backlash. But it’s only been a year or so, so we don’t really know if they’re effective, safe, or cost-efficient in the long term.

One argument in favor of releasing the Oxitec mosquitoes is that they may cause less ecological damage than chemical pesticides currently used to curb mosquitoes. But since only one species of mosquito is affected (Aedes aegypti,the most likely mosquito to carry disease) release of the Oxitec ‘skeeter will probably not equal any less chemical pesticides in the Keys. Let’s be honest: we want to kill all the mosquitoes. Mosquito control isn’t just about disease prevention, it’s about tourism and quality of life.

Frankly, I don’t like the idea of humans genetically modifying living things, period. I’m heartsickened by the idea of animals in laboratories for any reason, but I know many people feel there’s nothing wrong with harming other creatures for the benefit of humans. Admittedly, even I don’t balk at the killing of a mosquito.

Some biologists say the loss of the mosquito worldwide would not have much impact on the food chain or the environment. No animals have a diet of strictly ‘skeeters, and mosquitoes aren’t pollinators or soil-turners. As far as we can see, whatever created the universe also created these bloodsucking, illness-carrying, useless creatures whose only function is to to torment mammals. But say we succeed with the Aedes aegypti, what other species will we decide to eliminate?

How far should humans go in the way we alter the planet for our own comfort? Is it right that we expect all other organisms on the planet to adapt, stretch, or be devoured to sustain all our wonderful, long human lives?

I certainly wouldn’t wish dengue or malaria or chikungunya on anyone. Perhaps this technology could save lives, perhaps not here where we don’t really have a problem (yet?), but in third-world countries where death rates from mosquito-borne illnesses are high. I hate to say “experiment on third-worlders, not us!” But I would think that in places where mosquito-borne illness is a large problem, the rewards would outweigh the risk, while I’m not convinced that’s the case here in the Florida Keys.

Michael Doyle, Entomologist and head of Mosquito Control, very much wants the release. I assume he has tons more knowledge on the topic than I. Unfortunately, many of the more vocal protesters of the Oxitec release don’t have very impressive credentials. The Florida Keys Environmental Commission are a very passionate group of Florida Keys Community college students. Then there’s Mila de Mier, the real estate agent who authored the petition “Say No to Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Release in the Florida Keys.”  No offense to de Mier, but many of the fears stated in the petition are bogus. Most scientists agree that any bird or bat that eats an Oxitec ‘skeeter should be fine, and even if a female mosquito escapes into the ecosystem and bites a human, we should all be fine.

A far more thoughtfully written petition appears on the Friends of the Earth website: Tell the FDA: Say NO to GMO Mosquitos!   So far, the most impressive voice against the Oxitec release may be scientist and mathematician Helen Wallace, Executive Director of the British organization GeneWatch. Her paper titled “Genetically Modified Mosquitoes: Ongoing Concerns,” intelligently presents plenty of reasons we might object to Oxitec.

 The technology may not be particularly effective in suppressing mosquito populations and may even, especially in cases of limited efficacy, worsen the dengue problem. There is also uncertainty over the extent to which some of the GM mosquitoes’ offspring do survive into adulthood. More generally, the potential adverse effects of this technology are still not fully understood, given the complex interactions in the ecosystem between Aedes aegypti, other mosquito species, the viruses they carry and the humans they bite.

— Helen Wallace, GeneWatch

It is entirely possible that we citizens in the Florida Keys will have to quell our ill-ease at the thought of sterile, genetically-modified mosquitoes with glowing green eyes flying around. Frankly, I don’t think it will make or break our ecosystem, but I really don’t see how it will benefit us in any way.

If the Oxitec mosquito were to be used in combination with more natural solutions, and we really could do away with chemical pesticides, I’d say go for it. Mosquito control already gives out Gambusia fish to people with ponds and birdbaths. I love the idea of doing more to attract native predators, such as bats and frogs, or using native species of dragonfly nymphs, which eat mosquito larvae, then become adult dragonflies that eat mosquitoes. Doing more to eliminate standing water through education, code-enforcement, and better drainage could also help mitigate the need for chemicals.

I don’t see the Oxitec mosquito as inherently good or bad. It’s one method of mosquito control in arsenal, better than some, and worse than others. So I haven’t signed any petitions yet, nor do I wholeheartedly support the release of Oxitec mosquitoes. I would simply like to see more information and research all the way around before deciding anything.

 

In Eden, A Poem

December 13, 2014

 

Here’s the last poem I actually finished and submitted anywhere. It won top three in the Robert Frost Poetry Contest in 2011. I love it because speaks to my sensibilities as an environmentalist and a feminist (whatever those words mean) and because I love playing with fairy tales and mythology.

In Eden

In Eden
when the insects were screaming
in the fields in high summer
When the honey
was aching to be taken
The skies filled with white wings
the fruit fell in pink piles
on the orchard floor

Remember how it was
before the trees were cut
before the rivers pitched their guts?
How the giant beasts beat their feet
slowly through our sleep
my lover kept me naked
the bounty of our bodies
not yet spent to ashes

I didn’t just bite the apple
I licked its juices from my fingers
I was a dancing Cretan girl
and I reached for the universe
I was tempting and tempted
and not afraid of snakes
I saw we were spirit
bodies became pillars of white
the sea gave off the same light
as did trees, birds. Everything singing.

Despite what you’ve heard
I had a mother; she sang to me in the
slosh of the sea, in birdsong
Even as the machines rumbled,
when the garden revealed a stage
with a trap door
She sang until there was nothing
left of her but bone

Why Should We Save the Sonny McCoy Indigenous Park?

October 11, 2013

“Look at Google Earth, and you will see there are very few green spaces left in Key West. To remove vegetation or increase human activity to the exclusion of wildlife is unthinkable at this point .”

–Dr. Ken Meyers, Director of the Avian Research and Conservation Institute, discussing possible changes within the Sonny McCoy Indigenous Park

Given a choice, Key West recently voted for protecting the environment and our quality of life, even over possible economic benefits. 75% of voters voted against starting a process which might have ended in dredging in Key West’s harbor dangerously close to our beloved coral reef and our marine wildlife preserve.

The battle to protect Key West’s fragile ecosystem from overdevelopment rages on. Now, the future of a small nature pocket certain city officials consider “underutilized” is on the table. The City recently presented three possible redesigns for the Sonny McCoy Indigenous Park to a room full of locals. On the whole, the public (myself included) was not thrilled with the direction in which the park seems headed. You can read the Citizen’s report about the meeting online.

As per Florida Keys Audubon’s official statement regarding the proposed redesign: “The 8-acre Sonny McCoy Indigenous Park on White Street contains over 75 species of native trees and plants, as well as a freshwater pond. Hundreds of locals and tourists visit the park per year to enjoy a bit of quiet nature in an otherwise urbanized area. The park is a destination spot for birders who travel to the Southernmost City hoping to check the White-crowned pigeon or White heron off their “lifer” lists.”

I frequently bring my bike tours there to let them wildlife-watch, and people are delighted by the birds, iguanas, and freshwater turtles.

Personally, I love the idea of redirecting Atlantic Boulevard so that the park is attached to Rest Beach. Connecting areas of natural space together is always great for the wildlife, and this would certainly be a boon for wading birds and land crabs who would no longer have to cross a busy street to move from the beach to the forest. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely local homeowners will allow this part of the plan to progress, as it would create a disturbance to their daily commutes and redirect traffic into currently traffic-free neighborhoods.

The most environmentally damaging piece of the plan would move the dogpark, currently located across the street in the County park, into or abutting the forested area of the Sonny McCoy Indigenous Park. Why?– To make more lawn in the County park. Monocultured lawn is useless to wildlife, and Key West already has Bayview Park for anyone seeking lawn, plus, Hello!?  You cannot have dogs running loose in an area important to wild birds! In a show of hands, only two people (not including City Planner Don Craig who came up with the idea) approved relocating the dog park.

The plan also calls for pickleball courts, despite the fact that we already have tennis, volley ball, and bocce ball courts in Key West. A show of hands at the meeting proved that not a single person in the room played or cared about pickleball. I’d wager most Key Westers have never even heard of it.

Two of the three plans involved relocating the federally licensed wildlife rehabilitation center whose facility is currently housed in the Sonny McCoy Indigenous Park, ostensibly to one of two sites in Little Hamaca Park on Government Road. The city planner appeared quite confused when people objected that it is counterproductive to replace wildlife habitat with a wildlife rehabilitation facility. Sigh.

I’m hoping Key Westers understand the value of a patch of relatively undisturbed wild space in an otherwise urban setting, and that they will join me in contacting our city’s leaders.

 

Blue Planet Kayak Eco-Tours

March 9, 2013

I have been neglecting my blog! I’m working A LOT, giving eco-tours, writing. But I’ll be back soon!

Photos of Blue Planet Kayak Eco-Tours, Key West
This photo of Blue Planet Kayak Eco-Tours is courtesy of TripAdvisor