Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Traffic Jam in the Picayune

As the Everglades continues to burn tonight, over 20,000 acres have already been scorched. Over the course of 6 days Alligator Alley, the stretch of I-75 between Naples and Fort Lauderdale, has been closed for part of if not the entire day. Smoke continues to billow across the road and today the fire jumped the interstate and began burning on the southern side of the highway. 

Traffic has been detoured to Route 80 to the north or US-41 (Tamiami Trail) to the south. The loss of tolls has been estimated to be $100,000 a day. And the level of my caring has dropped to an all time low. It's a public toll road. I won't get into double taxation here.

On Saturday Ma-Le and I drove into the Picayune Strand State Forest - an 800,000 acre area that was once slated to be one of the largest development projects in the United States. It failed and now there is a network of vestigial roads and canals that remind me of what could have been and thankfully isn't.  
The area below is about 50 square miles. Every road is absent of any structures. 
I love the Picayune. It's huge. It's remote. There's about 1 person per 10 square miles on any given day. We were hoping to get a few shots of the smoke and fires. We couldn't get close enough but as the wind shifted west, the smoke created some interesting sunset shots and offered up the sweet smell of burning palm leaves. I love that smell. From time to time the Alley has been opened to traffic as visibility permits but the traffic has been bad wherever you go in the Everglades. Despite the fact that there were 3 cars in the Picayune during our relaxing 30 mile drive I managed to get behind this guy who created our own traffic jam in the Picayune. Breathe in. Breathe out. Move on. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What's In the Box? - Mean Louise Edition

I was asked to pick up a package yesterday in Fort Lauderdale and when I arrived I was asked "Are you here for the box?"
"I guess I am"
I've had issues with boxes in the past.
See - What's in the Box?  
Knowing what was inside - I carried it around all day and everywhere I went people asked what was in the box. I don't ask what's in their purses. I don't ask what's on their laptop. I don't ask them what's in their trunk or their medicine bag - but for some reason everyone thinks they have a right to know what's in my box. 

I could have anything in the box and if I tell people what's in the box that usually placates their curiosity. They don't actually need to see in the box. 

Obviously it was an alligator. I mean everyone with a head-sized box either has a baby alligator in it or a head. I don't have a permit for a head but I do have a permit for a gator. 

Since I had to stay in Fort Lauderdale I needed a place to keep the poor thing until we can get her to our facility where she'll be united with Chomp-Chomp. 
She's not a pet but for identification purposes she has a name - Mean Louise. She's feisty, shows her teeth and hisses but is gentle - for now. She may look cute but some day she'll be able to do some damage. And what's in the box? How about what's in the tub.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Dear Jungle Pete....

The following are drawings from the gifted students at Cafferatta & Diplomat Elementary School in Cape Coral following my alligator presentation last week. Thanks to Mrs. Taylor and the other teachers for teaching such thoughtful kids. Great art and fantastic comments  - not to mention they have better handwriting, spelling and grammar than I do!

"Thank you for teaching us about the temperature alligators need to be boys and girls." - Reinier
"I loved when you pushed his eye in, that was gross looking but cool" - Julia
"That alligator bark was really good to know about. That way if any alligators call I know to get out of there." - Heather
"The favorite thing about the alligator was their bark." - Sean
"I can't believe it had 80 teeth! That was really amusing." - Victoria
"The alligator had the most interesting snout." - Dylan
"It was very weird how animals with such a small brain know how to make a hole of water." - Franklin
"I loved the little alligator Chomp-Chomp" - Julia
"I learned so many things I did not know like they have extra eyelids!" - Jacob
"I also liked how you told us how many eggs will survive and how many they lay." - Jayden
"It was very fun learning all those facts about alligators and crocodiles." - Camilo
"The stuff you do is amazing! I was telling everyone that what you do is awesome!" - Tyler
"There was a lot of interesting facts that you told, like the largest alligator." - Jessebell
"When you took out Chomp-Chomp I dropped my mouth!" - Frankie
"The alligator you brought was really scary and awesome" - Jan Carlo
"I really liked the alligator Chomp-Chomp but  I think his name should be Chompy." - Michael
"We also appreciate the game you taught us. My egg survived and now I am a hatchling." - Brandon
"Also, I thank you for playing the alligator nest game with us." - David
"My favorite part was when you made the alligator bark." - Logan

Thanks kids! 
Sincerely, Jungle Pete

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Flaming Gators

The Alligator Alley portion of I-75 has been closed since Wednesday and could be closed through Friday as a brush fire continues to burn through the Big Cypress portion of the Everglades. Align Center
View Flaming Gators in a larger map

December through May marks the dry season for the Everglades and 2009 has been a continuation of a multi-year drought. Typically the Fort Myers area gets around 18 inches of rain in the dry season and so far we've had 2 inches. The map below shows the Drought Index. The grey line cutting through the pink section of southern Florida is the Alligator Alley portion of I-75 . Pink is not good and purple is about as dry as you can get. Combine dry earth and lightning strikes and/or cigarette butts flicked out of vehicles and you have a recipe for fire disasters. 
While fire is a natural part of the Everglades ecosystem, timing is everything and as the last of the nesting birds prepare to send their fledglings off into the world, a wild brush fire can be deadly to those that are not ready to leave the nest. 

For Alligators the threat is less dire and the image of flaming gators leaping from the banks of the canals along Alligator Alley is surely far fetched. Although water is hard to come by these days in the Everglades, all wise alligators are always within a few feet of water. They need it to regulate their body temperature. They need it to find prey and they use the watery canals like super-highways. 

The threat to motorists is two-fold. Alligator Alley was upgraded to a 4 lane highway in 1986, but wildfires can creep across the median and hop the road with the help of drifting ash, but the thick clouds of smoke pose the biggest threat to motorists, causing limited visibility. So for now - the interstate is closed. 
Eventually, the summer rains will return and wildfires are less likely to rage across the glades but smokers that flick a butt out the window should always be scolded - Mother Nature can start fires herself. 

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Chomp-Chomp goes to School

I've been away from the classroom for too long and when I was invited to talk about Alligators for kids from Cafferata and Diplomat Elementary Schools in Cape Coral I was more than happy to do so. The gifted students were a great audience with excellent questions including a few favorites:
  • How can you tell a male from a female alligator? (if there are babies and the adult is not eating them - female - otherwise it gets complicated)
  • How fast can an alligator run? (up to 10 mph for a very short distance)
  • Where did you get that awesome hat? (it was handmade in Cape Coral)
  • How can you tell if an alligator has been fed? (illegally fed, wild alligators lose their fear of humans and will not flee in their presence)
  • What are the beads of your bracelet from? (I don't know but it was a gift from a Buddhist monk)
  • What eats alligators? (Everything eats baby alligators from Large-mouth Bass, Raccoons, Wood Stork and even other Alligators)
Here I'm pointing out the northern extent of the Alligator's historic range in Virginia. 
It looks like the magic trick has gone terribly wrong! Actually I was asked by a student to reveal what was in the aquarium slowly to "build the suspense". 
Of course it was a baby American Alligator and everyone was wildly excited. Chomp-Chomp was spending his/her first day at school showing off with a ferocious bark - ok not so ferocious but if you heard that noise in the wild - look out for mama. 
Chomp-Chomp is not a pet but works for the Everglades Day Safari like me. We enjoyed getting away from the swamp for a day. Thanks to Mrs. Taylor (for the invitation and photos) and the kids from Cafferata and Diplomat Elementary. I hope they had as much fun as I did. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Bald as an Eagle?

I'm bald. I know this because I have nieces and nephews who wisely point this out. My 4 year old niece and I tested this theory recently. Static electricity is generated when a balloon is rubbed on hair as it did when I swiped her with a balloon from her birthday party. She became irate when it was her turn to try the experiment on my hair since I have none. So empirical evidence would suggest I am bald. 

Centuries ago bald or balde meant having a white spot. Anyone who has stood behind me at the beach on a sunny day can attest that bald is still a fair assessment. But what about Bald Eagles? They're obviously not bald by the popular definition, nor do they "lack in ornamentation or natural covering" as is the an alternative definition. Their naming comes from early explorers of North America who named them Bald Eagles in reference to their white heads. I have a white head, but I am not a Bald Eagle. The logic of this is lost on a four year old.  
Let's complicate things. Bald Eagle chicks don't get white plumage on their heads until they're 4-5 years old. Once they reach maturity, they molt and the speckled brown and whites give way to a white head and solid brown body. We spotted this Bald Eagle chick (above) on a nest with a sibling, swaying rhythmically in the wind with the branches of an Australian Pine. 
A close-up of an injured juvenile (above) at a rehab center (VINS) reveals a mottled plumage with lightly brown feathers and brown and yellow beak. 
Hours after spotting the Eagle chick, we spotted an adult male perched in a dead Slash Pine near Punta Rassa. As I approached the Eagle became aggressive, crying and circling overhead. If you look close you can see the feet tucked up like landing gear under the tail. 
The bird continued to circle before landing in a patch of live Slash Pines, revealing the cause of its irritation - another nest occupied by mom and two chicks. Not wanting to disturb them any more,  I packed up the camera and departed, content that we had spotted 6 Bald Eagles in a few hours. 
It was only 30 years ago that my 3rd grade teacher suggested that by the year 2000, Eagles could be extinct. With the ban of the use of the harmful pesticide DDT (in the US at least) in the early 70's, Eagles, Osprey, Brown Pelicans and many other bird species higher up on the food chain have since rallied. DDT apparently prevented calcium carbonate from absorbing in the egg shells, resulting in severely thin shells. When adult birds attempted to incubate their eggs they would crush them. Today Florida boasts the 2nd highest population of Bald Eagles in the US behind only Alaska (where their ubiquity is celebrated with disdain). 

Their population resurgence is worthy of a party and if there are balloons, maybe I'll see if static electricity works on Bald Eagles. 

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Why I Hate the Beach: Shark Attack Edition

I tend to avoid any liquid that contains things that could eat me. And just by writing that I realize that I'm not telling the truth. I wade in water with alligators and snakes. I've made coffee from Lee County tap water. But I've always had a tough time at the beach. It's sandy. It's hot. There are fish that can eat me called Sharks. 

A 15-year old boy was bitten yesterday off the beach on Sanibel by what "appeared to be" and I will assume out of lack of desire to do any journalistic legwork - a shark bite. Early lazy journalistic reports by actual journalists suggest that the 3 inch chomp in the kids leg may have been from a shark. 

Sanibel Island is voted one of the top beaches for shelling in the world and it's not a secret that sharks live all along the coast of Florida. Although attacks are rare, they do happen from time to time and just like the "irrational fear" some have for flying, the rarity and novelty of being bitten by a shark or crashing in a plane, or crashing in a plane and than being eaten by a shark weighs heavily on the minds of the irrational. It just makes sense. 

In 2008 there were 58 shark attacks worldwide. There are an average of 4 fatalities caused by shark attacks a year. This is a drop from 71 in 2007 - let's blame the economy. Fewer people are going to the beach. Fewer delicious humans in the water = fewer attacks. But many sharks give birth near shore during spring and early summer and that raises the danger level slightly.  

Shark attack data through 2007 -

There have been over 11,000 vehicle related fatalities in 2009 in the US as of this writing. Yet we don't freak out as much when we get into the car. Ma-Le insists Ecuador has the safest beaches and they never had shark attacks (4 in 70 years). I thought that was just nationalistic pride but that does seem to be the case. 

Regardless - there are a few safety tips and JunglePete tips to heed when venturing into the briny shallows:
  • Swim, dive or surf with other people -- the more people you swim with, the more likely someone else will be bitten.
  • Avoid wearing shiny jewelry that might simulate the scales of a prey fish, and also avoid uneven tanning. No shark attack victim wants to be on the news with an uneven tan. 
  • Don't swim at dusk or at night. This is when the JAWS theme song plays and that seems to attract sharks. 
  • Refrain from excessive splashing. This is very important if you are my niece and should be heeded even in swimming pools and bathtubs. 
  • Don't swim near people who are fishing or spear-fishing, chumming or using live bait. The spear ought to be a good deterant. .
  • If a shark is sighted in the area, leave the water as calmly and quickly as possible. Tell no one.
  • Do not harass a shark if one is spotted. But if you must - turn back to shore and yell "Watch this!"
Well - time to head for the beach and if the lightning doesn't hit me and I don't have a car wreck and the package of Easter Peeps I ate for breakfast doesn't stop my heart I might just make it to the sandy shores of the Gulf of Mexico where I will brave the waters and tempt the shark with my deliciousness. I can't wait.