Sarah Roberts continues her pursuit of Florida's biggest, baddest creatures. In this second report from the field Sarah recounts electrifying shark encounters, shares a creeping unease about reptilian road life, and comes face to face with the cuddliest of Florida's underwater denizens.
As ever, Sarah examines the fragile ecosystems under threat from human impact and meets some of the people trying to restore balance.
All That Slithers
Dan and I met up with Bryan Calderaro, Kevin Pavlidis and Tristan Phoenix. All three are friends of ours who share a huge passion and expertise for reptiles, especially snakes!
As the sun slipped below the horizon, we followed in our car to a secret road. The location must remain secret to protect the wildlife from the illegal pet trade which, sadly, is huge in this part of the world. Dan drove because apparently I was being overly vigilant. We also had Dan’s camera assistant, Ewan, in the car too with a second camera and extra hands to help with night-lighting.
Roads can be a great place to find wildlife. They are not just a highway for people – they also provide the path of least resistance for wildlife on the move, especially those of the cold-blooded variety. Tarmac absorbs the day's heat and radiates it for a few hours after sunset. This warmth invites snakes, alligators and frogs to bask. Sadly, this can often prove a fatal bit of pavement-bathing due to traffic. Moreover, whilst roads are a good place for wildlife spotting, road construction is actually amongst the biggest threats to wildlife in and around South Florida and the Everglades.
Roads divide territory and destroy habitats.
Our first stop was for a dead water snake, which the boys were gutted to see. They it moved into some nearby bushes to prevent the carcass from attracting any predators into the dangerous road. Less than a couple of minutes later and we stopped again, this time for a dead pygmy rattlesnake. It was a large adult specimen and sadly quite rare.
Eventually we ran into a fully living and breathing water snake, which Kevin managed to catch to show us. The snake seemed unhappy about it though and had bitten him a couple of times, providing us with a great demonstration of the anticoagulant component of their saliva. This prevents the prey’s blood from clotting so they can be tracked more easily. Luckily this has a very minimal effect on human though, as we are much larger than their usual portion size.
Kevin kindly passed the angry snake to me for my first lesson in handling. The trick is to make the snake relax and realise you are not a threat by maintaining a gentle grip and smooth hand transition. Dan was not so keen to try this one out surprisingly.
Encounters continued at this pace throughout the night. It was super exciting! By 2 am we’d spotted hatchling alligators and a slightly larger adult sitting in a drainage pipe. We saw multiple frog species, including a tree frog who gave me a special close up by jumping into my face, a cooter (part of the turtle family), loads more snakes and a depressing amount of squashed reptiles.
I could have gone on for hours longer, had it not been for the mosquitoes! Forget all the predators on the planet, the one thing with the power to completely floor me is smaller than an ant and they were out in force. It's a testament to Craghoppers' Nosilife Jacket that I came back with only two bites on my upper body, whereas my legs looked like I’d contracted case of chicken pox and felt like it too. Dosed up on antihistamines, we called it a night and headed back to a broken night's sleep in the car, whilst trying to block out the furious buzzing of uninvited guests joining us.
Manatee and Woman
I am stoked! Today I finally got into the water with the giant endearing sea potato, AKA the American Manatee. I have not been this excited about an animal encounter since 2014 when I met the famous Jessica the Hippo! I was more than willing to get up at 4am for the four-hour drive to get us here. I didn’t even need caffeine!
If you are not familiar with American Manatees, imagine a hippo crossed with a seal. In reality, though, they are most closely related to elephants. They range in size from a small bath tub to a great white shark and are highly inquisitive. They are also pretty hard to find. I’ve wanted to see one underwater in the wild for at least a decade. As these guys are classed as ‘vulnerable’ and are under strict legal protection, we’ve come to Crystal River in Florida, because it is one of very few places to legally search for the manatee.
My friend Lauren and her dog tagged along. Lauren is another marine biologist, so we decided to hire our own boat for half a day to explore the area properly on our own terms. This turned out to be a brilliant decision . . .
When we arrived in the first location we found ourselves surrounded by at least ten large boats and big groups of tourists all splashing around at the surface. I found this pretty stressful so can’t imagine how the manatees felt. Moments like these are when I really start to worry about the true cost of ‘wildlife-tourism’ if it’s not properly managed.
These creatures have very few natural predators, so their biggest threat is actually human activity. As I donned my mask and snorkel, I was relieved to see the small orange floats cordoning off areas for manatees to seek refuge. It was even better when the chaos diminished, and the guided tours were shepherded back onto their boats and away.
Recent days had seen incredibly good weather, so a lot of the manatees had ventured out to the sea grass meadows offshore. I was bit concerned there wouldn't be any left to see, but as we snorkelled up to the spring, my patience was rewarded. The manatee appeared to be doing a fantastic impression of a rock, sleeping on the bottom of the river. Shortly afterward the second and third arrive; a mother and calf swimming just metres from my face. As my head is turned to take a photo of one passing by Dan, I’m nearly steamrolled by another large adult coming from the opposite direction. It seems that these creatures are very tolerant of humans, or perhaps due to their poor eyesight they are just unaware. As manatees often travel through murky water, they tend to rely more on their vibrissae (whiskers) to sense their surroundings.
Despite their chunky shape, manatees don’t have much body fat on them. It’s all stomach! Consequentially, their body temperature is largely dictated by the water temperature, which is why manatees gather in warmer water up river. You might assume that rising water temperatures from climate change may actually benefit these awesome animals, but actually this poses an enormous threat. Firstly, the sea grass meadows which manatees rely on for food are vulnerable to temperature and PH changes. Second, manatees will often follow the warm currents into areas they are not familiar with and our rapidly changing weather systems can easily leave them hypothermic or stranded without food.
One of the significant threats to American Manatees in this area is an algal bloom known as the ‘Red Tide’, which has a toxic effect on all sea life. This has been linked to water run-off from agriculture and human settlements. This water is not treated before it is released from the canals into the ocean and the warming climate provides even better conditions for the algae to take hold and strangle the ecosystem.
After a solid hour exploring the crystal springs and gazing with lovelorn eyes at the sleeping manatees, Dan, Lauren and I decided to raise anchor and head to a couple of other spots marked on our map. The moment we jumped overboard at an area called Banana Island I immediately regretted our decision. It was incredibly cold. The visibility was somewhere between gloomy and none-existent. Oh, and we’re definitely in bull shark territory.
I was busy swimming backwards and voicing these concerns to an amused Dan when, terrifyingly, something appears from the gloom. Thinking I was already under attack I spun around to see that I had not been bumped by a shark but had, in fact, collided with a sleeping manatee, who didn't so much as stir. It was totally invisible from the surface and judging by its lack of reaction, it’s easy to see how these poor creatures end up with so many boat injuries.
This is Not Disneyland
I have a reputation as the "shark person" but I’m not going to lie; it’s been a few years since I was last free swimming with large shark species and I’m a tad nervous. There’s a term we use in field research and the guide world the, 'Disneyland Effect’. This refers to the complete lack of danger perception or a false sense of security, often accompanied by a sense of joy and wonderment, when viewing a dangerous animal in the wild.
It’s common with guests encountering big predators in their natural environment for the first time, and it can also take hold of seasoned professionals who have worked continually with large predators without incident. Think safari tour guests wanting to stroke a lion passing by the vehicle or guides being totally unfazed by a large bull elephant showing signs of aggression.
This 'Disneyland effect' is common in the shark industry too and it’s something that concerns me here in Florida as there are no real qualifications needed or regulations in place to stop anyone with enough money from taking a boat full of tourists out into the gulf stream and chumming for a sharks. I originally started my career working with native shark species just across the pond on an island known as Bimini. Perhaps because I know just how sharp their teeth are - with evidence imprinted into my arm - I’m a little bit more concerned about the risks of Disneyfication effect than Dan, who originated in the Great White cage diving world.
Dan was right though, we needed some underwater footage and this was the best place to get it. After interviewing local dive operators, my curiosity soon outweighed my concerns and we found ourselves 60 metres deep in obscenely good visibility, about to set a bait line.
Interestingly, two bull sharks showed up the moment the boat engine was switched off, leaving me to wonder how conditioned they are to associate these boats with food. Without base line research we don’t really know what effect feeding the sharks is having on their movement patterns or prey relationships. Without regulation, this has the potential to disrupt an ecosystem.
Six large bull sharks turned up in total, so I couldn't drop my guard. The sharks were not out to attack me, but they were curious, unfazed and in the middle of a bait induced feeding frenzy. If for any reason I were to get too close to a piece of bait, my hand could easily be mistaken as food. My adrenaline was high for the first few minutes as I tried to avoid swimming in the chum slick. Once the chum runs out their movements slow and I was able to properly take in their bulky forms as they considered me in turn.
I dived down to check them out a few times. With over 400 million years of adaptation, shark sensory systems never fail to impress, but the thing I noticed the most was the communication going on between the sharks. Two in particular were tailing each other and appeared to be using body language to discuss who will go into the bait first. As they descended deeper it was almost impossible to see them, highlighting just how better adapted these awesome predator species are to the underwater environment than us. As humans, we probably come into contact with sharks all the time, we just can’t see them. They are far from mindless killers, but they do deserve our respect as supremely adapted predators.
Check back soon for the next update from the other side of the pond. Rumours abound that Sarah is off to the Wild West to investigate the threats to the National Parks.
Read Part One of Sarah's Expedition Diary HERE