Tag Archives: Apalachicola

The Path Less Paddled

Take a photo tour of the Forgotten Coast segment of the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail.  Watch a video on the trail on Wednesday, September 14 at 7:30 PM/ ET on WFSU-TV.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150IGOR chip- habitat 150IGOR chip- gastronomy 150It all happened in about five minutes. The gull swooped down and grabbed a soft-shell blue crab about half its size, abandoned it to a swarm of small fish, whose activity may or may not have attracted a shark coming in from Apalachicola Bay.  I was standing at Sugar Hill, a beach campsite in the St. George Island State Park, the last campsite along the Forgotten Coast segment of the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail.  You can see this video on tomorrow’s dimensions.

(watch a video on the making of a blue crab molting its shell)

Were a kayaker to try to make the five or six day paddle from Cape San Blas to St. George Island, they would likely see a few of these little dramas play out.  As Doug Alderson (Paddling Trails Coordinator for the Florida Office of Greenways and Trails)  says in the piece, it’s one of the wildest stretches of the statewide trail.  That means it has a lot of nice scenery of coastal habitats.  Much more interesting, though, is that they are functioning habitats.

Predatory snails on Sugar Hill Beach at St. George Island State Park

Large predatory snails congregating on a tree stump at Sugar Hill camp site.

For instance, Doug loves to catch redfish when he camps on St. George; and they’re always there for him.  But why are these fish so abundant in Apalachicola Bay?  The answer is in those tasty oysters that put the name Apalachicola on the map.  Oyster reefs are a refuge for all kinds of animals like stone crabs, blue crabs, and various predatory snails and small fish.  It’s an all you can eat buffet for larger fish looking for those small fish and little mud crabs.  The action I described above happened by a seagrass bed not far offshore.  Those beds thrive in water that oysters filter clean, and so they provide another habitat for marine life in the bay.  I ate Apalachicola oysters for years without realizing just how much they give, and give, and give…

Rob and Debbie by kayak

Rob photographs small fish and crabs that Debbie scooped out of St. Joe Bay.

At the other end of the trail, In Saint Joseph Bay, we caught up with Dan and Debbie VanVleet of Happy Ours Kayak and Canoe Outpost.  When WFSU first started the In the Grass, On the Reef project, we rented our kayaks from Dan and Debbie.  Debbie’s been wanting to take us snorkeling for a while, to get some video of some of the critters living in seagrass beds in St. Joe Bay.  Kayaking over the shallow waters in the bay, you can see the turtlegrass from where you’re sitting, as well as rays, horseshoe crabs, and snails making their way about the sandy bottom.  To see the creatures living in the seagrass beds, you have to get out of the kayak.  This is where you have to be careful.

It is illegal to remove shells from St. Joseph BayWhen I say be careful, I’m not just talking about your safety, though you should shuffle your feet to alert stingrays that you’re coming, or if you kayak to St. Vincent Island, definitely stay out of the way of charging boars.  You also have to be careful with these habitats, and the marine life within them.  Dan and Debbie (and local law enforcement) are very big on people not taking seashells out of the bay.  Taking a bunch of whelks and crown conchs out of the bay means taking out critical predators, removing a top layer in the local food web.  And, as the sign implies, even a dead shell has a role to play (any hermit crab would agree).  It’s called the “leave no trace” approach, and there are tips on how to best accomplish this on the trail website.  There are also safety tips and maps.  If you’re attempting anything more than a day trip along this trail, it’s a pretty comprehensive resource.

Doug has put a lot of work into mapping the trail- it took three years- and assembling resources so that people could best enjoy it.  You can hear the love he has for paddling when he reads from his book, Wild Florida Waters.  You’ll hear a couple of passages in the show tomorrow.  Even hearing him read about paddling in a strong wind kind of gets me excited about going out again.  It reminds me of paddling to safety in St. Joe Bay after a sudden thunderstorm erupts, or paddling in December when the cold water numbed my hands.  It’s not as predicable a form of recreation as visiting a beach resort.  But it’s never boring.

Doug and Josh

Thanks to Doug (L) for talking to us, and Park Ranger Josh Hodson for driving us around St. George Island State Park.

Dan and Debbie from Happy Ours

Thanks to Debbie and Dan for taking us out.

Have fun out there.  And share your stories with us!  Click on the Ecotourism North Florida link above if you have an eco-adventure you’d like to see us cover.

Kayaking, anyone?

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

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Here’s a vacation idea for you.

If you had the time, didn’t mind camping for months on end, and were physically up to paddling fifteen hundred miles, you could paddle around the entire state of Florida using trails mapped out by Doug Alderson.  He coordinates the Florida Circumnavigational Paddling Trail for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (Visit the trail’s web site).  You would pass by major urban centers like Tampa and Miami.  You would make your way through the entirety of the Florida keys.  And you would see a lot of amazing coastal habitats.

Ready to go?


The Forgotten Coast segment of the trail starts in St. Joseph Peninsula State Park.

I’m guessing the vast majority of people reading this are saying no, though we would certainly want to hear from you if you were doing this.  Luckily, the trail breaks down into twenty six segments, and over one hundred individual day trips.  The one I’m interested in is Segment 4: The Forgotten Coast.  It takes you through some of my favorite places.  St. Joseph Bay has clear water and lively seagrass beds and salt marshes.  Many of St. Vincent Island’s most interesting animals aren’t aquatic, but if you look over as you paddle past you might see wild hogs running or even one of those elusive red wolves (not likely, but it doesn’t hurt to look).  Once you pass there, you could choose to either go along St. George Island or stick to the mainland and pass by Apalachicola, where you can try to find a place to land your kayak while you pick up some oysters.

We’ll be kayaking part of this trail for September 14 episode, and talking to Mr. Alderson about it.  Have any of you done this?  Are any of you attempting this, or any section of it, any time in the next month?  We want to know.  We want to see your photos.  We want to watch your videos. Leave a comment below, with links to any videos or photos if you like.  If you’ll be out that way in the next couple of weeks, we may want to interview you.

Leave your comments!

And we want to keep hearing from you.  If you have any ideas for stories we might do related to coastal ecotourism, leave a comment on our Ecotourism North Florida page.


We spent one day learning about invasive Hydrilla and alligators at Wakulla Springs, and then of course had to cool off!

In the (wire)grass

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

We spent one day learning about invasive Hydrilla and alligators at Wakulla Springs, and then of course had to cool off!

For most of the month of May, I was busy teaching an undergraduate course at FSUCML. The course – Marine Biodiversity and Conservation in Florida – was a new offering, and it was lots of fun to put together. And, at least from my perspective, it went pretty well! (I guess you’d have to poll my students to get the true picture of how it went down.)

One of the best aspects of the course, for me, was to learn so much about the special part of Florida that we call home. We spent one day trying our hand at tonging oysters in Apalachicola, Continue reading

A Year of Sunrises

Mike Plummer WFSU-TV

John Spohrer, early morning Apalachicola

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I have known John Spohrer since the late 1980’s, when he was introduced to me as one of the locals who lived year-round on St. George Island. I often rented houses with friends for weekends on the island back in those wacky 80’s and 90’s and he was always a welcome addition to whatever revelry would breakout in our kitchen, on our deck or on the beach.

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Oystermen Artist Project

Mike Plummer WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150Michael Harrell is a local artist, brought to WFSU-TV’s attention by one of our viewers. Michael paints in both oils and watercolors and among his nautical themes are depictions of the oystermen of Florida and South Carolina. This video looks at that series of paintings. The thing that I found so beautiful about his work is his ability to capture a sense of time with his portrayal of light. You can find additional information about the artist at MichaelHarrellArt.com.

Our local oystermen, as you see in this video, typically harvest subtidal oyster reefs like those in the Apalachicola Bay.  Michael Harrell also shows South Carolina oystermen harvesting intertidal reefs like those covered in this blog (i.e. Alligator Harbor).  The South Carolina sites of the biogeographic oyster study are sampled by Jeb Byers’ group.

Why do we eat Apalachicola oysters instead of those from Alligator Harbor?

Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR chip- gastronomy 150IGOR chip- biogeographic 150In my previous post, I described how tides could influence the oyster patterns that we are observing throughout the Atlantic and Gulf coast.  But throughout the Gulf coast, can tides explain why most of the oysters sold in restaurants come from subtidal reefs?  Are subtidal oysters healthier, happier and thus more abundant?

Well, before I attempt to address this issue, let’s first talk about the difference between subtidal and intertidal oyster reefs.  The term intertidal refers to a habitat that spends part of the day submerged by water and the other part of the day out of the water.  In contrast, the term subtidal refers to habitats that are constantly submerged by water.  Interestingly, along the NW coast of Florida, oyster reefs are subtidal from Pensacola to Apalachicola Bay.  And east of Apalachicola, oyster reefs become intertidal.


Fouling organisms grow on hard surfaces under water.

Now back to the second question above: are subtidal oysters happier and healthier than intertidal oysters?  Research by Dr. Charles Peterson at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill suggests the answer is no because both reef types have different costs and benefits that keep growth and health roughly the same.  For example, subtidal reefs may get the benefits of being inundated all the time by food-rich water, but this constant submergence also has costs that include: getting covered by fouling invertebrates (i.e., animals commonly found on the bottom of boats that look like silly puddy) that compete with oyster for food and being exposed to more marine parasites and disease.  In contrast, the harsh sun baking that intertidal oysters receive during every low tide can be painful and they may also get exposed to less food, but the sun baking also cooks off the silly-puddy competitors and it also keeps the parasites away.  In the end, these different costs keep growth rates about the same between subtidal and intertidal oyster reefs.  This is why intertidal oysters from Cedar Key, Florida can be just as big and delicious as subtidal oysters from Apalachicola.

Now I’m ready to tackle the first question  from above: why do so many more oysters come from subtidal reefs in Apalachicola than from the intertidal reefs to the east and why aren’t intertidal oysters always equally as large and tasty as subtidal oysters?  After talking with an extremely knowledgeable biologist who has been studying and working with Gulf coast oysters for nearly thirty years (John Gunter), I can fairly confidently say that the answer deals with the size of the fresh water input entering an estuary and diversity.  This is because good oyster production requires a tricky balance between fresh and salty water that keeps marine predators/disease at bay and fuels phytoplankton for growth and reproduction.  So, a larger source of fresh water input creates a larger portion of an estuary suitable for oysters to achieve this delicate balance.  But the amount and timing of fresh water input, along with the weather, varies from year to year.  As a result, one set of fresh-water input and weather conditions may be good for one portion of the estuary and not so good for the other portion of the estuary.  But the next year, this situation could become reversed, maintaining a constant level of production through varying levels of fresh water input and climate.  In other words, Apalachicola has a relatively large and diverse oyster portfolio.


Without a steady influx of freshwater, intertidal reefs have no assurance of being consistently healthy and abundant.

In contrast to the subtidal oyster reefs in Apalachicola, the size of fresh water sources that influence intertidal oyster reefs to the east are significantly smaller.  Consequently, there are only a few spots where oysters can thrive.  When conditions are just right, these intertidal reefs produce oysters just as tasty and large as the subtidal ones form Apalachicola.   But when conditions are sub-par, those intertidal oyster reefs shut down and there are no other reefs to make up for this loss in production; these estuaries have small and non-diverse oyster portfolios.

Ok, now that I waved my arms about the difference between subtidal and intertidal oyster reefs and why restaurants mostly serve subtidal oysters, I need to go get ready for our next big outing onto the oyster reefs, which should be extremely busy, but fun.

Talk soon,

David’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
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In Yesterday’s post, Tanya Rogers wrote about an old-timer oysterman in Jacksonville whose local knowledge aided David Kimbro and his team in locating reefs to study.  In today’s post, we take a poetic look at the life of an oysterman.
This is the first post by Dawn Evans Radford, a resident of Franklin County with deep roots in the area.  She is a published writer of poetry, literary research, and fiction; her novel Oyster Flats won the 1993 Sherwood Anderson Award.  Most recently she contributed to Unspoiled, a compilation in which Florida writers speak for the preservation of Florida’s wild coast and against offshore drilling.  She is currently writing a second novel and, happily, contributing posts to this site.
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Enjoy Them While You Can

IGOR chip- employment 150After all the time we’ve spent on oyster reefs, we thought it would be interesting to take a look at what the little guys mean to us culturally.  The video above is from Our Town, Apalachicola and features the famed oystermen of that town.  The article below is a little more personal.

Roberto Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

We had just finished interviewing John Spohrer for a photography feature and, well, we were in Apalachicola.  So I decided to conduct what our oyster researcher Dr. David Kimbro would call an exercise in predator-prey relationships.  My prey was some of Apalachicola’s finest product, and it wasn’t even an R month.  Me and my wife Amy (who is also my production co-conspirator) decided to try a place with a decent-sized crowd of friendly locals out front, the Hole in the Wall.  Amy did not eat any oysters and this was her last shoot with me for this project.  More on that later.

People in Apalachicola are proud of their product.  The man shucking the oysters behind the bar would excitedly declare “Oh, that’s a good one” as he picked them out of the ice.  The perpetually smiling waitress who brought them to the table would come by every once in a while and ask “How do you like your oysters?”

“They’re delicious,” I’d say.

“Enjoy them while you can…”


Dr. David Kimbro in Alligator Harbor

I did enjoy them, as I have for years.  People in these parts have for quite a while.  Longer than you may realize.  At nearby St. Vincent Island, ancient oyster shells and pottery shards lie in piles called middens, evidence of a long disappeared people.  The shells have been dated at 4,000 years old or older.  This means that people have been enjoying these oysters for thousands of years.  It’s an impressive legacy, especially when you consider how some of our country’s other historical oyster producing areas have fared over time.  The Chesapeake Bay used to be difficult to navigate it was so cluttered with reefs.  New York City used to be renowned for the oysters harvested there, they were a staple of the Big Apple until just under a century ago.  But while those habitats have been decimated, Gulf oyster reefs retain their abundance and quality.  When we accompanied David Kimbro on the first day of his study in Alligator Harbor, the scientist who had been studying reefs in North Carolina and California marveled at the size of the reefs.  He’d never seen so many.

I fell like I was rubbing it in Amy’s face eating those oysters, even if she had been looking forward to enjoying the local seafood as much as I was.  We had done the research and shrimp were an acceptable food, rich in Omega 3 fatty acids important to brain development in embryos.  This was her last shoot, as the days were growing hotter and we spend some long days on marshes and reefs.  Our child will be born a Floridian, like I was.  I’ve been spoiled by great beaches, a steady supply of fresh seafood, wetlands bursting with animal and plant life.  I wonder in what kind of Florida my child will grow up.  Will he or she have at their disposal what Floridians have had over the last few thousand years?  No one can really say.  Even if the worst happens, there is hope that we can restore it, even if it could never be exactly the same.  In the meantime, I’ll just do what I was told.  I’ll enjoy it while I can.

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