Tag Archives: Apalachicola River

RiverTrek Day 2: Waking Up

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV


Good morning from Rob on Georgia’s phone! It’s easier for me to post from here. Last night, I had dreams about uploading blog posts. When I woke up, a barred owl was calling near the camp. After a few calls, I heard a response from aways off, I think across the river. They called back and forth a while. Much better than dreaming about blogs. Everyone is up and getting ready to hike Alum Bluff.


RiverTrek Day 1: Woodruff Dam to Alum Bluff

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

First day’s paddle is done!

It was an incredibly foggy day. It made for an interesting paddle when anyone that got ahead of you started to disappear.

We paddled twenty one miles, from the ramp, just near the Woodruff Dam (mile marker 105) to a sandbar across from Alum Bluff (mile marker 84), where we’ll be spending the night.  Yes, there are mile markers along the river, a remnant of the days when barges rode this watery highway to the Gulf.  The dam lies about 1000 feet downstream of the original confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers, just north of the Florida/ Georgia border.  The confluence is now below the lake created by the dam, Lake Seminole.

I admit that I had only really seen this part of the river as I crossed over it on I-10 (that’s when I like to take my cell phone out and watch the time change). What did the motorists passing over us make of our brightly colored kayak flotilla?

The cage around this young torreya is meant to prevent deer from eating it. They grow slowly, leaving them vulnerable to plant consumers.

A couple of hours into our trip, we stopped at Means Creek in Torreya State Park.  The creek is named for biologist Bruce Means.  There, park biologist Mark Ludlow showed us a young torreya tree. He told us how less than 1000 of the trees exist, all along this river. One hundred million years ago, they were common in the southeast and across the adjacent landmasses that were part of Pangea. Torreya species exist in California and China.

So far the technology side of this seems to be working, if a little slowly.  Georgia’s been snapping away on her iPhone, while WFSU videographer Dan Peeri travels with the tablet in the Riverkeeper boat.  He also has a “real” camera and a wireless mic on Dan Tonsmeire.  I’ve been in a kayak with four little waterproof still/ video cameras positioned around me.  This is not at all what I thought TV would be like when I started over ten years ago.  It allows us to tell this story a little differently, and all the footage is HD so we can make a more traditional video when we get back.

Helen Light talked to us as we ate dinner. She works for the US Geological Survey, and she talked to us about the damage being done to the Apalachicola flood plain. Obviously, we’ve talked about the damage done to the bay by the drought. But between 1976 and 2004, They are 44% fewer Ogeechee Tupelo Trees. That affects tupelo honey production. The drought has choked off sloughs and kept the river from flooding to where fish can’t eat many of the invertebrates they had normally eaten. We’ll have more on her talk when we get back.

Join us tomorrow as we get up bright and early to hike up this bluff:


For more information on Rivertrek, visit the official page.  This page is on the Riverkeeper web site, and you can further explore what they do for the river.  (They’re also on Facebook).

The Franklin County Promise Coalition is coordinating aide efforts for families that are being affected in Franklin County through their Bay Aid program.   As Dan told us in his original interview, over half of the residents of Franklin County depend on the river for their livelihoods.  Learn more about volunteering and other Bay Aid opportunities here.

RiverTrek Day 1: Snakes

Georgia Ackerman RiverTrek 2012 co-Coordinator

Spotted two snakes on our 21 mile paddling trip today. Snake number one was a non-venomous brown water snake basking in a crevice of a limestone outcropping. Shortly after, admiring him, Rob saw a pigmy rattlesnake a pit viper,
swimming across the river. All snakes swim!

Rob reported on our spectacular morning fog. It lifted and clear skies prevailed. Spectacular North Florida weather!




RiverTrek Day 1: Means Creek

Georgia Ackerman RiverTrek 2012 co-Coordinator



Explored Means Creek, named after Dr. Bruce Means in Torreya State Park. Thank you Mark Ludlow, biologist. He led on us on a hike through the dense woods and showed us an endangered Torreya tree. This region has the highest concentration of this once common conifer. Less than 1000 trees remain in Florida.


107 Miles to Go*

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Over the last month-and-a-half, Dr. Randall Hughes and Dr. David Kimbro have been introducing us to the ecosystems of the North Florida coast, with a focus on what each ecosystem does for people. With some services, like carbon sequestration or oyster’s filtration of water, it can be difficult to grasp how individual people are affected. The recent fishery crisis in Apalachicola more concretely shows what’s at stake when an ecosystem service fails. Join us this week as we paddle the length of the Apalachicola River, the source of fresh water for the Bay and a major determiner of the success or failure of the fishery.

The Rivertrek gathering shown in the video happened, possibly by coincidence, on National Oyster Day.  Afterwards, Riverkeeper Chair Dan Tonsmiere took us on a boat tour of the Apalachicola River Delta and I interviewed him.  You don’t see any of that in the video, as recent events called for our updating the interview.  It was more convenient for him to come to our studio than to have us meet him in Apalachicola for that second interview.  He has understandably been busy lately.   “We’re in a non-stop crisis mode,” he said as I guided him downstairs to our studio.

Mostly, people rely on the river to support the nursery habitats in Apalachicola Bay, and its world famous oyster reefs.  That’s where a lot of the human pain of this drought is felt.  Along the 105 miles* of the river, however, there’s an incredible diversity of life.  I’ve never seen the bluffs of the northern river, the only place on earth where one can see a torreya tree.  In my reading for this trip, I’ve read about frogs as big as dinner plates and alligator snapping turtles; endangered salamanders and freshwater mussels.  One of this year’s paddlers, Doug Alderson, has done Rivertrek before and wrote about it in his book, “Wild Florida Waters.”  He describes a night filled with the sounds of howling coyotes and barred owl calls.  Because of our impact on this world, we kind of have to re-calibrate what the word “wild” means.  But on this trip, there should be plenty of “wild.”

So here is what we’re going to try.  We will post periodic photos and videos as we move down the river, as connectivity allows (fingers crossed).  Coverage maps show a dead zone towards the south of the river, in the Apalachicola River Wildlife and Environmental Area (which we covered in this video).  Fellow paddler Georgia Ackerman will chip in updates.  Every day will end with a wrap-up post.  That’s my goal.

I’m nervous and excited about this trip.  I can’t wait to go out and experience the river and to share that experience with you.

For more information on Rivertrek, visit the official page.  This page is on the Riverkeeper web site, and you can further explore what they do for the river.  (They’re also on Facebook).

The Franklin County Promise Coalition is coordinating aide efforts for families that are being affected in Franklin County through their Bay Aid program.   As Dan told us in his original interview, over half of the residents of Franklin County depend on the river for their livelihoods.  Learn more about volunteering and other Bay Aid opportunities here.

*I know a lot of you out there are pretty sharp and noticed the discrepancy between the number of miles in the title and how long I say the river is.  Some of our camp sites are up creeks and off of the river; 107 miles is the number calculated by expert map-man Rick Zelznak for the total number of miles we will paddle.

Backyard Ecology (Plus new video on Bay Mouth Bar)

Episode 7: Where Everything is Hungry

(Some species names have changed.)
It’s always a good shoot day at Bay Mouth Bar as every animal seems to be eating every other animal.  Oyster reefs, salt marshes, and seagrass beds- the habitats we’ve covered over the last three weeks- reward those who take the time to look closely.  At Bay Mouth Bar, everything is all out in the open.  For a limited time, anyway…
Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR chip_ predators_NCE 150IGOR chip- filtration 150Like most kids, I spent a lot of my formative years in the backyard practicing how to throw the game-winning touch down pass, to shoot the game winning three-pointer, and to sink the formidably long putt.  Although my backyard facilities obviously didn’t propel me into the NFL, NBA, or PGA, they never closed, required no admission fee from my pockets (thanks Mom and Dad!), and were only a few steps away.

Now that I’m striving to be an ecologist at Florida State University, I’m feeling pretty darn lucky about my backyard again. Instead of spending tons of time flying, boating, and driving to far away exotic places, I can use a kayak and ten minutes of David-power to access some amazing habitats right here along the Forgotten Coast.

Part of this coastal backyard was first intellectually groomed by one of the more famous and pioneering scientists of modern-day ecology, Dr. Robert Paine. Five decades ago, Dr. Paine noticed that the tip of Alligator Point sticks out of the water for a few hours at low tide. Of course, this only happens when the tides get really low, which happens about 5 days every month. But when the tip of Alligator Point (which is locally called Bay Mouth Bar) did emerge from the sea each month, Dr. Paine saw tons of large carnivorous snails slithering around a mixture of mud and seagrass. When I first saw this place, my eyeballs bulged out at the site of snails as large as footballs!

Fast- forward 2 decades later: Dr. Paine is developing one of the most powerful ecological concepts (keystone species), one that continues to influence our science and conservation efforts to this very day. Using the rocky shoreline of the Pacific North West as his coastal backyard, he is showing how a few sea stars dramatically dictate what a rocky shoreline looks like.

By eating lots of mussels that outcompete wimpy algae and anemones for space, the sea star allows a lot of different species to stick around. In other words, the sea star maintains species diversity of this community by preventing the mussel bullies from taking over the schoolyard. That’s one simple, but powerful concept….one species can be the keystone for maintaining a system. Lose that species, and you lose the system.

Lightning Whelk

A large lightning whelk found on Bay Mouth Bar in December of 2010.

Ok, let’s grab our ecological concept and travel back in time to Dr. Paine’s earlier research at Bay Mouth Bar. Wow, the precursor to the keystone species concept may be slithering around our backyard of Bay Mouth Bar in the form of the majestic horse conch! In this earlier work, the arrival of this big boy at the bar was followed by the disappearance of all of the former big boys (like this lightning whelk). By eating lots of these potential bullies, the horse conch may be the key for keeping this system so diverse in terms of other wimpy snails.

But why should anyone other than an ecologist care about the keystone species concept and its ability to link Bay Mouth Bar with rocky shorelines of the Pacific NW? Well, what if the lightning whelks eat a lot more clams than do other snails, and less clams buried beneath sediments means less of the sediment modification that can really promote seagrass (Read more about the symbiotic relationship between bivalves and seagrasses here)?  Thanks to Randall’s previous seagrass post, we can envision that less horse conchs could lead to less clams, less seagrass, and then finally a lot less of things that are pleasing to the eye (e.g., birding), to the fishing rod (e.g., red drum), to the stomach (e.g., blue crabs), and ultimately to our economy.

For the past two years, I’ve really enjoyed retracing Dr. Paine’s footsteps at Bay Mouth Bar. But lately, I’m feeling a little more urgent about needing to better understand this system because it’s disappearing (aerial images provided by USGS’s online database at http://earthexplorer.usgs.gov/).

To figure this out, we repeat a lot of what Dr. Paine did five decades ago. At the same time, we are testing some new ideas about how this system operates. For example, if the horse conch is the keystone species, is it dictating what Bay Mouth Bar looks like by eating stuff or by scaring the bully snails? How exactly does or doesn’t the answer affect clams, seagrasses, birds and fishes?

Luckily, because this system is so close, with some persistence and some good help, we’ll soon have good answers to those questions.



Ps: Many thanks to Mary Balthrop for helping us access this awesome study system every month.

In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.


Oyster reefs. Huh! What are they good for!

Episode 4: The Hidden Value of an Oyster Reef

Weeks ago, we came up with a schedule for posts and videos and somehow had our video on oysters due for the week after Governor Scott declared this year’s oyster harvest a failure.  This led to one minor alteration in the above video, but the video was meant as an overview to the services provided by oyster reefs.  There will be content related specifically to Apalachicola Bay in the coming weeks.

Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR chip- gastronomy 150IGOR chip- filtration 150IGOR chip- sedimentation 150

There are a lot of things that a marine scientist can study such as charismatic animals (dolphin and turtles) or the waves and currents that fuel my surfing addiction. So, why do I spend most of my time mucking around in mud to study the uncharismatic oyster?

Short answer: because they can provide the foundation for a lot of things that we depend on. Now, some of these benefits or services are obvious and many others aren’t.

Let’s start with the obvious. Just like raising cattle supports tons of jobs and our appetite for hamburgers (I recommend reading Omnivores Dilemma if you want to see how eating meat can be environmentally friendly), the harvesting of oysters financially supports many folks as well as the scrumptious past time of tasting oysters on the half shell as the above video just showed me doing at my local favorite, the Indian Pass Raw Bar!

Unfortunately, the importance of this service was made all to clear to us when the Florida governor recently declared this year’s harvest to be a failure and applied for federal relief for the local economy (Download a PDF of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services report here). It’s also unfortunate that this type of bad news has a history of indicating that this natural resource is in trouble and that more trouble may be on the way. To see why, check out a study by Dr. Michael Kirby that showed how this service progressively collapsed from New England down to Florida over the past three centuries. In a nutshell, the pattern of collapse mirrors the increasing number of humans that have over-used this service.

But even if there are no questions about the importance and collapse of the previous service, many folks are asking great questions about whether oysters provide other important services in the form of protected reefs that may offset or exceed their commercial/restaurant value. In other words, what good are oysters to us if they don’t make their way to the raw bar?

A sand flat oyster reef in 2002

An oyster reef built by Dr. Jon Grabowski and Dr. Randall Hughes in 1997, pictured in 2002.

Well, my good buddy Dr. Grabowski’s research used relatively tiny oyster reefs to highlight one less obvious service that involves reefs really ramping up the numbers of commercially and recreationally important fishes (drum) and crabs (stone crabs and blue crabs)….yum!  Given that the oyster reefs used to be 12 feet tall and as long as football fields, can you imagine how many crabs and fishes hung around those really big reefs way back then? Heck, even I could have caught a fish!

Another thing that charismatic and good tasting animals need in order to keep our eyes and tummies happy is some healthy coastal water. Having too much plant-like material (phytoplankton) floating around in the water, sinking to the bottom, and decaying can deplete all of the water’s oxygen. Because such a place is very uninviting for lots of sea life, low oxygen areas will not have many animals that are pleasing to the eye, the fishing rod, or our palette.

Columbia River Water Diatoms

Diatoms, single celled phytoplankton. © Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Enter the filter-feeding oyster.

While it’s hard to know if today’s tiny amount of oysters reefs sufficiently filter enough water, we do know that the really big reefs of our grandparents and their grandparents time were essentially like huge skimmers in swimming pools as big as the Chesapeake Bay.

As the ESPN football talking heads like to say: C’mon Man! Really?

I kid you not, because Jeremy Jackson and colleagues dug through some Chesapeake mud to figure this out for us. Preserved in the mud is stuff that settled out from the water over time, with deeper mud containing older stuff and shallower mud containing newer stuff. It turns out that as we over-ate and turned the larger oyster reefs into small ones, the stuff in the mud transitioned from sings of healthy water to symptoms of unhealthy water. And because the oyster crashes came before the drop in water quality, it’s more likely that oysters maintained the good water signs as opposed to the reverse scenario of the good water signs maintaining the big oyster reefs.

So this points to a third type of service that oyster reefs CAN provide in the form of water-quality. Admittedly, it’s hard to put a dollar amount on that as opposed to the dollar amount that a dozen raw oysters brings in at a raw bar.

But another less obvious way that oysters can help maintain water quality is by removing the nutrients that a lot of the unwanted phytoplankton depend on.

C’mon Man!

Slide by Ashley R. Smyth, Piehler Lab, UNC Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences.

You see, after oysters suck in the water, filter out their preferred phytoplankton (some are good, but some probably taste as bad as my poor attempt of making southern biscuits), they eventually “poop” their waste out into the mud. Some of this waste makes all sorts of bacteria do all sorts of different things. One of these cool things involves taking a form of nitrogen (think fertilizer on your lawn) that is readily sucked up by nasty phytoplankton and converting it into a form that phytoplankton can’t use (think bad fertilizer that you want to return for a refund).  This is called de-nitrification, and it’s a way that oyster feeding and pooping can help maintain healthy coastal conditions. Even cooler, we can slap a dollar amount on it if we think about how much money it costs a waster-water treatment facility to remove the same amount of nitrogen. My buddy in North Carolina Dr. Mike Piehler did just a study and found that the value of this service is about 2,718.00 dollars per acre of oyster reef. And unlike a dozen raw oysters, this service keeps on giving like the energizer bunny.

Finally, and we are now at service 4 in case you are counting, oyster reefs can buffer the waves and storms that eat away at our shorelines, coastal roads, and homes.

Before signing off, I have to also acknowledge that not every oyster reef performs each of these services. Just like my brother and I look pretty darn similar to someone outside of my family, when you look closer, we are really different. Individual oyster reefs are the same way. Heck, while I can do different things well if you catch me in the morning with a cup of coffee, I often really stink at those same things if you check in with me after a too big and sleep-inducing lunch!

This point segues nicely into my research interest about the “context-dependency” of the obvious and not so obvious services that coastal habitats can provide. In other words, why are some reefs doing some services but others are not? This question really crystallizes the essence of a collaborative project that I’m working on with colleagues from FSU, Northeastern University, University of North Carolina, and University of Georgia.

In our crazy-fun, at times maddening, and democratic research team, we are testing whether the answer depends on differences in big hungry and scary predators like drum and crabs lurking around the reefs. Sure, some of these might eat an oyster that doesn’t make it on to my plate at the raw bar. But overall, they may benefit some reefs by eating a lot of the smaller crabs that really like to munch on oysters. And even if they don’t eat all of these oyster munchers, we’re thinking that their presence may sufficiently freak out oyster munchers so that they spend more time watching their backs and less time munching. Hence, the ecology of fear!

Thanks for wading through this long post. If I promise to write shorter posts in the future, then I hope you’ll follow our journey of testing whether predators help maintain services not only in oyster reefs, but also in the marshes and mudflats of the southeast Atlantic and Gulf coastlines.



In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation

L to R: Georgia Ackerman, Eddie Lueken, Rick Zelznak, Chris Robertson, and Jennifer Portman.

Paddling for Oysters

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Apalachicola River water line

If you’re an oyster lover, this photo might concern you.  This was taken yesterday on a long paddle along the Apalachicola River.  Participants in this year’s Rivertrek fundraiser (click here for the website) were taking an eighteen mile warm up paddle in preparation for the five day adventure this October.  Then, we’ll be tackling the entirety of the River.   I snapped this photo about an hour after our lunch break, during the long part of our trip where I learned why stretching before paddling is so important.

For us, on this blog, it’s a matter of salinity.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average salinity of the ocean is 35 parts per thousand (ppt).  That’s 35 grams of salt dissolved in every thousand grams of water.  Oysters, like those in the famous Apalachicola Bay, can survive within a wide range of 5 ppt to 40 ppt.  Yet they thrive predominantly in fresher water.  Why is that?  It has to do with the organisms that affect the health of an oyster.  Oyster drills and stone crabs, both oyster consumers, cannot survive in less than 15 ppt salinity.  The oyster disease Dermo (Perkinsus marinus) thrives in 21-25 ppt.  That’s why successful reefs are typically found where a fresh water source meets the ocean, like where the Apalachicola River flows into Apalachicola Bay.  It’s also why that photo can be of concern: it marks the decrease in fresh water flowing along the Apalachicola and into the Bay (the line marks where water flow had been).  That decrease in flow has been a result of drought, but it serves as a reminder of the greater threat facing the River basin: the management of water north of the Woodruff Dam, and the amount let through to the river..

Houseboat on the Apalach

Houseboats and fishing/ hunting shacks were scattered along the river.  The sign on this one identified it as “The Redneck Yacht.”

This year will be the fourth year that the Rivertrek fundraiser will benefit the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, who fight to keep water flowing at levels that benefit the dependent industries in the Bay and one of the most biodiverse areas in the United States.  This year, In the Grass, On the Reef will be along to provide daily snapshots of the journey.  From October 10 to October 14, we’ll have images of the trip and stories of each day’s trek.  Yesterday’s tuneup allowed me to experiment with how I wanted to shoot from a kayak using our waterproof cameras.  The image looks best when I get closer; the trick is not hitting the subject of my shot, whether it’s a cypress tree or another kayaker.  I also saw how best I could arrange my gear so that I could get my work done while paddling comfortably.  And I also got to know some of my fellow Trekkers.

Georgia cuts her finger on a fishing hookI had already known Georgia Ackerman and Rick Zelznak, owners of the Wilderness Way.  I will disclose that The Wilderness Way has been a WFSU underwriter, and had provided kayaks to the In the Grass, On the Reef project early on (Riverkeeper has also underwritten WFSU).  They provided us our kayaks yesterday as well, and will provide some for the Rivertrek paddle (including mine).  Georgia, ever passionate about our water ways, picked up trash along the river and ended up taking a fish hook to her finger.  Luckily, we were paddling with an ER nurse.

Eddie Lueken will be one of our crucial support crew during the trek, driving back and forth to bring us supplies and food.  One night, she’ll be making us machaca, a tasty sounding Mexican beef dish (with an accompanying bean dish for the vegetarian paddlers).  An Emergency Room nurse with a knack for story telling, she had us in stitches (no pun intended) with some of her stories.

Paddling together in a tandem kayak were Jennifer Portman and Chris Robertson.  Jennifer is the other media member taking part in the Trek; she writes for the Tallahassee Democrat.  Chris will be one of the fundraisers- everyone on the trip except Jennifer and I have to get pledges.  He came with several detailed laminated maps of the river.  They were formidable in their tandem, often well ahead of us and scouting for the entrance to Owl Creek, where we ended our trip.  They, Eddie, Georgia, and Rick were great people to paddle with.  The River and its struggles are always a big story in our area, and I’m happy to document a part of that story.  The opportunity to get footage along all the different parts of the River is priceless.  The River basin has to be considered the ecological epicenter of this area.

L to R: Georgia Ackerman, Eddie Lueken, Rick Zelznak, Chris Robertson, and Jennifer Portman.

Halfway through yesterday’s paddle, we started smelling salt.  The River provides for the Bay, but the Bay gives a little to the River, too.  Many of the fish that make use of the oyster reefs and seagrass beds in Apalachicola Bay come up the river.  Rick even saw a blue crab swimming at one point, over twenty miles up the River.  Next week’s video explores the real value of the oyster reef, and how its influence can be felt beyond our coasts.  If you haven’t seen the first in our second series of videos, it sets up the commercial importance of the intertidal ecosystems such as those that found in and around Apalachicola Bay.  You can watch it here.

Below is a slideshow of our trip, from the River Styx to Owl Creek:

In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.