The 2011 Winter Season kicked off on January 10th with the arrival of the members at our home base in St. Mark's Florida. We spent the first week conducting trainings and getting to know the area. On our first hike as a crew we walked the 6 miles from our trailer in St. Mark's, along the Florida National Scenic Trail, to Shepard Springs, where we saw our first alligator. Shepard Springs, and dozens of springs like it, is fed by an expansive cave system carved out of the limestone stretching under most of the state. The caves keep the water in Shepard Springs at 70 degree's Farenhiet year round.
On January 14th, having completed our training, we took a paddling trip up the Wakulla River, located only a 1/4 mile east of our residence. The Wakulla river starts at Wakulla Springs, just 6 miles upstream from our location and only 9 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. The river is abundant with wildlife, especially water birds. Sightings included, great blue herons, double-crested cormorants, anhinga's (a snake necked diving bird), great egrets, yellow crowned night heron, and white ibis, as well scores of common cooters (a turtle) and red ear sliders (also a turtle).
Our paddle trip up the Wakulla River inspired us to visit Wakulla Springs the next day. The constant 70 degree temperatures of Wakulla Springs attract Manatees in the colder winter months. Since Manatees do not have the layer of blubber that most marine mammals have they seek refuge in the warm waters in winter. Wakulla Springs, being so close to the gulf coast, and having a large deep river accessing it, has become a gathering spot for wintering Manatees which may stay from November to March. On our visit we saw over one dozen Manatees and even got the chance to get in the water with them. Under the watchful eye of park rangers of course.
We had only spent a week in Florida but quickly came to the conclusion that Florida is one of the premier places in the world to see wildlife. The subtropical climate and abundant water allows life to flourish here.