Sunday, March 15, 2015

Boat Trip around Indian River Lagoon

Departing from Riverside Cafe - Pelicans taking a rest from fishing see
us off from the dock whence the Indian River Lagoon boat trip leaves.
Tip for Busy Readers: Scroll down to the highlight of this post - pictures of dolphins swimming alongside our boat (near the end).

The Indian River Lagoon boat tour, "River Explorer", leaves from the Riverside Cafe on the edge of Riverside Park, six days per week.

We bought our tickets next the Riverside Cafe, a restaurant and a place to have a drink while listening to live music.

Alice faces front as our well-informed pilot and guide tells us
what to watch for in dolphin territory. Hint: Pelicans and
dolphins look for the same thing - small fish.
Riverside Park on the east end of the Barber Bridge (Route 60) is home to two Vero Beach pillars - the Riverside Theater and Vero Beach Museum of Art. (Others are the Indian River Medical Center, St. Edward's School and the McKee Botanical Garden.)

Alice and I set off on a boat tour of the Indian River Lagoon - the largest lagoon in the United States and the second-largest estuary, after Chesapeake Bay.

Estuaries are special fun because as places where salt water and seawater mix they attack unique plants (like mangroves) and animals (especially fish-hunting birds) that thrive on brackish water.

A second staff member watches from
 the back. Snacks and drinks $1 each.
 (self-service). Rest room on board.
This two-hour tour goes from Riverside Park north to Johns Island, three times a day.

Dead pine trees - killed on purpose.
(See text.)
We plan to take another tour from Captain Hiram's marina in Sebastian that will take us to  Pelican Island, the nation's first national Wildlife Preservation Center, created by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 (a commemorative stamp was issued in 2003) and celebrated recently by Theodore Roosevelt IV in a speech in Orlando.

Beautiful birds along the route. This a Great Blue Heron. Some you rarely
see except in estuaries like Indian River Lagoon.
The guide, who has been doing this tour for a year, pointed out the the dead trees on one of the islands and explained that the trees have been killed by cutting a switch around the bark, depriving the leaves of water. It was done on purpose, so these invasive pine trees will die and be replaced by native trees.

Birds of a feather flock together. So, as a matter of fact, do birds of different feathers.

The Indian River Lagoon is composed of the Mosquito Lagoon and the Banana River, and the Indian River, all on the Atlantic Coast of Florida.

The Lagoon was originally named Rio de Ais after the Ais Indian tribe, who lived along the east coast of Florida.

From 1913 to 2013, human activity has increased the watershed for the lagoon from 572,000 to 1.4 million acres, increasing runoff of fresh water and nutrients from farms.

Both have been detrimental to lagoon health. The wetlands are needed to cleanse the lagoon. About 40,000 acres of land were lost to mosquito control and as of 2013 have been incompletely restored.

Alice looks for dolphins. We are told
that pelicans will lead us to dolphins.
Mangroves are important to marine life. Between the 1940s and 2013, 85 per cent of them had been removed for housing development. From 1989 to 2013, the population along the lagoon increased 50 percent to 1.6 million people.

A pelican feeding. Can a dolphin
or two be far behind?
Seagrass is a critical component to the overall health of the lagoon. By 1990, it had surpassed levels reached in 1943. In 1990, the Florida Legislature passed the Indian River Lagoon Act, requiring most sewer plants to stop discharging into the lagoon by 1996.

Some sports fish rebounded in population in the 1990s when gill nets were banned and pollution in the lagoon was reduced. In 1995 the seagrass covered more than 100,000 acres. But in 2011, a wide bloom of phytoplankton resulted in the loss of 32,000 acres of lagoon seagrass. In 2012, a brown-tide bloom fouled the northern lagoon.

Hurray. Two dolphins playing in sight of us.
Indian River County has approval for funds to investigate unusual blooms to see if they can be prevented.

Catches of blue crabs dropped unevenly from 4.3 million pounds in 1987 to 389,795 pounds in 2012. High catches alternated with low-catch years. The crabs require 2 percent salt content in the water to survive. A drought increases the salt content and heavy rainfall decreases it. Both conditions have recurred over the past decades and probably hurt the crab population.

In 2013, algae blooms and loss of sea grass destroyed all gains.
Pilot speeds up boat and dolphins come chasing behind. What a sight!

That year, four problems with lagoon water quality were identified:
  • Excess nitrogen and phos-phorus from fertilizer runoff, 
  • Septic tank failures, maybe 10 percent of the tens of thousands of septic tanks in the county.
  • Accumulated muck from construction, farming, erosion and dead plants.
  • Invasive aquatic species such as the Asian green mussel, South American charru mussel, and the Australian spotted jellyfish, all of which eat clams and fish larvae.
The Indian River Lagoon extends 156 miles from Ponce de León Inlet in Volusia County, Fla., to Jupiter Inlet in Palm Beach County, Fla. The Lagoon is connected to Lake Okeechobee by the Okeechobee Waterway and the St. Lucia River, meeting in Sewall's Point. Stops along the way include Mosquito Lagoon, Banana River, Eau Gallie River, Crane Creek (Melbourne), Turkey Creek Sanctuary, Palm Bay.

Best picture - Dolphin looks like he has wings as he chases the boat.

The Indian River Lagoon is North America’s most diverse estuary with more than 4,300 species of plants (2,100) and animals (2,200), including 35 listed as threatened or endangered.

The Lagoon varies in width from half a mile to 5 miles and averages 4 feet deep. It serves as a spawning and nursery ground for many different species of oceanic and lagoon fish and shellfish - and hosts an extraordinary range of birds. Nearly one-third of the nation’s manatee population lives here or migrates through the Lagoon seasonally. In addition, its ocean beaches provide one of the densest sea turtle nesting areas found in the Western Hemisphere.

Some 200-800 Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) live in the Indian River Lagoon and that is a major attraction of the boat tour, especially since manatees are scarce.

Coming home. Great trip!
Red drum, spotted seatrout, common snook, and the tarpon are the main gamefish sought by anglers in the Titusville area of the lagoon system.

The Indian River Lagoon is worth $2 billion a year to the area economy, according to a 2008 study by Hazen and Sawyer. Visiting boaters,  fishermen and tourists spent about 3.2 million person-days in recreation on the lagoon. The report, “Indian River Lagoon Economic Assessment and Analysis Update”, was prepared for the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program of the St. Johns River Water Management District.