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Sanibel Island

Birds of the Sea

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Birds of the Sea

From the tiniest sea slug to a walloping whale shark, our teachers have so many favorite sea creatures. But our obsession with marine inhabitants is not limited to the slimy and scaly. We're also extremely passionate about our warm-blooded, feathered friends  birds!

When we think about birds, we often imagine a radiant cardinal perched in an old oak tree, or perhaps the buzzy song of a warbler comes to mind. But in Southwest Florida, many birds are a vital link in the marine ecosystem. Great Egrets nest and raise their young in the mangroves, Ospreys pluck fish out of the ocean, and Snowy Plovers comb the Gulf beaches for tiny crustaceans. It’s really amazing to see how birds bridge land and sea, and it's something our educators love to explore.  

Check out some of the fabulous bird photos below, all captured by our staff:

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We're Expecting!

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We're Expecting!

It was an ordinary Wednesday afternoon at Sanibel Sea School – a sunny, late winter day in the midst of high season. The teachers were bustling around the campus preparing for class and cleaning up the backyard when one of them heard something a bit strange behind the building. Curious about the rustling coming from the leaf litter, they went to investigate the noise. They discovered that the odd noise was our resident female gopher tortoise plodding around her burrow, and she was not alone!  Our teachers were surprised when they saw two tortoises near the burrow, because this species can be quite territorial -  they immediately postulated that it must be a mating pair! 

Our resident female gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) peeking at us from her burrow. 

Peering through the surfboard racks with binoculars in hand, the teachers watched as the male tortoise tried to pursue the female. Many tortoises use a series of head-bobs and swings to try to get the female’s attention, but in this case the female was unimpressed. Even with no reaction from the female, the male continued to swing his head and approach her a little quicker with every step. After a few courtship shell-nips, the male decided to try his luck at passing on his genes. Alas, the male was a little over-ambitious on his first attempt because the female suddenly charged and flipped the male over onto his carapace – what a show this was turning out to be!

The bottom half of a turtle or tortoise shell is called the plastron. Notice the indented plastron on the male above. This is how we differentiate between a male and female tortoise - the male plastron is indented and the female plastron is flat. 

Usually, we try not to interfere with nature, but when gopher tortoises are flipped upside down, they are unable to right themselves and can become stranded. It's a good thing we have a herpetologist on staff, because he was able to gently right the male gopher tortoise.

This was good news for the persistent male. He immediately continued to pursue the female with some more head-bobs and the two successfully mated – right before our eyes! 

Tortoises are oviparous, meaning the female will soon deposit 5-15 eggs into the soft sand near her burrow. The eggs will incubate in the sand for about 80-100 days and the tiny tortoises will use their "egg tooth" to break through their shell, beginning their new life on Sanibel Island.

In 2007, The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission listed gopher tortoises as a threatened species because of their drastic population decline - these tortoises are protected on Sanibel and even have their own management plan to ensure stable populations in the future. 

You may have snapped a photo of these road signs during your visit to Sanibel - an important warning to drivers indicating gopher tortoises may be nearby! 

At Sanibel Sea School, we have a protected gopher tortoise area to allow a safe place for these tortoises to burrow and plenty of native vegetation to eat. You can help out too by landscaping your backyard with gopher tortoise-friendly vegetation – check out the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation (http://www.sccf.org/) for some great native plant suggestions!

Our summer campers helped create a gopher tortoise garden during Sea Turtle Week last year - we love to protect creatures from the land and sea! 




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Tunicates Take Over Sanibel Beaches

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Tunicates Take Over Sanibel Beaches

Imagine yourself enjoying a stroll down one of Sanibel’s beautiful beaches, taking in the fresh air and soaking up the sun, when all of a sudden you feel something squishy between your toes. When you look down and realize that a lumpy, brown blob is squeezing through your toes, your first reaction may be utter disgust. After taking a closer look at the wrack line, you realize that there is not just one of these strange blobs – the whole beach is littered with them!
 

The wrack line inundated in sea squirts - a common sight on Sanibel lately. 


The brown, wrinkly blobs in question are actually sea squirts, referred to as tunicates in the marine biology world. Tunicates are animals that house their tiny body in a thick covering that resembles a tunic – that’s how they get their name. Individuals have the ability to form dense colonies, which often end up looking like the irregular blobs we are now familiar with. These animals attach to docks, mangrove roots, and live shells, and spend their days filter-feeding plankton. The species you may have encountered recently (if you're on Sanibel) is the sandy-skinned tunicate (Molgula occidentalis), which is often covered in sand and bits of shell.

Up close and personal with Molgula occidentalis - the sandy-skinned tunicate.


It’s hard to believe that tunicates are animals, but they are fully equipped with siphons for feeding, a stomach, and even a small brain. What is really interesting to us is that tunicates are closely related to vertebrates because they begin their life with a notochord, a row of specialized cells found in all animals with a backbone. But unlike vertebrates, the tunicate’s notochord disintegrates as it matures into an adult. 

When the tunicates wash ashore, they often die off shortly after being stranded on the beach. 

 
Last month, Sanibel Island was getting high winds from the North and West, which resulted in the tunicates becoming dislodged from the substrate and pushed up on our beaches en masse. Even though these creatures are quite unsightly, they aren’t harmful – they might just squirt out a little water if you handle them, which we encourage!

More windy weather this week deposited a fresh batch of tunicates near the lighthouse. 

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Phytoplankton Friday

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Phytoplankton Friday

By: Elizabeth Farnham

Plankton are the most abundant organisms in the ocean and every time we enter the water we are covered head to toe in these fascinating creatures. It's easy to take these tiny creatures for granted, but it is important to understand their vital role in the marine ecosystem. 

The word plankton was derived from the Greek adjective “planktos”, which means wandering or drifting.  This is fitting for plants and animals that spend part of, or even all of their life drifting with the motion of the ocean. 

Plankton are broken down into various sub-groups based on their lifestyle or ecological niche. Examples of these groups include phytoplankton, which are plant-like plankton, and zooplankton, which are animal-like plankton. Today we will focus on the importance of phytoplankton on our blue planet. 

Let's begin by looking at the types of phytoplankton - diatoms and dinoflagellates.  

This diatom is encased in a cell wall called a frustule.

This diatom is encased in a cell wall called a frustule.

Diatoms are the most common type of phytoplankton but their elegant glass-like, silica rich cell wall makes them unique. Diatoms are classified by structure into two types: pennate diatoms, which have bilateral symmetry and centric diatoms that have radial symmetry. 

Here is a photo of a diatom taken with our microscope camera. 

Here is a photo of a diatom taken with our microscope camera. 

Ceratium longipes  can be seen twirling around under the microscope - one of our favorites to observe!

Ceratium longipes can be seen twirling around under the microscope - one of our favorites to observe!

The word dinoflagellate comes from the Greek word “dinos”, which translates to whirling and the Latin word “flagellum”, which translates to whip.  These phytoplankton are slightly more active than diatoms because their flagella assist with locomotion. Many dinoflagellates are mixotrophic, meaning that they obtain energy in different ways - either through photosynthesis or by engulfing their prey!

Some species of algae may result in harmful algal blooms or HABs. This species of dinoflagellate is a target species for HABs because it can negatively impact fish respiration. 

Some species of algae may result in harmful algal blooms or HABs. This species of dinoflagellate is a target species for HABs because it can negatively impact fish respiration. 

Now that we have discussed some of the basics, why should we care about these invisible creatures? Here are three important reasons:

1.     Phytoplankton are the base of biological productivity in the ocean and support the marine food chain.

2.      Phytoplankton provide at least 50% of the words atmospheric oxygen and some scientists estimate that it may contribute to up to 85% of the world’s oxygen.

3.     Phytoplankton absorb carbon dioxide and convert it into usable sugars for energy. This process plays a role in the global carbon cycle by absorbing an enormous amount of CO2 from the atmosphere and transferring it to the ocean.

So next time you find yourself in the water, take a moment to think about the massive impact these microscopic organisms have!

 

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5 Types of Jellies in the Gulf of Mexico

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5 Types of Jellies in the Gulf of Mexico

By: Emily Sampson

When it comes to jellies, sometimes we feel their presence before we actually see them.  While this may be a bit unnerving to humans, these fascinating creatures have been drifting in the seas for over 500 million years and are an important link in the marine food chain. Many sea jellies pack a powerful sting, so it is important to know the difference between the harmful and the not so harmful.

 Here is a list of 5 sea jellies (or jelly-like creatures) that you may encounter around Sanibel and in the Gulf of Mexico:

Moon jellies are easily recognizable by the 4 petal-like reproductive organs that can be seen through their bell. 

Moon Jelly - Aurelia aurita

 Moon jellies are the most common species found around Sanibel. Like all jellies, this species isn’t an excellent swimmer but is able to pulse its sac-like body called the bell, through the water. Moon jellies have short tentacles along the outer margins of the bell that are packed with nematocycts, or stinging cells. Jellies use these cells to aid in capturing prey and for the moon jelly, is zooplankton. Not to worry though, their stinging cells aren’t strong enough to penetrate human skin and will only cause a very mild irritation. 

 

These graceful jellies mostly consume zooplankton but their powerful nematocysts allow them to consume larger prey, such as minnows and small crustaceans.Their sting can also produce a moderate irritation in humans. 

These graceful jellies mostly consume zooplankton but their powerful nematocysts allow them to consume larger prey, such as minnows and small crustaceans.Their sting can also produce a moderate irritation in humans. 

Atlantic Sea NettleChrysaora quinquecirrha

Sea nettles possess several long tentacles and long, trailing oral arms. What's interesting about these jellies is that their colors vary depending on salinity levels and therefore may appear transparant or white when found in brackish waters on the bayside of Sanibel. When found in the saltier waters of the Gulf, red and brown streaks radiate from the center of the bell.   

The cannonball jelly has tiny "warts" located on its bell that are packed with stinging cells. 

The cannonball jelly has tiny "warts" located on its bell that are packed with stinging cells. 

Cannonball Jellyfish Stomolophus meleagris

Also known as the cabbage head jellyfish, it’s easy to guess where these jellies get their name.  When floating, cannonball jellies take on a spherical shape with multiple, stubby oral arms peaking from underneath the red-fringed bell.  Cannonball jellies play an important role in the marine ecosystem because they are the preferred prey for the endangered leatherback sea turtle. In addition to being a food source, they also form symbiotic relationships with fish and juvenile longnose spider crabs.

 

Drymonematidae is the name of the recently added family of jellies and thanks to the pink meanie, it is the first new family of jellies since 1921.

Drymonematidae is the name of the recently added family of jellies and thanks to the pink meanie, it is the first new family of jellies since 1921.

Pink Meanie - Drymonema larsoni

A newly described jelly, the pink meanie, was initially observed about 15 years ago in the Gulf of Mexico during a massive moon jelly bloom. When scientists took a closer look, they noticed that this jelly was feeding on the moon jellies and that it was drastically different than anything that had seen previously. It was so distinct, that they created a new family just to classify it! These pink meanies were collected for study near Dauphin Island, Alabama but are extremely rare elsewhere. While they may not be seen commonly in the waters near Sanibel, you never know what could drift along the currents and surprise us all! 

 

Comb jellies have a simple, gelatinous body much like true jellies but they aren't in the phylum Cnidaria. Instead, they are classified as Ctenophores because they lack specialized stinging cells. 

Comb jellies have a simple, gelatinous body much like true jellies but they aren't in the phylum Cnidaria. Instead, they are classified as Ctenophores because they lack specialized stinging cells. 

Comb JelliesCtenophoroa

These jellyfish look-alikes are not taxonomically related to jellies but we think these creatures are too interesting not to share! Their beautiful ovoid bodies are lined with thousands of tiny hair-like structures called cilia that they use to propel themselves through the water, often illuminating with bioluminescence. Even though these jellies may look similar to jellyfish, they have a major difference that is perhaps in our favor – they don’t sting! That’s right, these gentle jellies do not have nematocysts. Instead of using a powerful sting to capture their prey, they use colloblasts, which are sticky cells that essentially glue their prey to their tentacles.  So, have no fear in handling one of these delicate creatures!

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Fun Fish Friday - The Seahorse

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Fun Fish Friday - The Seahorse

Now that the excitement of summer camp is over, we think it's time to reinstate Fun Fish Fridays. This week we are going to learn about a very unique fish that doesn’t look much like its cousins – the seahorse. That’s right, the seahorse is actually a highly modified fish in the class Actinopterygii, or ray-finned fishes. The seahorse belongs to the genus Hippocampus, which literally translates from Ancient Greek to “horse” (hippos) and “sea monster” (kampos). This horse-like fish is prevalent in the waters around Sanibel and Captiva; we actually have 3 species that inhabit the region: the dwarf seahorse, lined seahorse, and longsnout seahorse.

The dwarf seahorse (Hippocampus zosterae) is common in the seagrass beds in Florida and throughout the Caribbean. 

Let’s start with the basics. Seahorses have the same basic fins as most other fish: a dorsal fin and paired pectoral fins. However, instead of a caudal fin (tail fin) the seahorse has an elongated, prehensile tail that it uses for stabilizing itself in the ocean currents. It wraps its tail around seagrass or coral and hangs on tight, helping it save energy for other uses. We've even observed a seahorse catching a ride on an arrow crab's back!

Notice the curved prehensile tail of this lined seahorse (Hippocampus erectus). This species can grow up to be almost 6 inches!

Like many other fish, seahorses are voracious, carnivorous predators, but because they have no true stomachs, they have to constantly eat to meet their energy requirements. Some seahorses may consume up to 3,000 brine shrimp in one day!  To chow down on so many crustaceans, they have a specialized mouth. Their jaw is fused, creating a straw-like shape that enables them to ambush and quickly slurp up their prey.

One of the seahorse's favorite meals, the brine shrimp, is an aquatic crustacean that is only slightly related to true shrimp. 

There is one aspect of a seahorse’s life that differs quite drastically from other fish. When seahorses are ready to reproduce, the male and female engage in an elegant courtship dance to seal their bond. Soon after, the female deposits her eggs into the male’s brood pouch where they are fertilized and incubated for up to 25 days. The male will then give birth to hundreds or thousands (depending on the species) of baby seahorses that are miniature copies of the adults. Scientists aren’t exactly sure of the biological advantages of Mr. Mom, but one theory is that it could allow the female to begin producing eggs as soon as she delivers her last batch to the male. Check out the courtship dance of one of the seahorse's closest relatives, the Weedy Seadragon:

Because seahorses are so unique and sensitive to environmental changes, scientists are studying them to better understand how to improve the overall health of our oceans on a global level - find out more here: http://seahorse.fisheries.ubc.ca/why-seahorses

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What’s washing up in the wrack?

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What’s washing up in the wrack?

The ever-changing wrack line can be a very dynamic environment. Originating from the Middle Dutch word “wrak”, meaning something damaged, this place may look damaged but is far from it! Technically, the wrack line is the place on the beach where marine debris is washed up and left behind by the most recent high tide. The wrack line may be teeming with life, full of stinky algae, or a treasure trove of seashells – it just depends on the day! Today, let's explore some of the more curious items we often find in Sanibel's wrack line. 

Sea pork

Is it a plant? An animal? A fungus? This mysterious blob is actually a colony of animals called tunicates. These teeny-tiny animals protect themselves with a sac made of cellulose and spend their days filter-feeding. Sea pork can be found in various colony sizes and be colored pink, purple, black, and even orange.

Purple variation of sea pork. 

Purple variation of sea pork. 

 Gastropod egg cases

Like sea pork, these paper-thin structures can come in all different shapes and sizes. Gastropods (live shells including whelks and conchs) are responsible for creating these elaborate structures to house their eggs in until they are ready to hatch as young shells. We often find these washed up on the beach after many of the eggs have hatched, but sometimes if you tear open one of the capsules, you can find some of the tiny shells that didn’t hatch. Give it a try next time you happen upon one at the beach. 

Lightning whelk egg case entangled in red drift algae. 

Lightning whelk egg case entangled in red drift algae. 

Parchment worm cases   

These hollow straw-like structures were once home to a marine polychaete worm that looks somewhat like a centipede. The worms build these housing tubes and attach themselves to various substrates or burrow beneath the sandy sea floor. These creepy tubes also provide a home to a couple different species of commensal crabs. Next time you find one on the beach, tear it open and you might discover these crabs!

Empty parchment worm housing tubes washed up on the beach.  Photo: iloveshelling.com 

Empty parchment worm housing tubes washed up on the beach. Photo: iloveshelling.com 

Sea anemones

Sea anemones are cnidarians that often resemble flowering plants, but beware of their beauty – they are armed with capsules of stinging cells called nematocysts for protection. Most of the anemones found around Sanibel don't have potent nematocysts and aren't dangerous to humans, but they do have an additional defense mechanism that makes you wonder if they might be a creature from outer space. When sufficiently irritated, they will release defensive threads called acontia that are neon orange and packed with powerful stinging cells.

Here is a sea anemone attached to a gastropod shell. Those vibrant acontia are hard to miss!

Here is a sea anemone attached to a gastropod shell. Those vibrant acontia are hard to miss!

 Pig bones

At first glance, you may think these are human artifacts or remains of a large marine mammal, but they are in fact just pig bones. Unfortunately, these don’t come from a rare species of marine swine but rather, pig parts that are used in crab traps as bait.  Crabs are attracted to the pungent aroma of the meat and enter the trap to chow down. After the bones have been picked clean, many of them wash out of the traps and end up on our beaches.

A pig bone found washed ashore.  Photo: iloveshelling.com 

A pig bone found washed ashore. Photo: iloveshelling.com 

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Fun Fish Friday - Atlantic goliath grouper

What animal is as large as a refrigerator, spotted and striped, and enjoys dining on spiny lobster? That’s right – The Atlantic goliath grouper! This fascinating giant is next up in our “Fun Fish Friday” series because they are one of our favorite fish here at Sanibel Sea School. Here’s why:

Atlantic goliath grouper are huge. As their name suggests, these fish can reach lengths of 8 feet and weigh up to 800 pounds – that’s about 100 pounds per foot! These hefty fish aren’t afraid to use their size to their advantage either. By contracting the muscles around their swim bladder, they are able to stun their prey with a sonic blast. In addition to lobsters and other crustaceans, they like to chow down on octopus, small sea turtles, and stingrays. Goliath grouper also have 3-5 rows of teeth that aren’t used for chewing, but instead for catching prey and keeping it in their large mouth!

A SCUBA diver with a goliath grouper.

A SCUBA diver with a goliath grouper.

Grouper (and their cousins the sea basses) have a unique characteristic to their family in which they spend part of their life as both male and female. This is called sequential hermaphroditism. When environmental cues are just right, female grouper transition to male, but we aren’t positive when exactly this occurs during development, or why. Once the males and females mature, a massive offshore spawning of over 100 individuals occurs where eggs and sperm are released into the water for fertilization.

Due to its popularity as seafood and as a target for sportfishermen, the Atlantic Goliath Grouper declined rapidly in past years, and is now a federally protected species listed as “Critically Endangered” by the World Conservation Union. It is illegal to harvest this fish and if accidentally caught, it is to be returned quickly and unharmed to the sea. We are optimistic that these strict regulations will bring the population numbers of these outstanding fish back up, so that we can enjoy their beauty for generations to come. 

A small goliath grouper caught (and promptly released) by a Sanibel Sea School staff member!

A small goliath grouper caught (and promptly released) by a Sanibel Sea School staff member!


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5 Ways to protect sea turtles

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5 Ways to protect sea turtles

This week's post is by high school intern Adam Tardif, in collaboration with Nicole Finnicum. Thanks Adam!

Here on Sanibel, we all love our sea turtles, and we want to make sure that we are good neighbors to them. As the sea turtle nesting season begins, it is important to realize that humans can sometimes disturb the nesting process without even realizing it. Here are five things you can do as an individual to help in the effort to protect sea turtles:

1. Don't litter. Large pieces of litter can act as a physical barrier to sea turtles searching for the perfect nesting site. Also, trash floating in the ocean (plastic bags, Styrofoam, plastic bottles, fishing lures, etc.) can resemble common sea turtle food items, and if ingested can cause turtles to choke or experience digestive disturbances – not much fun for these magnificent creatures. But perhaps the best reason not to litter is that you will feel good knowing that you have helped to make Sanibel a safer place for wildlife.

Plastic bags floating in the ocean may resemble jellyfish, a common prey item for leatherback sea turtles. To help solve this problem, opt for reusable bags when you shop.

Plastic bags floating in the ocean may resemble jellyfish, a common prey item for leatherback sea turtles. To help solve this problem, opt for reusable bags when you shop.

2. Turn your lights off at night (especially if you live on the beach). Artificial lights can be distracting to adult sea turtles that are nesting – they have the most nesting success in just the light of the moon. Also, hatchling turtles will crawl towards the brightest light they see, which is usually the moon reflecting off of the ocean. Artificial light can be very confusing to a newly hatched turtle and may expose them to predation or cause them to become disoriented or lost.

3. Dispose of fishing materials in designated bins. Sea turtles are good swimmers and their front fins are very powerful. However, since sea turtles move their front fins in a circular motion, they frequently become entangled in fishing lines and ropes. Sanibel Sea School has placed monofilament recycling bins near popular fishing spots on Sanibel – please look for them and use them when you are fishing!

A sea turtle is found entangled in a buoy line...

A sea turtle is found entangled in a buoy line...

... is freed by a fisherman ....

... is freed by a fisherman ....

... and swims safely back into the ocean.

... and swims safely back into the ocean.

4. Leave the beach as you found it. We love spending a day at the beach, lounging in a beach chair and digging sand castles. But, sea turtles are clumsy on land and obstacles like beach furniture and holes are difficult for them to maneuver around, and could block them from reaching an ideal nesting site.

 

5. Don't drive on the beach. While driving on the beach can be lots of fun, vehicles pose a threat to nesting adults, and tire tracks in the sand can make traveling to the ocean much more difficult for recently-emerged hatchlings. While we are on the topic of transportation – watch out for sea turtles in your boat as well!

If you are interested in the most up-to-date information on local nesting sites on Sanibel and Captiva, click here

 

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5 of our favorite shells (and 5 things you may not know about them)

If you're an avid beachcomber of Sanibel Island, you probably already know (and have found) these 5 shells. However, we have added some fun facts about the creatures that inhabit these shells that might just make them more fascinating!

1.     Lightning Whelk. This predatory snail is unique among the gastropods because its shell spirals to the left, while about 90% of gastropods spiral to the right. They also lay those long, snake-like egg cases that we see washed up in the wrack line, that may contain up to 3,000 embryos each!

Lightning whelk egg case washed ashore. 

Lightning whelk egg case washed ashore. 

2.     Alphabet Cone. Cone snails are notorious for their specialized hunting style – they use a modified tooth as a venomous harpoon to sting and paralyze their prey. If you find a live one, be sure to handle with care as you return it to the sea. Check out the video below to watch a relative of the alphabet cone hunt for prey - if you're short on time, fast forward to the 1:40 mark). 


3.     West Indian Worm Shell. Despite their worm-like appearance, these curvy creatures are actually gastropod snails that attach themselves to sponges or rocks. The irregular spiraling of the shell can reach up to 3 inches long.

4.     Lettered Olive. These shiny shells can often be seen at low tide slowly cruising along the sandbar. Even though they look peaceful, olives move across the sand in search of tiny bivalves that they grab with their muscular foot, then drag below the sand to consume.

5.     Coquina. Also known as butterfly clams, these colorful mini-mollusks love to catch a wave and surf to their feeding grounds. You can find these guys burrowing just below the surf near the water line – see how many colors you can find!

From left to right: Lightning Whelk, Alphabet Cone, West Indian Worm Shell, Lettered Olive, and Coquina

From left to right: Lightning Whelk, Alphabet Cone, West Indian Worm Shell, Lettered Olive, and Coquina


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5 Sustainable Seafood Choices in Florida

It's an important part of SW Florida culture to eat and enjoy fresh seafood from our local waters, but it's also our responsibility as good stewards of the ocean to make wise choices and avoid eating species that have been overfished. At Sanibel Sea School, when it comes to seafood, the general rules we follow are "eat less, eat local, and eat low on the food chain". Here's a quick list of suggestions if you're in the area and looking for a sustainable meal:

1.     Cobia (US Farmed). These fish grow quickly and efficiently, and require less protein in their feed than other farmed species. They are rarely fished commercially, so wild populations remain healthy. Cobia filets are mild and buttery, with a meaty texture - often available at Publix thanks to their new partnership with Open Blue, a Miami-based farming operation. (http://www.undercurrentnews.com/2014/03/13/open-blue-cobia-penetrates-publix-super-markets/)

2.     Florida Oysters. Apalachicola Bay, located in the panhandle, provides 90% of Florida’s oysters that are sustainably grown and hand harvested. The rich Apalachicola estuary is one of the last areas where wild oysters are harvested from small boats. Oysters and other shellfish are usually a great choice, since they are filter feeders that clean the water as they eat. 

3.     Mahi Mahi (Troll or poll caught). This popular game fish is fast-growing and spawns early in life making it a great alternative to grouper and Chilean sea bass, which are vulnerable to overfishing. Additionally, Mahi Mahi caught using troll or pole fishing methods reduces the chance of by-catch, which keeps our sea turtles and sea birds safe.

4.     Tilapia (US Farmed). Tilapia is a fast-growing, easily cultured omnivorous species and is extremely versatile in the culinary world. Sarasota Organic Tilapia Farms and RoyalTila based in Punta Gorda are both committed to producing sustainable, eco-friendly, organically fed fish. These facilities are among many in Southwest Florida that are supplying local tilapia to restaurants and grocery stores.

5. Your Catch. Perhaps the most sustainable way to consume seafood is by catching it yourself – we think it’s the most fun too! Be sure to check your local fishing regulations for size limitations and seasons. Here’s a link to recreational fishing regulations from FWC: http://www.myfwc.com/media/2714988/Coastal-species-quick-chart.pdf  

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A great white weekend!

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A great white weekend!

Blog post by Caitlin Smith and Leah Biery

Duunnn dunnn... duuuunnnn duun... duuunnnnnnnn dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dunnnnnnnnnnn dunnnn…. Betsy!

If you’re a local, you’ve probably heard the news - a great white shark named Betsy “pinged” about 70 miles off the coast of Sanibel last Friday – around 10 PM on the night of April 25th!

Betsy is a 12’7” 1400 pound immature female white shark. She was originally tagged off of Cape Cod in August of 2013. Since being tagged almost a year ago, she has traveled out into the Atlantic and then moved down the coast and around the bend of Florida. Betsy has traveled over 3492 miles altogether in a year. White sharks can swim up to 35 mph, but normally cruise at much slower rates. Betsy is the first tagged white shark to be tracked in the Gulf. 

Betsy is a 12’7” 1400 pound immature female white shark. She was originally tagged off of Cape Cod in August of 2013. Since being tagged almost a year ago, she has traveled out into the Atlantic and then moved down the coast and around the bend of Florida. Betsy has traveled over 3492 miles altogether in a year. White sharks can swim up to 35 mph, but normally cruise at much slower rates. Betsy is the first tagged white shark to be tracked in the Gulf. 

As far as scientists know, great whites only occasionally visit the Gulf of Mexico, usually preferring cold waters inhabited by large marine mammals. So the ping was an exciting story in itself, but things get even more curious. The next day, a group of divers spotted and captured video of a great white about 80 miles offshore from Sanibel. But it wasn’t the same shark! The great white spotted by divers did not have a tag, which means there were two sharks roaming the same general area over the weekend.

Watch for a Sanibel Sea School guest appearance!

So the big question: are great whites more common in the Gulf than we thought? Maybe – it could be that they’ve always been here and we just didn’t see them often. The development of new tracking technology and a growing number of divers with cameras could lead to more verifiable sightings.

An alternative hypothesis is that the oceans aren’t as healthy as they used to be, so the sharks are expanding their range to search for food. It’s hard to say, but the events of the weekend pose many interesting questions about these powerful and fascinating creatures for scientists to examine in the near future.

We’ll be sure to keep our readers posted on the latest research – and please let us know if you hear anything interesting related to this topic!

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5 Tips for Biking on Sanibel

Thousands of people frequent the 27 miles of  bike paths on Sanibel every year, and how can we blame them? We are so lucky to have such a beautiful, bike friendly island! Here are some local biking tips from our staff:

1. If you're visiting, rent a bicycle at Billy's Bike Rentals. They have a bike for everyone - single-speed, multi-speed, hybrids, and bikes for kids! Billy's also has a bike shop for all of your gear needs if you are an experienced cyclist, and they have a great map of our island bike paths on their website!

2. Bike through Wildlife Drive at J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. For only $1.00, this trail will take you inside the refuge where you will see many types of wading birds, mullet jumping, and maybe even an otter or two. Wildlife Drive is a 4 mile pedal within the refuge, then brings you out on Sanibel-Captiva Road where it's just 3 miles back to the refuge entrance. A great 7-mile loop that will leave you deserving an ice cream!

3. Visit Bailey Homestead (off of Periwinkle Way just past Dairy Queen and the Lazy Flamingo) for off-road biking. One of the most serene off-the-beaten-path spots on Sanibel, this hard shell-packed trail is great for mountain bikes (or walking) and allows you to feel far removed from the hustle and bustle of the main bike path. It's also a great place to spot large alligators and dozens of cormorants and anhingas drying their wings.

4. Take a turn down the back roads. There are dozens of charming neighborhoods off of San-Cap and the Gulf Drives, just waiting to be explored. Fill up your reusable water bottle and venture out in search of your island dream home. 

5. Bike the entire island at least once! Just under 15 miles, the main bike path takes you from the Sanibel Lighthouse all the way to Blind Pass in Captiva. This day trip is a must-do for all levels of bikers because there is just so much to see - Gopher Tortisoes munching on grass, Red-shouldered Hawks soaring overhead, and lush vegetation lining the roads. You can refill your water bottle at Ding Darling along the way and refuel with a delicious lunch in Santiva. Or if you're ambitious, carry on all the way to Captiva and say hello to the manatees at Jensen's Marina! 

 

Do you have biking tips to add? Do share!

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Fun Fish Friday - Atlantic Tarpon

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Fun Fish Friday - Atlantic Tarpon

At Sanibel Sea School, we love to teach people about the sea – and all of the creatures that live in it! So starting today, we are going to dive a little deeper into the realm of ichthyology by exploring some our favorite fish in our “Fun Fish Friday” series.

To kick off the series let’s talk about one of Sanibel’s local legends - the stunning Silver King, more formally known as the Atlantic Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus).  This majestic giant can weigh up to 280 pounds and may reach lengths of 8 feet! Not only is this fish the size of a small shark, it also puts up a pretty mean fight – that’s why it is one of the most popular game fish here in Florida. The tarpon singlehandedly brings in $174 million per year in The Everglades National Park and The Florida Keys Flats fisheries, and we don’t even eat them! That’s a pretty good financial incentive to protect their habitat.

Tarpon are fish on the move. They spend the winter in the toasty Caribbean waters and migrate to Southwest Florida when temperatures rise. Avid anglers pine away for the first full moon of the spring because that means the tarpon have made their journey back to our inshore waters. Around Sanibel and Ft. Myers, you can commonly find tarpon in San Carlos Bay and in the Caloosahatchee River, and fishermen close behind.

As if tarpon weren’t cool enough, they also have the ability to use their swim bladder as a lung, an organ usually used by fish as a buoyancy control device. Tarpon normally use their gills to obtain oxygen from the water, but when they live in more anoxic environments, such as freshwater ponds or The Everglades, they are able to take a big gulp of air at the surface of the water to fulfill their oxygen needs.

And while we’re on the topic, join us in wishing Doc Bruce, Ben Biery, Elizabeth Farnham, and Caitlin Smith luck in the J.N. “Ding” Darling & Doc Ford’s Tarpon Tournament next weekend. All of the proceeds from this tournament directly support efforts to conserve our marine ecosystem in the “Ding” Darling wildlife refuge. Find out more about the Tarpon Tourney here


Did you know that scientists are able to analyze DNA of a tarpon by taking a small skin sample? The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has created a citizen science project to better understand the tarpon population in Florida. By obtaining a tarpon's "fingerprint", scientists are able to determine how far and where they travel during migration. You can take part in this important research by acquiring your own DNA sampling kit  here . 

Did you know that scientists are able to analyze DNA of a tarpon by taking a small skin sample? The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has created a citizen science project to better understand the tarpon population in Florida. By obtaining a tarpon's "fingerprint", scientists are able to determine how far and where they travel during migration. You can take part in this important research by acquiring your own DNA sampling kit here


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5 Great Places to Fill Up Your Reusable Coffee Mug


Piggybacking off of our last 'Sanibel Tips' blog post, we are back this week to help you fill up those reusable mugs with our top picks for coffee on Sanibel. Here's where we recommend to get hydrated or caffeinated: 

1) Bennett's Fresh Roast. Delicious coffee and homemade donuts - the perfect morning kick start.  

2) The Sanibel Bean. At this family friendly establishment, you can cool down with a yummy frozen chai or even a smoothie. 

3) Bailey's Coffee Bar. Fill up your reusable mug here to fuel your grocery shopping. 

4) Dolce Tesoro - Simply Cupcakes. Enjoy your coffee paired with the best cupcakes on island. 

5) Sanibel Sea School. That's right, SX3 is now serving our own house blend coffee - organic, artisan roasted, fair-trade African beans. Our coffee comes with great conversation and fun facts about the ocean. The best part - it's free! 

Still need a reusable bottle? Sanibel Sea School has two stainless steel Kleen Kanteen bottles for sale: an 18oz water bottle and a 20oz vacuum insulated thermos. The insulated thermos keeps your beverages cool for 24 hours or hot for 6 hours and even comes with a cafe lid - a must have! 

Still need a reusable bottle? Sanibel Sea School has two stainless steel Kleen Kanteen bottles for sale: an 18oz water bottle and a 20oz vacuum insulated thermos. The insulated thermos keeps your beverages cool for 24 hours or hot for 6 hours and even comes with a cafe lid - a must have! 


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Shark Spotted Nearshore on Sanibel!

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Shark Spotted Nearshore on Sanibel!

A few weeks ago, someone sent us this photograph of a shark taken along the shores of Sanibel Island.  They asked if we could identify it, but due to the anatomical similarities between many shark species, that’s no easy feat. So we asked a group of shark biologists to help us out and ensure that the identification was as accurate as possible. 

 First, we reached out to former University of Florida shark expert Jason Seitz. Jason mused that it could be a lemon or bull shark based on his previous fishing experience and the visibility of the dorsal fins.  In the photo, the second dorsal fin was below the surface of the water, suggesting that it was relatively small in size. A smaller second dorsal fin is a good field mark for bull sharks, so Jason thought that this species was the presumable choice. Jason also ruled out a black-tip shark due to the lack of pigmentation on the dorsal.

Even though these species were both plausible suggestions, Robert E. Hueter, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory, had a different idea. Based on the photo, Dr. Hueter decided that the fin shape and position weren't exactly fit for a bull shark. He confirmed that the species was, in fact, a sandbar shark – it is typical for them to swim near shore in the winter months in SW Florida, passing through on a migratory journey or following their prey.  And so we found our answer.

It’s always fascinating to catch a glimpse of shark fin from the beach, but this example just goes to show that fish identification isn’t always as easy as it might seem. From land, it’s hard to see what is swimming below the waves, and sometimes it takes great experience and skill to solve the mystery. Luckily, there are biologists ready and willing to step up to the challenge!

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