Growing up in Ft. Lauderdale, I knew Florida was a magical place, even before there was a Magic Kingdom. Florida was quirky and original, had an abundance of wildlife on land or offshore and was full of attractions you could find no where else in the world.
The undersea world of the Florida Keys and the Bahamas was introduced to those not from here via cutting edge 1960’s technology involving underwater motion picture cameras, which made possible the popular movie and TV series “Flipper.” Each 30 minute episode would present a predicament, such as injured divers, or shark attacks, or finding buried treasure, and each time the clever bottlenose dolphin Flipper would come to the rescue. The big ideas of marine preservation and doing what is right would always ring true. There was always a happy ending, it’s no wonder at the end of the show you would find yourself singing “Flipper, Flipper… faster than lightning; No-one you see, is smarter than he…” Sorry about that… I have you baby boomers singing now!
Just as people nowadays, want to see their favorite movie stars, kids would want to go see Flipper, the bottle nosed Dolphin (Tursiops Truncatus) so they visited the marine parks, which were plentiful at the time. They watched dolphins tail walk, jump 30 ft. in the air to catch a fish from the trainer’s mouth, or jump through a flaming ring. Because of their ability to adapt to human care, as well as learn new behaviors, they are the most studied of all dolphin species. These dolphins performed at 10 - 2 - and 4 - pm and earned their meals for the day. Unlike wild dolphins, who feed on a variety of sea life including: fish, shrimp, and squid, these captive porpoises, having been in the performing business all their lives, many born in captivity, would not understand how to catch a live fish. They only ate cut up dead fish which had added vitamins and fluids necessary for their good health.
One of my early childhood memories was of a souvenir I got while visiting “Flipper” at the 38 acre Miami Seaquarium on Key Biscayne, which was opened in 1955. It was an all day round trip, traveling down US-1. After seeing the show, and visiting all the seals, manatees, turtles and fishtanks, I put a quarter in the Mold-A-Rama machine and watched as hot wax was molded into a dolphin figurine. So cool.
Tike Miller, the Chicago inventor of the Mold-A-Rama machine, never set out to make one of the most popular vending machines in history, he just wanted to replace a broken figurine for his holiday nativity set. He experimented with a new plastic injection process, and made thousands of wax dinosaurs, space invaders and jungle animals before he sold the business in the late 1950’s.
Well you ask, why is this so important? The history of the “state of the art” then vs now is what makes this interesting. What happens when the show is over, literally? With attendance down, and protests up, the number of marine parks has declined steadily. Many of these facilities are desperately searching for homes for their retired dolphins.
And the wide eyed children, they’ve moved on. The attentions of todays generation of children are fixed on 21st Century innovations. not the engineering technology of the 20th Century which made possible the Overseas Highway connecting the mainland to Key West.
The new generation’s role models are from the Avatar series. With human-like animation, it’s theme is centered around the conflict between indigenous populations, and their deep will to survive, versus their oppressors’ intentions, which would cause environmental destruction of their world. The undersea creatures of Pandora in The Way of the Water were filmed using high fidelity motion capture, known as performance capture, which uses multiple cameras and sensors to capture facial expressions, and impart real-life mannerisms onto a human-like animation. From an efficiency perspective, it is far easier to teach a human to act, hold their breath, to swim, jump or dive than to train a real animal. With advances in microchips and processors and the speed of computing, finer more precise movements are possible. One day humans will not be able to recognize the difference between real and unreal reality.
And perhaps we will never have to go outdoors ever again.
A VR headset may work for me as far as going in the ocean is concerned. I made a pact with the fish long ago: you don’t come on my land and I won’t go into your water.
If you have ever visited the parking lot at Key Largo Publix, you have undoubtedly seen the chickens there. Great idea for a story, but why weren’t they there mid-afternoon on a weekday when I actually have my camera to take their photograph?
I drove the whole lot, and all I saw were some chicken feathers. Thinking the worst… did the gentrification squad move them away? My friend said when she was shopping early on a Sunday they were everywhere… even blocking the road, as if daring you to drive-by.
So I returned early one morning, and there they were in all their parading, pecking, crowing, scratching glory. Luckily I had finished photographing by the time the parking lot clean-up crew, with their blowers and weedwackers arrived, and the chickens and roosters dispersed into the woods.
Now that I know their routine, tell me, “where did they come from and why do they stay?”
The chicken (Gallus domesticus) is a domesticated species that arose from the jungle fowl that was originally found throughout the Caribbean, including Cuba. Early settlers in the Keys, many from the Caribbean Islands of the Bahamas and Cuba, kept chicken coups and used them to feed themselves, consuming both the meat and their eggs.
The 10 Year War in Cuba (1868-1878), a war led by planters and wealthy Cubans for independence from Spain, caused many Cubans to migrate to Key West. There were three Cuban wars for independence, the last of which escalated to the United State’s involvement in the Spanish American War, after the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898.
A 1906 postcard of sailors betting on a cockfight depicted everyday life aboard warships during WWI. These sailors must have adopted some of the traditions of the countries they were protecting. Cubans arriving in Key West fleeing a war brought with them their Cuban heritage, including their roosters and the sport of cockfighting.
Is it fair to say the Cuban roosters qualify as military veterans or AWOL?
Cockfighting thrived in the Keys until it was outlawed in the 1970’s; no longer being of use to their owners, these roosters were released into the streets of Key West.
Few are aware that back in the mid-80’s a flourishing illegal cockfighting business was going on in north Key Largo, just off CR 905 about a mile south of the three way at Card Sound Road. On weekends I recall seeing many cars turn off the main road and drive into the hammocks. At a glance, it didn’t look like it was a family picnic. The conversation was loud and exclusively Spanish; there were guards checking all who entered, a few women, but mostly a lot of older Cubans with lots of cash and many bodyguards with lots of guns.
Hidden behind the trees was a huge steel frame building that law enforcement called “The Chicken Ranch”. There were numbered seats surrounding an open ring in the center, where the cockfighting took place. The roosters were raised in chicken farms on Rockland Key, from former Cuban-bred roosters, known for their territorial and aggressive tendencies. The illegal operation was raided, and shut down permanently around 1987-88.
So with hens no longer being kept in coups for food, and roosters no longer being needed for the wagers, these released feral fowl hooked-up and are free-ranging through the Keys. In Key West, whose unofficial mascot is the chicken, locals call their chickens “gypsy chickens” as they roam freely everywhere. So much so that the City of Key West funds a program to rescue, care for the sick and injured, and re-home the chickens.
Many of the chickens from Key West are trucked to farms on the mainland, to continue their free-range lives. Did a few jump off the transport in the parking lot in Key Largo? And now they are here, they are officially staying since obviously someone is feeding them, and I suppose no-one is particularly bothered by the rooster’s early morning crowing. I find them amusing and a small reminder of our early Caribbean island roots.
It was another humid Florida Keys day, with record setting heat, when a naturalist friend alerted me to a very rare bird sighting. The tip came from a true photo enthusiast, who sadly possessed only an iPhone. I gathered up my professional photo gear and showed up in the hopes of getting a shot. OK… Though most of my photo archive consists of photos of birds flying away, I am optimistic. The first rule of photography… always have your camera ready so you can be there to get the shot. The thing about the iPhone is you will definitely have it when something happens, and though they are amazing, they fall short on details.
The rare birds were a pair of Black Swan (Cygnus atratus) which had been parading back-and-forth in a small cove on the Atlantic side of North Key Largo. The second rule in photography, is you have to be lucky; I was pleased when the swans decided to come to the shore and greet me. My friend called me a “swan magnet.” These birds possessed no fear at all. Was it the bold blue hydrangea print dress I was wearing, or maybe I represented a source of food, as people tend to befriend wildlife in nature.
I lingered for the best part of an hour, took dozens of swan portraits, before they retreated offshore as the tide was going down, and more feeding grounds opened up on the flats. It was a breathtaking scene, with Carysfort Lighthouse on the distant horizon, sport fishing yachts and sailboats passing by, and even some paddle-boarders moving through. From time to time I would see a flash of white feathers, as they dunked and bobbed, but wasn’t sure where on their body, as they were so far away.
Ecstatic that I had been able to witness such a beautiful display of nature, I headed home, eager to share my discovery with my husband, whose first reaction was, “oh that’s very bad.”
Huh? I was more thinking this was a gift, and I was blessed to witness it. As a child, I recall seeing White Mute swans paddling in the canal behind our home off East Las Olas in Ft. Lauderdale. We’d feed them scraps of bread and enjoy their presence, but one day these graceful creatures, whose only predators are birds of prey, mysteriously disappeared, amidst rumors of foul play. Maybe that’s what my husband was thinking about… that humans can be so cruel sometimes?
I later returned to the cove, and they were still there, but a Great Blue heron had now befriended them, and they were happily feeding side-by-side. I thought for a moment, how is the Blue heron reacting to these strangers? Has it ever seen a Black swan, with a long neck such as this? All of a sudden one of the swans fluttered up and revealed a beautiful white underside to an otherwise black feathered body.
I captured many images of these swans, both close-up, and far away… so much for my theory about birds flying away! I logged a few photographs on iNaturalist (www.iNaturalist.org) to confirm the identity and search for places where Black swans had been observed; the closest to the Keys was Fort Lauderdale, but very few overall had been reported. There are estimated 500,000 Black swans in the entire world. The Black swan is a non-native species, and there are no breeding populations in this area, They are migratory, and their origin is southeast and southwest regions of Australia. Florida is home to three species of swan: the Mute swan, the Trumpeter swan and Whooper swans. Factors that may have attracted the Black swans to this area include the search for more abundant food options, and migration patterns.
They are typically found near lakes and ponds, with fresh water and cover needed to survive, but they frequent brackish environments during migration times when resources become scarce elsewhere. 80% of a swans diet consists of plant based food sources, but they will also eat small fish, mollusks, insects, crustaceans and worms when available.
While online, I checked my email, and my husband had sent me info about the “black swan theory”, often used as a metaphor for an unexpected event, that plays a dominant role in history. Up until a Dutch explorer in 1697 discovered Black swans in Australia, people thought that only white swans existed. In the financial world, a black swan event is seen as an event that negatively impacts the stock market, catching investors off guard. Recent examples include the dot.com stock market crash, and the housing crisis that caused recession. Hope that as I stand in proximity of a ga-zillion dollars worth of real estate, their rare visit is not a forewarning of some future event.
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