Day 5-Feb. 5, 2018

The next morning was beautifully misty and placid and seemed like the perfect conditions to test out our new drone. While we had done numerous test flights over land and were pretty confident with our skills, this was our first flight over water. Feeling excited, but also super nervous, I offered to pilot while Matt rowed the drone out to open water, so as to reduce the chance of hitting the mast during takeoff. The first flight went flawlessly, with a perfect orbit around the boat and a safe landing back to Matt. Unfortunately, our luck did not hold out. We decided to try an alternate flight option called journey mode. Matt rowed away from the boat with the plan of making a dramatic sweeping flight over the mast, however, shortly after takeoff the drone went rogue and started a series of wide erratic spirals before crashing, and then promptly sinking into the water.

We were both devastated as we had tried so hard to be careful. To this day, I still don't entirely understand what happened. To make matters worse, the strong current quickly carried it away after it sank, making it impossible to find, and impossible to get a return on its warranty. It marked our most expensive upset yet, but the day would be one of mixed blessings. To help ourselves feel better, Matt proposed we take out our paddle boards and explore the area a bit. It was my first time on a paddle board and I must admit it is an uneasy experience for a while. Thankfully, Matt and I quickly adjusted to the boards and the movements and made our way to Turtle Key, only half a mile away from our boat.


Eventually, the fog cleared and revealed a glorious sunny day. As we paddled out, Matt found a gigantic Horse Conch, a full 2 feet long and at least five pounds. Turtle Key itself was also serene and beautiful. Low tide revealed a rocky shelf made up of tiny fossilized worm casings. This substance is found throughout the 10,000 Islands, where these ancient vermetid gastropods, or worm-like snails, once weaved together into a hard rock like structure. When these animals died, their shells remained, and over the course of thousands of years, they eventually became reefs upon which modern fish, oysters and other lifeforms flourish. It was amazing to see an entire shelf made of them, as I had only ever seen them in pieces before. Sadly, as it was our first time paddle boarding, and we were afraid of falling, Matt and I failed to bring any electronics to record the moment.


The key also had beautiful white sand and luscious sea grapes mingled among the Mangroves. As an extra bit of joy, as we headed back to the boat, we were followed by a group of dolphins out to catch their morning meal. Some passed only about 10-20 feet next to us. It was an amazing thing to experience. One even brought his face up to stare at me for a bit. I figured it was curious about our paddle boards, which I doubt they saw often, as far away from civilization as we were. It was an amazing moment, that I wish I had caught on film for everyone to see.


The exciting excursion lifted our spirits greatly and before long, Matt and I were on our way to our next anchorage at New Turkey Key. The trip was pleasant and sunny and we felt equally elated to see a huge Loggerhead Sea Turtle swimming only about 25 feet away from us. When we arrived at the key, we saw that for the first time in days, we had a few neighbors that were also anchored in the area, as well as a few campers on the beach nearby. This time, there were few options for exploration, as most of the islands surrounding us didn't have any dry land. The only place with any was the small spic of New Turkey Key. Despite its small size, the island had quite a number of interesting sites, including two Horse Shoe Crabs in the midst of conception.


Horse Shoe Crabs are an ancient species that have been around for millions of years and have changed little in that time. Their mating habits are fascinating. The female, who is larger than the male, lays eggs in the sand near shore. There are two types of males that will pursue her during mating season. The first are the most tenacious, these are, what I call, “grabber” males. “Grabber” males will latch onto a females tail using specialized pincers and NOT...LET...GO until she lays her eggs, this is called amplexus. This male will forego eating, resting, or pursuing other females during this time and can weaken severely. “Grabber” males will only let go once she has laid all her eggs and he has had the chance to fertilize them. However, the other types of males are “satellite” males. “Satellite” males roam near the shore on beaches they feel are popular with females and await them. If they spot a female, they will follow her and vigorously attempt to worm their way to her eggs and be the first male to fertilize them. Sometimes these males will even push out a “grabber” male. While I am making this sound more intense than it is, as it tends to be a slow process, it is nonetheless exciting to see an animal that has existed for so much longer than humanity, doing the same thing it has been doing for millennia. Hopefully, they will continue even beyond us.

Along with the horseshoe crabs, we also found the shells of ancient lightning whelks littering the beach. Each of the shells had a small hole knocked out of their top, a sign that the island was once a hunting ground for Calusa Indians. These holes severed the animals' attachment point to the shell, allowing the meat to pull free. In addition to consuming the meat, the Calusa also used the shells for a variety of tools. Matt even found one where the inside spiral had been painstakingly chipped out, leaving a perfect shell bowl. Were these done by the ancient people that once maneuvered through these islands, colonialists that were taught this method, or were they simply manipulated by knowledgeable modern day visitors? I will probably never know, but its fun to imagine. We decided to add our finds to a line of shells started by some past visitor.


After enjoying the Terns perched on the bare Buttonwood branches against the sunset and the gentle lapping of water, Matt and I returned to our boat exhausted, but happy.

Vikki NelsonComment