The Edge of Extinction – The Return of the Florida Panther

For 400,000 years cougars have roamed this planet, prowling the landscapes with the mammoth, the dire wolf, and the sabre-tooth tiger. The Florida Panther subspecies has narrowly resisted accepting the same fate, in a tale filled with plucky scientists, risk, and one very controversial experiment. By Andrew Cook North American mountain lions are among the most awe-inspiring creatures on this planet. Strong and deadly, they are one of nature’s fiercest predators. The Florida Panther is the final remaining subspecies of mountain lion living in the Eastern United States, and at one time, numbered in the dozens. The tale of its comeback is nothing short of incredible. The Lion. The King of beasts. Maned and roaring across its territory for miles. Florida panthers are the complete opposite. Unable to roar at all, they will purr, hiss, growl, and snarl like a house cat in order to communicate. Being considerably more introverted than their African counterparts is the only reason for their survival to this day. While interaction with human habitations has been the greater part of their endangerment, the Florida panthers led their secretive survival among the impenetrable swampland of the Everglades. Florida panther wildTheir beginnings Once they covered the North American continent. Vast populations and swathes of hunting grounds led to reverence among Native American cultures. Known as ‘koi’, ‘kaccv’ or ‘yaraha’, these beasts were involved in religious and cultural traditions. Both hunter and hunted as young men sought to gain the spiritual knowledge and energy of the panther. Despite ritualised hunts by the Native American tribes, their vast populations had little effect on their great numbers, but this all changed with the arrival of the Conquistadors. The first recorded sighting in 1513 by Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca would signal the beginning of 400 years of organised extermination of the species. Bounties were issued, hunted down for the fur trade, the gradual destruction of their natural habitats, and the loss of their primary food source (white tailed deer) would see the panther’s population plummet. From a an unimaginable population, and habitats covering several states, every local with a gun and a desire to collect a $5 bounty would reduce the number of panthers in the wild to a to a devastating 20-30. Back from the brink The Florida panther was believed to have been extinct during the 1970’s, until surveys discovered a minuscule population in the Everglades, resisting centuries of humanity’s best efforts to eradicate them. Immediately placed onto the Federal Endangered Species list in 1973, a team of wildlife experts and scientists began devising a plan to reverse the damage wrought upon the species. The answer, in true Floridian style, was considered lunacy. Dangers to the panther included human settlements and roads, encroaching on farmers’ lands, but most critically – a lack of genetic diversity. The tiny gene pool available to them was causing evident problems to biologists and wildlife experts. Common in-breeding mutations were prevalent amongst the surviving panthers. Kinked tails, reproductive disorders, and heart defects were rampant. The best plan to combat this was as simple as it was outlandish – cross-breeding. Considered a radical idea, the principle of introducing genes from a close relative of the panther led to furious debate – for one, would the offspring be considered Florida panthers? Or would they be produce a brand new species of panther? Right or wrong aside, the crisis of dwindling numbers left them with no choice, it was do or die for the species. Through careful study, the Texas Mountain Lion was chosen. Inter-species breeding had been feasible centuries ago, when their territories once overlapped, but generations of isolation left a large space of uncertainty in the calculations. Florida panther signAhead of schedule In 1995, eight female Texas Mountain Lions were prepared to be released into the Florida Everglades, to begin an uncertain experiment for the survival of a species. While an acclimatisation period was planned, a young mountain lion broke free on her first day and escaped into the wilds ahead of schedule. While not in line with the scientists’ plans, little harm was done and it kick-started the revival of the species prematurely. Gradually the other seven female mountain lions were released into the everglades and the effects were unbelievable. From five of the cats, 20 kittens were born, and not only that, but the survivability of the new generation was far superior to that of previous Florida panthers. Nothing short of a miracle to a species on the precipice of extinction. The original Texan lions were removed from the wild. Through accidental death, or captured and retrieved by wildlife experts, their withdrawal was instrumental to prevent too much Texan DNA being incorporated into the Florida Panther gene pool. Today there are an estimated 120-230 panthers thriving in the Florida Everglades. a 40-year undertaking against incredible odds, today’s results speak for themselves. The panthers are now expanding their territories in new numbers, and in 2018, kittens were sighted north of the Caloosahatchee river in south-west Florida. Allowing for a second population centre to be reestablished, this gives unbridled hope for the future of the species and we have the privilege to observe Florida panthers roaming their ancient lands once more. The end is far from over. Despite making a recovery, the species still faces the threat of extinction. As their hunting grounds grow, interaction with human habitations becomes increasingly likely. Road traffic is proving to be a deadly challenge for an animals who have grown among the deep swamps of the Everglades for generations. It is thanks to a crack team of wildlife specialists and scientists that Florida Panthers are still surviving to face new threats. However endangered they are, we are fortunate to witness their continued existence, and be grateful that these stunning creatures failed to succumb to our predecessors’ predations.  

Sanibel Island – A paradise for shell lovers

Shell-lovers from all over the world make pilgrimages to Sanibel Island, which is considered one of the best shelling spots in the world. Sanibel’s beaches, protected by a broad underwater shelf perfect for gently receiving deliveries from shell-laden currents, are carpeted with tiny, perfect pastel coquinas and false angel wings. Collecting them has become a favourite pastime for many visitors. In fact, so many people go shelling when visiting the island that the bent-at-the-waist stance one takes when bending over to retrieve a seashell has been dubbed the “Sanibel Stoop.” By Bev Cleary Writer and pioneering aviator Anne Morrow Lindbergh said: “One cannot collect all the beautiful shells on the beach!” Sounds obvious when you think about it. But she may have been thinking about one particularly idyllic island off the coast of Florida which doesn’t just have shells ON the beach – the shells ARE the beach! The sublime Sanibel island is world renowned among ‘shellers’ for its incredibly vast array of more than 400 different amazing varieties of seashells. Sanibel IslandEach day shells are washed up onto the shores of the many beaches of Sanibel, and its close neighbour Captiva, from the tides of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, the area has become a real paradise for ‘shellers’ – the term given to those who enjoy walking the beaches and looking for seashells to inspect and collect. According to historians and the island’s Chamber of Commerce, Sanibel and Captiva began life as a huge area of sediment shaped by centuries of terrific storm activity. Both Sanibel and Captiva rose from the ocean as one island some 6,000 years ago. They played host to their first native inhabitants, the Calusa Indians, around 3,500 years later. Disease brought by European sailors caused the deaths of the native Indian populations and the islands suffered from the effects of decades of piracy and civil war. It wasn’t until 1845 that Sanibel and Captiva were admitted to the Union shortly after the area was declared safe to inhabit. In 1870 the Lighthouse was granted reservation status and it lit the skies for the first time in 1884. It has been their simple geography and ‘boomerang’ shaped shorelines that have made Sanibel and Captiva two of nature’s most successful seashell entrapments over the last few thousand years. And there really are some rich pickings for shellers! There so many shells on and in the islands that residents regularly dig them up when doing their own gardening! According to, the top five sites for ‘shellers’ to practise their Sanibel ‘shkills’ are:
  • Lighthouse Beach, which plays host to thousands of small but beautifully formed shells of all colours in addition to its historic lighthouse and nature trail;
  • Gulfside City Park , a less well known area where shellers can while away the day without being disturbed by large groups of tourists;
  • Bowman’s Beach, a quiet and idyllic white beach on the northwest of the island, with a large assortment of shells; and
  • Blind Pass Beach which is one of the best spots to locate the larger shells or observe those which may still play home to resident sea life creatures.
And if that’s not enough, visitors can take the opportunity to brush up on their Sanibel ‘stooping’ techniques too. The term ‘stoop’ or ‘stooping’ refers to the action of bending down to collect a shell from the beaches of Sanibel –  the Washington Post newspaper also described it as the Sanibel “bent-at-the-waist posture”. Sanibel NatureIn a bid to ensure wildlife on and around the islands are protected from over-zealous shellers and stoopers, local officials enforce an eco-behaviour code. One of the most stringently enforced regulations, introduced by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in March 2002, was the banning of the collection of ‘live’ shells from the beaches of this heavenly, holiday haven. The ban came into force as a result of decades of ‘live’ shell creatures being taken away by inquisitive holidaymakers and collectors. Sanibel is home to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, which is the only museum in the United States which claims to be “devoted entirely to shells and molluscs”.  It boasts “more than 30 engaging exhibits of stunning shells, showcasing some of the largest and rarest shell specimens in the world, including the goliath conch, lightning whelk and Atlantic trumpet triton, as well as common Southwest Florida shell and fossil shells”. According to “The Beaches Fort Myers and Sanibel” organisation, shellers are especially advised to look out for the Sanibel Six when ‘stooping’ or, indeed, when ‘crouching’ on Captiva. Apparently, the best time to go shell hunting is after high winds and storms when more shells are brought to the island by more fearsome waves. Collecting at lower tide, of course, also means that there is more sand and a bigger expanse of beach on which to comb for those special, elusive shells. The Sanibel Six  seashells  are: the low tide dwelling Lightning Whelk; the complex and difficult to find Lace Murex; the orange dotted and dashed Alphabet Cone; the Florida Fighting Conch which can be ‘aggressive’ if alive when picked up; the Lettered Olive, which is the ‘shiniest shell’ on Sanibel; and the four-inch-long Banded Tulip. If visitors can drag themselves away from the top shelling areas of Sanibel and Captiva, they can enjoy the sun, sea and sand in average August Florida temperatures of between 71 and 92 degrees Fahrenheit. Sanibel FoodIn addition, they can compare their experiences with those of former famous holidaymakers and lovers of this charming, American island holiday idyl. As mentioned earlier, Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her husband, the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, would often holiday on the southwest coast of Florida and on Sanibel’s sister island, Captiva in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Their stays are said to have enthused Anne to writer her 3 million bestselling book, Gift from the Sea. Other famous faces rumoured to have graced the town’s sights and eateries include musician Eric Clapton, actor Johnny Depp and even American politician Mike Pence. Folk rock supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young raised the islands’ profiles when they sang about the “Starlit nights in paradise on the Isle of Sanibel”. Some parts of Sanibel have been used for scenes in well-known movies including director Georgeo Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985) and the majestic Sanibel Causeway in a handful of commercial advertisements including promotions for the 2014 E-Class Coupe. For ordinary visitors, the causeway is a fantastic place for a gentle stroll. But be warned that, if winds reach speeds of more than 40mph, the Causeway will close. If you want to enjoy the wealth of beauty and scenery on Sanibel, Captiva and nearby Fort Myers and the Florida coast, you can do the ‘stoop’ from the comfort of your own sofa!  Click on one of the many Sanibel beach and town cams made available by the local Chamber of Commerce official website to see what you are missing.

The Castle that eats cannon balls

Castillo de San Marcos – The Devourer of Cannon Fire Undefeated and unbreakable, Castillo de San Marcos has withstood assaults, changed ownership six times, and been controlled by four governments but, due to a fascinating phenomenon, it has never once has it fallen to outside forces.  By Andrew Cook Florida in the 18th century was an area rife with war. Between the British Colonies, the Spanish Empire, and the British Empire, the Americas were involved in a relentless tug-of-war that spanned decades. The relentless charging of hooves, the marching cadence of soldiers, and the explosions of cannon fire were common throughout the land. Battles and sieges were bloody affairs, the smell of gunpowder and screams of soldiers – the litany of war. However, while many fortresses fell to their enemies, the Castillo de San Marcos has remained stalwart throughout the ages. After the destruction of the original wooden fort by English Privateer Robert Searles, the core of new fortress, designed by Spanish Engineer Ignacio Daza in 1672, took 23 years to complete, where it proudly remains standing to this day. Whether by luck or clever design, the materials employed in construction provided an insurmountable defence against attackers. In 1702 the secret of the fort became apparent, much to the dismay of the British forces besieging the city. While most Castles are susceptible to cannon fire, and the walls able to be destroyed given enough time, the Castillo de San Marcos devoured every cannonball sent its way. No cracks appeared, no weaknesses found, the surrounding walls ate cannonball after cannonball sent against them. This incredible phenomenon was due to one factor – coquina. Castillo de San Marcos FloridaThe Defensive Secret Coquina is a particular kind of sedimentary rock. Formed from layer after layer of shells from dead marine organisms, and subjected to years of extreme pressure, this type of rock was used in the construction of the entire fort. This provided the legendary defensive capability that has ensured the fort’s impregnable existence through the centuries. Firing heavy iron balls at hundreds of feet per second has a severely detrimental effect on walls carved from ordinary rock. The stress of impact smashes the stone open and causes deep, long cracks within the walls, eventually leading to catastrophic structural damage and destroying the integrity of the defences. With walls built from coquina however, the Castillo de San Marcos did something very different. With the use of coquina within the walls, they did not receive the impact immediately as most other castles would, and instead, allowed the cannonball to penetrate the outer layers, absorbing the kinetic energy at a slower rate, and bringing the cannonball to a slow rest. An Englishman aptly described the effect of the walls as ‘will not splinter but will give way to cannon ball as though you would stick a knife into cheese. This fascinating construction of the Castillo de San Marcos has allowed it to withstand siege after siege and remain impregnable throughout the centuries. It has held its own against every army hurled against its walls, and has only ever changed hands peacefully. Originally owned by the Kingdom of Spain, it came under control of the Kingdom of Great Britain, and finally, to this date, has been controlled by the United States of America, barring a four-year period, where it was under official control of the Confederated States of America. With its combat days left long behind, the United States of America converted it to a military prison for the incarceration Native American tribe members. While still a dark time, this period of military incarceration sparked a reinvigoration of a Native American Arts movement – Ledger Art. Eventually the United States of America passed control of the Fort to the National Trust, where it remains to this day, a breathtaking reminder of the history of Florida, and of battles beyond memory. Castle that eats CannonballsWhat does it provide today?  The Castillo de San Marcos is a fantastic historical monument and attracts thousands of visitors every year, as ‘the best-preserved example of a Spanish colonial fortification in the continental United States’. Among the visitors are a great number of historical and military enthusiasts from all corners of the globe and, with 300 days of sunshine every year, the sights are beautiful to behold. Covid-19 has unfortunately prevented any visitors in person as of March 2020, but this is no barrier for those who truly wish to see the sights. Through their official website, there is an in-depth virtual tour, providing the means for anyone with an internet connection to explore the secret history of the Fort. Through your computer screen you can take a walk from the City Gates, to the Seawall of the oldest masonry fort. You can delve through the halls and corridors within, gaze out from the gun deck, and view the landscape that the defenders would have looked out upon so many centuries ago. The virtual tour also allows in-depth analysis of artefacts and objects throughout the fort. Being both Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality compatible, you can dissect the Spanish Bronze Cannons and Mortars, to truly get to grips with the intricacies of the technologies available at the time. The Castillo de San Marcos stands to this day as a living, unbroken symbol of North American history. With the sights it has seen, the pressure it has felt, it speaks to the legacy of ages. Far from being simply a political, architectural, and historical symbol, it now provides younger generations with incredible learning opportunities. Long has it stood, and long may it continue to teach our future generations of the past it has endured.  

2020 Island Hopper Songwriter Fest postponed due to COVID-19 concerns

Island Hopper Songwriter Fest is a 10-day music festival in Southwest Florida. It draws some of country music’s greatest singer-songwriters from Nashville and nationwide. But The 7th  Songwriter Fest has been postponed this year due to COVID-19 concerns. It showcases more than 80 artists in over 100 shows, most of which are free and in small, intimate venues across Captiva Island, Fort Myers Beach and in downtown Fort Myers. “After extensive consideration, and in light of the COVID-19 virus, we felt this was the most prudent way to proceed,” said Tamara Pigott, executive director for The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel. “We are just as disappointed as our songwriters and fans but we’re looking forward to next year.” The new dates of the music festival will be as follows:
  • Captiva Island: September 17-19, 2021
  • Downtown Fort Myers: September 20-23, 2021 
  • Fort Myers Beach: September 24-26, 2021

Image Credit :The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel,

Are you worried that you are too big or tall to ride Florida’s theme park rides? Don’t worry – help is out there!

When spending thousands on a vacation to Florida’s theme parks, you want everything to be stress free. But for some big and tall tourists, whether they will be able to fit onto the rollercoasters they have saved all year to ride is front and centre of their minds. What help is out there to address concerns before visitors arrive at the parks? By Phil Taylor Rollercoasters and attractions have been a family fun excursion for generations. Children wait for years to be ‘just tall’ enough to ride the bigger coasters and there is plenty of info on minimum height limits for each rides. But not so much information exists on maximum weight and height limits exists for rides, which can lead to pre-trip anxieties for big and tall visitors. Florida has the unofficial title of the land of the theme parks with places like Disney, Universal, Busch Gardens and Sea World all in operation in the southern state. However, there is  a question being asked at the moment that many people are being excluded more often than not for certain attractions. This article will see if that is the case. Restrictions are in place for rides as a health and safety ruling. When designers work on a rollercoaster or attraction it is like a fine game because if one weight distribution is out of place then it can affect the whole motion of the ride. Restrictions for rides can include being over a certain weight, over a certain height, being pregnant, suffering from a heart condition and many other regulations depending on the rides featured thrill. Taller Guests Most of these regulations are common ground for theme parks and with regards height restrictions it is usually a height restriction stating “You have to be this tall” to ride the attraction not “You cannot be this tall”. However, there actually is such thing as being too tall for the ride. With designers enjoying affects like head choppers and airtime hills, it makes sense that there is a restriction on height. However, height restrictions go a lot higher than you would expect with some rides even stating that the restrictions are for people who are 7ft 5in or taller. Bigger Guests People being too heavy for rides is becoming all too frequent for the general public visiting theme parks. A lot of people who might be overweight are feeling they are being discriminated against as they visit theme parks such as Disney and Universal. After the opening of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Islands of Adventure in Orlando, there were people who were not able to ride the ride and had to perform what has become commonly known as the “walk of shame” as they queue hours for the ride but we’re turned away for being too heavy for when they get to the front of the queue. At Universal, in particular, they have started to make  adjustments for larger guests such as offering a different seat that makes their ride more comfortable. Test Seats There are also test seats outside many of the newer rides which allow bigger and taller riders the opportunity to try out the seat and practice fitting in, without risking queueing for sometimes hours only to be turned away when at the ride. However, many disagree with the test seats which are displayed at the front of the queue line for certain rides in the park. Mike Galvan, who is known for offering online tips and wrote the thread “The Big Boy’s Guide to rollercoasters” so that people are aware of what to expect on certain manufacturers rides. He states, “I do not trust the accuracy of the test seats, no matter the park. I can only suspect that the seat belts on the test seats are intentionally short to minimize the potential of riders getting the ‘walk of shame’ at the station. I’ve also had the opposite happen, where I made the test seats but was rejected from the actual ride.” “When the over-the-shoulder restraint comes down, if part of you is hanging over, whether it be your gut, your thighs or your shoulders, you’re going to be very uncomfortable” So are these restrictions well known? Online Information If you visit the Disney World website and visit the attractions page you will see information about all the rides. However, the rides do not state that there is a height restriction in terms of being too tall nor does it state any issues with being overweight and riding the rides. With rides such as ‘It’s a Small World’ being adjusted at Disney Land in California, adjustments are readily available at the Orlando park as well. Cast members are on hand to help guests feel comfortable and make sure they a magical experience. There may still be some rides such as Big Thunder Mountain and The Haunted Mansion, which use lap bars to protect guests, that could be an uncomfortable ride for a larger guest or a smaller person riding with the larger guest. However, if you need some online tips regarding the Disney parks then is the place to visit. The website offers plenty of guidance for people who understand that visiting a theme park can be a difficult experience. Their disclaimer of Disney through the eyes of people who know that one size does not fit all, is a perfect tagline as they put guests at ease and stating they do not need to worry as much as they do compared with other parks. With regards Universal, the rides are seen as more “adult” and thrilling compared to many attractions at Disney. The rides do include loops and rolls such as The Incredible Hulk and sharp helixes and drop tracks such as Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, so the restrictions are clear and displayed on the website. If you visit the Universal website there is information on each ride and also a very useful handbook stating the height, width and other requirements to ride a certain attraction. There are also Youtube channels specifically made by theme park fans for big and tall visitors with helpful guides about how to use the test seats and where bigger seats are located on rides. Parks in Your Pocket is a good example of this, and co-authored by Dave who is 6ft8 and 350 pounds. Essentially, theme parks in Florida are trying to accommodate all guests and there are not as many issues as you would think there is regarding rides and attractions. Of course, there will be limits if a guest is larger but the parks have many ways of helping a guest enjoy their experience throughout the day. Guest services is always the best to contact if you have any concerns. However, the guidance is not heavily shown directly on the website. Before spending the money and visiting the park it is always best to contact an advisor at the park or seek advice so that you are able to have the most enjoyable experience you can.
Title Photo – Reddit