Sunday, 10 January 2010

Watching the wildlife in the waters of Florida

On the shores of Lake Eola in downtown Orlando (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

Florida is supposed to be the “Sunshine State” – but for the past week I was waking up to freezing conditions each morning. Until Saturday, there were blue skies each day, but the temperature never climbed much above freezing. The wind chill factor added to the feeling of being frozen, and although some Irish tourists could be seen walking around in T-shirts, bare arms and sunglasses, their appearances failed to deceive me.

I had little intention of going to Disney World, and second thoughts about visiting Epcot came to nothing over the past week. On the other hand, the Universal Studios and the neighbouring Islands of Adventure and City Walk were fun if somewhat overpowering.

As Florida is the “Sunshine State” I had hoped to spend some time on the beach. After all, Florida has a reputation for some of the world’s most amazing beaches – including Daytona and Cocoa Beach – and over the past year or so I have found my weekly beach walks in north Co Dublin have been a particular help in coping with the symptoms of sarcoidosis and my attitudes towards living with this condition.

And so, one morning last week, I headed off to the East Coast of Florida, on the understanding that everyone else had a priority if seeing the Kennedy Space Center. I remember how I sat up all night in 1969 to see the first moon walk when I was only 17. But throughout all my working career as a journalist, I was never particularly interested in the Apollo and Challenger missions. I still think of Apollo and Saturn first in terms of the classics and mythology, and I was happy that other colleagues took a more active interest in this aspect of international news.

Heading off to the Kennedy Space Centre, I still hoped I might get a chance to walk along the East Florida Coast. But these were hopes that were never realised.

I could be boring about the Kennedy Space Center, but I would probably bore myself before I bored others. I am aware of the achievements, I appreciate the vision and the advances in science and technology – I even managed to find myself in the presence of a real-life astronaut, and was moved by the dignity and the poignancy of the Astronaut Hall of Fame.

But as we were brought around on sight-seeing shuttle and climbed the LC39 Observation Gantry, I couldn’t help myself wondering how many wonderful beach walks had been destroyed just for the sake of one small step for man.

The fencing at the Kennedy Space Center seemed to block access to too many good beach walks (hotograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

As we left the Astronaut Hall of Fame, we crossed the NASA causeway over the Intercoastal Waterway – known here as Indian River – to Merritt Island and were told how important this island is as national nature reserve. But apart from some wonderful bird life and two sightings of alligators, we were kept away from the wildlife, and fences ensured there was no going to be strolling on the island’s beaches.

And so the highlight of the day – perhaps even the highlight of the week – was in the wetlands that are part of Saint Johns River, the longest river in the State of Florida.

This river was the subject of William Bartram’s journals, Marjories Kinnan Rawling’s books, and the letters home from Harriet Beecher Stowe. There are about 3,500 lakes lie along the river, all of them shallow, and most with a depth of no more than three to 10 freet.

The view from an airoboat on the wetlands close to Lake Poinsett along the Saint John River in central Florida (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Lake Poinsett is named after Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1852), the botanist, politician and diplomat who brought the poinsettia to the US – a flower that is popular in the flowerbeds and gardens outside hotels throughout Orlando at this time of the year. Close to the lake, at Lone Cabbage Fish Farm off SR 520, we joined a tour of the wetlands on an airboat.

The alligators failed to show their faces or their teeth, but we saw a variety of birdlife, cranes, storks, hawks, kites, falcons – and even a few eagles. In the shallow waters, the airboats twist and turn, and the while the storks and cranes keep their distance, but fail to take fright. It was a curious sight to be joined by some roaming cattle and horses, anxious to see what we were doing out in the wetlands in such a cold climate.

The Peabody ducks in Orlando ... a living legend that has been turned into a part of local tradition (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Back in Orlando on Saturday morning [9 January 2010], the last day of the holiday, I witnessed one last ritual associated with Florida wildlife at the most bizarre level, but in a charming and captivating way.

The Peabody Hotel on International Drive opened in November 1986, and since then the Peabody Orlando has continued in unbroken tradition the “March of the Peabody Ducks,” which began at the Peabody Memphis many, many years ago.

Every morning, at 11 a.m., the hotel’s main lobby is the setting for this remarkable ritual. The five mallard ducks – four hens and one drake – are brought down in a special elevator from their penthouse Royal Duck Palace. When the elevator doors open, the Peabody Ducks, accompanied by their crimson-and-gold- braid-jacketed Duck Master, waddle along the rolled out red carpet to the sound of Sousa’s King Cotton March, in formation to the central fountain, climb red-carpeted steps and splash into the water to applause from guests, staff and spectators. At 5 p.m., the procession is reversed as the Peabody Ducks return to their apartment for dinner.

The tradition began in the Peabody Memphis in the 1930s, when the hotel manager Frank Schutt and his friend Chip Barwick returned from a weekend hunting trip in Arkansas. They thought it would be funny to place some of their live duck decoys into the hotel fountain of the Peabody hotel, and the reaction was enthusiastic. And so a tradition was born.

Florida’s pink flamingos are also more legend than fact. Most of Florida’s pink flamingos today are semi-wild, non-native fugitives. No flamingos breed in Florida any longer, and the flamingos to be seen here are either from the Gulf of Mexico, or from as far south as Chile. Even the company that first invented and marketed the original plastic pink flamingo went broke four years ago, a year before the 50th birthday of the kitschy logo. Wildlife takes some peculiar forms in Florida.

By Saturday afternoon I was miles away from the Kennedy Space Center, in JFK Airport in New York. How I would have liked to get out for a walk on Long Beach, but I had to walk through the snow and the slush from Terminal 5 to Terminal 4. I was back in the snow in Dublin on Sunday morning [10 January].