In a State Not So Far, Far Away ... Adventure on Florida's Nature Coast

THE WINTER MONTHS ARE THE PERFECT TIME TO SEE MANATEES. THEY GATHER IN THE WARM SPRINGS ON FLORIDA'S NATURE COAST. TAKE A KAYAK OR A CANOE OUT ON THE  THE CHASSAHOWTIZKA RIVER & CRYSTAL RIVER FOR A WONDERFUL EXPERIENCE.  IMAGE: ©ROBERT WALLACE 

Long Ago Memories of the Chassahowitzka  

Blue Crabs scurry for their lives. A young boy watches.

Only about knee high but already smart and brave, he had commandeered the boat beneath whose hull the fleeing crabs now sheltered (helped, of course, by his team of rebel fighters who happened to look a lot like his parents). Time was of the essence and dusk was quickly approaching. If they were to feed the masses, they must trust in the Force!

THANKS to   FLORIDA SMART FOR USE OF THIS IMAGE. 

Well, that "mission" feels like a long time ago, and I guess maybe 40 years is a long time. My friends, that knee-high boy was me, and that long-ago mission was the last time I was on the Chassahowitzka River as it winds its way through the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge (31,000 acres of wild) on Florida's Nature Coast.

Getting back to that far-away galaxy has been on my travel short list for quite a while now. But so many things seemed to have conspired against it, although some were merely time and logistics. For six years I lived in New York City, 1,090 miles (1,754km), and a world away from Florida's Nature Coast. Last spring, I moved south. Now that I live in Georgia, I’m hoping those hindrances are gone forever.

BROWN PELICAN FLOATS ABOVE THE CHASSAHOWITZKA RIVER, FLORIDA SURVEYING THE LUNCH OFFERINGS. IMAGE: ROBERT WALLACE 

Return to The Chassahowitzka River

Thanks to the new rebel command (Destination: Wildlife), and armed with new gear, I felt like the Force was with me again!  What could stop me from reaching my Chassahowitzka River objectives?! What indeed. How about a MUST attend secret-meeting (being dubbed a Christmas family reunion)? Hmmm.

Wait…

With a week between now and family time, a childhood memory returns! That the secret blue crab river lays along the route, I brazenly jumped into a transport vehicle (complete with living pod and super stealth water vessels attached) and made my way at sunrise.

How To Save a Rainy Day? A Hike Along the Crystal River!

The funny thing is, this trip started off quite similar to the Cade’s Cove black bear trip that I told you about. As before, the Dark side, stormy weather, conspired against this river rendezvous pursuing me with non-stop rain and wind the whole drive down.

Storm conditions continued upon arrival.  Well, the weather might keep me out of the river, but it would not prevent me from taking pictures! I headed south to Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge for a hike on a trail that runs along the edge of the Crystal River.

RAINY DAYS ARE JUST RIGHT FOR A HIKE ON THE ACCESSIBLE BOARDWALK ON CHURCHHOUSE ROAD, HAMMOCK TRAIL IN CRYSTAL RIVER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE. IMAGE: ROBERT WALLACE 

In December temperatures are cooler here and less humid than the rest of year, that means I didn’t have to do battle with the annoying bugs and oppressive heat often associated with summertime in Florida.

Rain wake-ups the environment, makes it come alive. Now add the river's clear waters surrounded by lush green vegetation and punctuated by the sight and sound of songbirds, frogs, and others, and suddenly, there is no need for a lightsaber to save the day. Nature's Force has created the recipe for a beautiful walk, and that is what it was.

CLOSE UP OF A BLACK VULTURE IN THE RAIN AT CRYSTAL RIVER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE.  CHECK OUT MY WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY NOTES BELOW. IMAGE: ROBERT WALLACE 

Manatee Heaven, The Rivers of the Nature Coast

Winter is one of the best times in Florida for wildlife photography and observation. It is flooded with year-round and migrating bird species. And the rivers of the Nature Coast are famous for viewing the West Indian Manatee.

Located on the western side of Florida at the inside curve or "Big Bend" region where the state's panhandle meets its body, the spring-fed rivers and estuaries are a haven for the manatee. When the temperature drops, the gentle giants can only survive by getting into the warmer waters created by the springs or power plants.  

THE BEST VEIWS OF WADING AND SHORE BIRDS, LIKE THIS TRI-COLORED HERON,  ARE FROM A KAYAK OR CANOE DRIFTING QUIETLY DOWN THE RIVER. IMAGE: ROBERT WALLACE

To truly experience them I recommend a kayak or a canoe, but that's just me. You don’t have a kayak or canoe? Or do you live too far to bring yours with you? Don’t fret my friends. There are plenty of places here to rent them.

There are also sightseeing boats that you can go on that allows you to swim with them but make sure not to touch them.
Watch the video below and click here for more information on how to keep the manatees and you safe.   

Watch this Video On How to View Manatees Safely and Responsibly

Fresh Tracks, Good Friends & a Soul Filling Hike

Strong winds persisted on Day-2, although the rains had moved on, and the sun rose unhindered. But that was okay, it gave me a chance to do some scouting with an ally in the quest to protect all of nature’s creatures, my friend, natural light photographer, Laura Slocum Barthle of Boiler House Photography. We had a great time. Even though we didn’t see any of the animals that I was hoping to see, we did see plenty of fresh tracks (bobcat, deer, and wild boar) indicating that they were all out there and probably watching us! Come mid-day we met up with Laura’s sister, Carrie. It was good for my soul to see them again.

I CAME EYE-TO-EYE WITH FAMILY OF NORTH AMERICAN RACCOONS WHILE IN MY KAYAK FLOATING DOWN FLORIDA'S  CHASSAHOWITZKA RIVER . IMAGE: ROBERT WALLACE 

Kayaking With Manatees on the Chassahowitzka River 

Finally, on the third-morning patience and perseverance paid off: It was a glorious day! Leaving super early and layered for warmth, I got to the Chassahowitzka River Campground and prepared my stealth water vessel (kayak!) for launch.

It’s easy to get distracted on a crystal-clear river. Looking down into these waters I easily spotted fish species like Snook, Black Drums, Jacks and more. Launching your kayak or canoe from the Campground starts you out at a large, deep spring. It is here that you will (should) encounter your first manatees. (Read How to See Manatees Safely in the Wild for tips on swimming with, boating & kayaking with manatees) 

WANT TO SEE A MANATEE CLOSE-UP? BE QUIET AND STILL ON THE WATER.  MANATEES POP-UP TO CHECK OUT THE KAYAK FLOATING BY.  IMAGE: ROBERT WALLACE 

Surrounded by Manatees, Breathtaking, Startling & Graceful 

It’s exciting and breathtaking to watch these behemoths gracefully glide under your vessel. And then, equally startling to be focused on a manatee in one direction, when a second suddenly pop’s it’s head up near you, as though to say “hi,” loudly blowing out air and taking in the fresh air.

You may get bumped by a manatee as it passes under your boat. Not to worry though, they are not out to capsize you, and even if that happens, you have nothing to fear. Gentle manatees belong to the Force!

Get Your Camera Prepared for Wildlife Action

THIS IS THE BIRD THAT BEGAN THE CONSERVATION MOVEMENT IN THE UNITED STATES, THE GREAT EGRET WAS NEARLY HUNTED TO EXTINCTION FOR IT'S FEATHERS USED IN WOMEN'S HATS. THE AUDUBON SOCIETY WAS ESTABLISHED TO PROTECT THEM AND OTHER BIRDS SUFFERING THE SMAE FATE. IMAGE: ROBERT WALLACE  

The river's first couple of miles are the best part as far as I’m concerned because there are no houses. Other than the occasional motorboat (weekdays have the least boat traffic), it’s just you and nature. This is a real utopia where every bend or river branch can bring you a surprise and having your camera set-up ahead of time can be the difference between something you get to "show" your friends or a story you can only "tell." See my photography tips at the end of the article. 

A JUVENILE WHITE IBIS FEELS FOR CRAYFISH, WORMS OR CRABS IN THE SOFT MUDDY BOTTOM OF THE CHASSAHOWITZKA RIVER ON FLORIDA'S NATURE COAST. IMAGE: ROBERT WALLACE 

I often get lucky when I go out (most trips anyway) and two days on the Chaz (it’s what the local’s call the Chassahowitzka River) was no exception! Honestly, it’s hard to know where to start because there was so much to be seen.

The variety of native species here as well as the "vacationing" wildlife and storm-delivered accidentals make for plentiful opportunities for photo "captures.” 

I felt it in my bones that this day was going to be extra special.

Drifting Down the Chaz River with Birds, Beasts, and a Bottlenose Dolphin

THE LARGEST OF THE NORTH AMERICAN HERONS, THE GREAT BLUE HAS SPECIAL RECEPTORS IN ITS EYES THAT GIVE IT NIGHT VISION, TOO. IMAGE: ROBERT WALLACE

I started drifting slowly down the clear glassy Chaz, schools of fish swimming everywhere, surrounded by Florida’s lush green vegetation and by many feathered friends too! All the way down the river past the sunken sailboat (this was as far as I went) I encountered great egrets, snowy egrets, great blue herons, little blue herons, tricolored herons, black vultures, turkey vultures, ospreys, bald eagles, and that’s just to name a few!

IN 2015 THE CHASSAHOWITZKA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE WAS LISTED AS A GREAT PLACE TO SEE BALD EAGLES FROM OCTOBER THROUGH APRIL. LOOK UP! THEY LIKE THE TALLEST BRANCH ALONG THE RIVER. IMAGE: ROBERT WALLACE

What makes this particular river system so unique is that it is teaming with other wildlife too. My three big surprises here were two sets of raccoon families and a wild boar each searching for their next meal along the edges of the Chaz AND THEN also getting to watch a single bottle-nosed dolphin hunting just past the sailboat.

BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS SOMETIMES VENTURE UP THE BRACKISH WATERS OF THE CHASSAHOWITZKA RIVER. I SPOTTED THIS ONE HUNTING ALONE PAST THE SUNKEN SAILBOAT, THEN HE CAME OVER TO CHECK ME OUT. IMAGE: ROBERT WALLACE 

I took a lot of photos trying to capture this busy guy. Thankfully he paused just long enough to check me out, allowing me to get this cool image and perspective!

After two days on the Chaz, the weather's Dark Force tested me once again, but you can’t keep a good fighter (explorer, photographer) down!

OSPREY ARE ANOTHER FISHING RAPTOR, THEY ARE A LITTLE SMALLER THAN THE BALD EAGLE WHO SEEM TO ENJOY STEALING THEIR CATCH! IT MAKES FOR SOME EXCITING AERIAL ANTICS ABOVE THE WATER. IMAGE: ROBERT WALLACE 

More Bad Weather & a Unique Surprise!

Once more I was forced to take to land. I geared up in warm, waterproof clothing and went “scouting” but the feather and furred inhabitants seem to fear the weather's Dark Side more than I. There were none to be seen. Then while taking solace in a warm lunch, I was passed a message about a “local hangout” where I might just find what I was looking for. I quickly paid the tab and made haste to the location scribbled down for me. I’m afraid I can’t tell you more about this place until the next transmission. It’s super unique and deserves its own recognition, so no one ever forgets it.

The Final Adventure on the Weeki Wachee River

IT WAS QUIET ON THE WEEKI WACHE RIVER, JUST ME, A SWIMMING COTTON MOUTH SNAKE AND THIS RED SHOULDERED HAWK PERCHED HIGH ON A LIMB. IMAGE: ROBERT WALLACE

Conditions on this stretch of the river limit wildlife viewing but it’s still beautiful. But all the springs ensure there is no shortage of manatee sightings. Some would swim up (or down) river with me which is always fun. Other than manatees, I was only able to photograph one swimming Cottonmouth snake (also known as the Water Moccasin) and a Red-shouldered Hawk perched on a limb; both were back closer to the launch area where the river slowed a bit.

The river conditions, from the launch at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park to where I stopped at Roger's Park, require you to pay more attention to where you are going than what’s around you. Lots of bends coupled with the faster-flowing water will have you running into low hanging trees limbs if you are not careful. That is not so bad in the winter but if you are a bit squeamish about bugs (such as spiders) and snakes and it is summer time - then it's not so good at all. I’m just saying.

THE WATER MOCCASIN ALSO KNOWN AS A COTTONMOUTH FOR ITS MOUTH'S  WHITE INTERIOR THAT IT DISPLAYS WHEN THREATENED. THIS IS ONE OF FLORIDA'S VENOMOUS SNAKES. WHEN YOU SEE HIS OPEN MOUTH STAY AWAY, IT IS WARNING YOU.  IMAGE: ROBERT WALLACE 

A Word About Florida's Snakes 

Let’s go back to that Cottonmouth for a second. It’s one of Florida’s handful of venomous snakes and one that you do not want to mess with. The others are the diamond-backed rattlesnake, pigmy rattlesnake, Eastern coral snake (often mistaken for a scarlet king snake), copperhead, and timber rattlesnake (north Florida).

The Chassahowitzka Mission is Complete - For Now 

With my soul filled by gliding manatees, crystal waters, other lifeforms and old friends, and with as many “captures” as possible safely in my camera’s memory chip, this "side-mission" was over. Many would say that I was fortunate not to cross paths with the Florida Nature Coast's own "Darth Vader," (the black bear) but a big part of me wished to have secretly observed him and prove that I have learned much since I was an inner knee-high Jedi photographer in training. No matter, time had run out for the little and big Jedi alike and it is time to climb back aboard our transport and head out of this galaxy toward the family base. But we will be back.

LITTLE BLUE HERON ON THE CHASSAHOWITZKA RIVER. HOW TO GET THE SHOT? SEE MY NATURE COAST PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS BELOW. IMAGE: ROBERT WALLACE. 

Final Note from Robert: I hope you enjoyed sharing this adventure with me, but I hope even more that it encourages you to go and plan a winter vacation to this part of Florida and experience many of its beautiful waterways where you never know what you might see.

Special Thanks to FloridaSmart and the Friends of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Complex


 Robert Wallace's Nature Coast Photography Tips

Protect Your Photography Equipment in Wet Conditions

I know I don’t have to tell you to take extra care when it comes to your photography equipment when kayaking or canoeing. The Chassahowitzka River may be spring fed, but it connects with the Gulf of Mexico, and many areas are brackish (salt and fresh water mix). THAT can be bad for your delicate gear even without it going overboard. Always insure your equipment. 

Quick Guide to Photographing Wildlife on Florida's Nature Coast 

I was shooting with a Nikon D500 and a Tamron 150-600mm G2 series lens along with a Nikon D810 and a Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 (for environmental nature portraits and landscape). Both cameras and lenses are weathered sealed, but when it comes to salt water, it’s crucial that you clean the gear during your outing and right after (especially the glass!).

Be Ready for Surprises.  Set up Your Camera Ahead of the Action

I set my camera up manually (the night before) to give me the best result possible no matter what subjects showed up. I set the D500 aperture to f/8 because I find that this gives me good enough foreground and background bokeh (blurring) while keeping pretty much all of the subject in focus.

The shutter speed was set at 1/800th of a second to help balance my handholding of the camera for sharper images. But I would thumb down to 1/500th of a second when needed to keep from underexposing in certain areas.

It may not be conducive to shoot at these setting all day long because natural light changes throughout the day or clouds may appear which could cause over or underexposure. I counter this by turning on the camera's auto ISO and setting the maximum ISO value that it can handle without introducing too much noise. In this case, I was safe to choose ISO 1000 without any worries of noise issues later. It’s important to note that I always photograph wildlife using both the continuous high speed and continuous focus setting. Wildlife is too unpredictable for just one snap and go. 


More By Robert Wallace    

Robert Wallace is a wildlife photographer living in the state of Georgia and a regular contributor. Follow Robert on Facebook                                                              

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