The Derby

May 29, 2013

Diane and I went to The Derby.  Not the Kentucky Derby, but Derby Lane in Saint Petersburg, Florida.

The exterior of a large white building with palm trees in front, and large lettering "Greyhound Racing.  Derby Lane"

Derby Lane Entrance

Derby Lane is a racetrack too, and we were there on the same day as the other derby in Kentucky.

A sign on the side of the racetrack encouraging people to come to Derby Lane on Kentucky Derby day

Kentucky Derby Day Advertisement

But there weren’t any horses present.  Derby Lane is a greyhound racing track.  Opening in 1925, it was the first commercial greyhound racetrack in the United States.

Dog racing isn’t something I’ve ever been exposed to, another experience I’ve only seen in movies and on television.  In most regards, it is similar to horse racing.   The  greyhounds parade to the post with their handlers.

Greyhounds being led down the track by their handlers

Parade to the post

Each fit, beautiful dog walks up the track wearing coloured race silks and a muzzle.

A grey greyhound walking with a handler

Greyhound walking

Spectators get a good look at each dog, and have a last chance to place their bets.

Patrons lining up to place bets at the gambling windows

Place your bets!

The dogs are loaded into starting traps and wait, trembling with excitement, for the doors to open.  The dog handlers run back down the track.

The dog handlers run back down the track to the place where the dogs will finish

The running of the dog handlers

And they’re off!

Greyhounds released from the starting gate

And they’re off!

The greyhounds chase a mechanical lure known as a ‘rabbit’ around the track.

5 dogs chasing a white lure extended on a pole out onto the track

Chasing the rabbit around the final turn

The dogs are extremely fast.  Greyhounds can reach up to 70 kilometers per hour (43.5 mph) within their first 6 strides, and accelerate faster than any other land animal on the planet except the cheetah.  The fastest dogs win and place, and the rest of the pack follows.

2 greyhounds crossing the finish line

The finish

Greyhound racing is a controversial form of entertainment.  The number of states that allow greyhound racing is declining; several states instituted specific bans in the 1990s.  Florida has about half of the 30-40 commercial greyhound race tracks remaining in the United States.

According to the Human Society of the United States, greyhound racing is considered inhumane because of the industry’s excessive breeding practices, the sometimes cruel methods by which unwanted dogs are destroyed, the conditions in which some dogs are forced to live, and the killing and maiming of bait animals (like rabbits) during training exercises.  The Greyhound Racing Association of America counters that excess dogs are humanely euthanized by licensed veterinarians under American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines, that the greyhounds are well treated, and the use of live lures in training and racing is prohibited.   Recently doping has also emerged as a problem, which the industry is actively working to prevent by introducing urine testing.  Attempts are made to recover urine samples from all greyhounds in a race (there’s a job I don’t want), not just the winners.

A sign on the racetrack fench saying, "Adopt a Fast Friend..."

Adopt a greyhound

A racing greyhound’s career begins at about 18 months of age, and ends some time before they reach 6 years of age.    Prior to the formation of adoption groups, thousands of retired greyhounds were killed each year in America.  Today, thanks to the efforts of greyhound adoption groups, the majority of retired greyhounds are adopted, but many are still destroyed because there are not enough homes to accept them.  In addition, many greyhound puppies that won’t be competitive are ‘culled’ at a young age.

I was surprised to learn that greyhound racing is legal in Canada.  Dog racing is unregulated in Canada, except for the general animal protection legislation that applies more broadly.  Only horse racing and the parimutuel betting associated with it are legislated in Canada.  There is only one permanent greyhound racing facility in Canada, the Calida Greyhound Race Track in Sylvan Lake, Alberta.  Only pool betting is allowed there, which means that the track makes no money from the gambling, so it is not subject to gaming legislation.

Lure coursing and sighthound racing are also practiced as an amateur sport across Canada and the United States. Oval, straight, and track racing are popular (apparently particularly in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia where I’m from) for all sighthound breeds, not just greyhounds.  Canada also has a small greyhound adoption association, the Northwest Canadian Greyhound League located in Grande Prairie, Alberta.

Diane didn’t enjoy the dog track.  I saw and learned what I wanted and we left.

Diane sitting in the stands, not looking very happy

Diane wasn’t impressed

Parking and entrance to The Derby greyhound track are both free.  Those of you who believe that greyhound racing is a violation of animal rights can rest comfortably knowing that Diane and I didn’t leave any of our money there.


New Friends in Dunnellon, Florida

May 28, 2013

On our first night in Crystal River, we met locals Kyle and James at Burkes of Ireland, a neighborhood pub.  The next night, we met Kyle’s wife Heidi.  Kyle, a wise-cracking beer lover, and Heidi are regulars at Burke’s (not sure about James whose wife was out of town), and they made us feel right at home.  We made Burkes our Crystal River base of operations when not snorkeling or diving.

The storefront of a pub painted green with a door, 2 windows, and a sign, 'Burkes of Irleland'

Burkes Again

Kyle invited us, complete strangers (attractive and charming though we are), to spend the evening at his place the following night.  He lives in nearby Dunnellon, just down the road from the soon-to-be-closed nuclear power plant.

A road flanked by green trees with a nuclear power plant cooling towers in the distance

Just like Springfield

Kyle has a totally cool ‘man cave’ in his covered carport.  It comes complete with a red Mustang, pontoon boat, pool table, bar, and live music.  Kyle and his friends are talented musicians, and most Saturday nights there is a jam session in progress.  Kyle plays guitar, bass, and drums.  That’s him on the drums…

Kyle in a yellow T-shirt sitting at the drums

Kyle on the drums

And yes, that’s me sitting in on the bass.

Patrick playing the bass guitar seated

Me on the bass

We had a great evening, drinking a lot of unusual beers and eating bar-b-que, and spent the night in the Dream Machine on Kyle and Heidi’s large property.  Here we are posing behind the bar the next day.

Kyle, Heidi, and James standing behind the bar with lot of signs and photos on the wall behind

Kyle (left), Heidi, and James (right)

Patrick and Diane hugging behind the bar

Diane groping me

The next day Kyle and James invited me to join them fishing.

Patrick and James standing on a pier.  James in orange shirt showing Patrick how to bait a hook with live shrimp

James showing me how to bait a hook with shrimp

Patrick in a grey t-shirt and beige brimmed hat baiting a hook with live shrimp

Me giving it a go

There was a lot of casting…

Patrick casting off of a pier with Kyle in the background

Patrick casting…

And a lot of waiting…

Patrick sitting on a rock and holding a fishing rod

Patrick waiting…

But not a lot of catching.

Kyle standing in the shallow water in beige shorts and an orang et-shirt

Kyle waiting too…

Although the fish eluded us, I had a great time.  It’s terrific to meet interesting people on the road, especially when they are as generous and welcoming as Kyle, Heidi, and James.

Feeling the need to correct a seafood deficiency, we stopped at the Blue Gator (recommended by our new friends) on the way out of town.

Wooden sign with a small carved gator and the words "Welcome to the Blue Gator, Come On Over"

Diane seating at the counter looking at the menu with iced tea in a plastic cup

Diane drinking half-and-half tea

We shared the crab cakes…

Basket of fried crab cakes, french fries, and hushpuppies

Crab cakes, hush puppies, and fries

And the amazing peel-and-eat shrimp…

A basket of tail-on shrimp with melted butter and coleslaw

Awesome Shrimp

Thanks to Kyle, Heidi, and James, we enjoyed a terrific weekend in Dunnellon, Florida.


Diving the Rainbow River

May 27, 2013

When I turned 16, the first two things I did were get my driver’s license and my scuba diving certification. Years of Jacques Cousteau as a child (I was even a member of the Cousteau society at one point) had me thinking that I might want to be a marine biologist.  That passed, but the desire to dive and explore remained.  In the many years since, I have dived (dove?) in British Columbia, Hawaii, and Thailand but always with years passing in between outings.

I wanted to take a scuba refresher class with hopes of doing some diving down in the Florida Keys.  The manager at the American Pro Dive shop in Crystal River asked Diane if she would like to try diving.  At first she said no, but apparently she enjoyed snorkeling with the manatee enough to consider it.  After a retreat to the RV for lunch to consider it, she returned to the shop the same afternoon.  We made arrangements to do a combined class, a refresher for me, and Discover Scuba Diving (DSD) for Diane.  Win-win.

Diane at the counter in the dive shop

Diane signing up

We arrived at the dive shop just after lunch the following day.  Our very young instructor Rich wore a beanie but was very professional.  After getting geared up, Diane watched a short video while I tried to figure out the cheap underwater camera that I’d purchased to record the event.  We also met our captain Zac who ate his lunch while the video played.

Diane standing on 1 foot putting on a wetsuit in a room full of wetsuits and diving gear

Diane getting geared up

We both took the short Discover Scuba Diving quiz.  I kept thinking that since I was doing a refresher course, that I should have received something more or different, and a record for my log book (which I don’t have with me anyway), but I basically did the same as Diane.

Driving the Dream Machine, we followed them and our dive boat about 20 miles to K.P. Hole Park in nearby Dunnellon.  The park charges $5 admission per person which is common in American state and some county parks.

A pontoon boat with cover being pulled by a white pickup truck

Chasing our dive boat

The very clean Rainbow River is fed only by underground springs.  It is very popular with kayakers and inner tubers, who float down the river enjoying the water, the wildlife, and the sunshine.  The county helps to keep it clean by banning disposable drink containers of any kind on the river (a $75 fine).

Diane sitting on a bench on the pontoon boat while the captain stands at the helm at the rear

Heading up river

We headed up river, enjoying the scenery, while Captain Zac gave us the safety lecture.  We put on our wet suits and got ready to go.  Diane was nervous.

Diane standing beside Rich in their wetsuits while Patrick completes putting his on

Getting ready

Zac anchored our boat near the river bank and took pictures while we were in the water.

Diane, Patrick, and instructor Rich standing in shallow water in full scuba gear

Class in session

Rich led us through the basic scuba drills starting from the beginning…

Diane and Patrick with faces in the water while instructor looks on

Breathing with only your face under water

Patrick, Diane, and instructor just below the surface of the water

Breathing while sitting on the bottom

We then progressed through other skills like using the buoyancy compensator, regulator remove and replace, mask clearing, and equalizing the pressure in one’s ears.  The pace was fine for me, but I thought rushed for Diane or anyone who hadn’t done this before.  Diane had to try the full mask clear twice and seemed a little apprehensive, but did well.

Diane, Patrick, and Rich posing for a photo just before heading downstream

Posing (Patrick on left, Diane on right)

After a quick photo op, we headed down river.  Rainbow River is a drift dive, where for the most part you can just let the current carry you along.  Very relaxing.  The river is shallow, varying from 3 to 23 feet deep, which is great for a beginner.  Plenty of opportunity to practice ascending and descending.

Sign with words "Shallow Area" with a bird sitting on top

Shallow

The river bottom is sandy and mostly covered in long grass, which bends gracefully downstream.  The visibility is amazing.  Crystal clear water allows you to see over 100 feet (30 meters).  There are lots of fish and turtles.

We drifted down 1 mile of beautiful river for about 40 minutes.  I took pictures of Diane to record the event.

Diane diving just above gras with a blue water background

Diane in the grass

Diane scuba diving and pinching her nose to equalize her ears, with only blue water in the background

Diane equalizing her ears

Diane with black wetsuit and yellow framed mask with a blue water background

Diane looking like a pro

Closeup of Diane's face wearing a scuba mask with bubbles

Diane — It’s time for my close-up Mr. DeMille

Diane asked to come up at one point, “just so I knew I could”.  Despite the wet suits, we both got a bit cold by the time we were ready to board the boat.

Diane, Patrick, and Rich floating on the surface just behind the pontton boat

Fun’s Over – Ready to board

Diane was happy.

Diane sitting on a bench on the pontoon boar wrapped in a multi-coloured towel

Diane smiling

Until she saw the alligators.  You see, there are almost no bodies of fresh water in Florida that don’t have alligators.  And snakes.  We passed 2 alligators on the way back, both about 4 feet long.

Alligator floating on the surface in the weeds

Let’s go swimming!

Alligator head among the weeds

Time for his close-up!

Diane said that if she had known about the alligators in advance, she wouldn’t have done it.  Perhaps that’s why Zac and Rich didn’t point them out until after her first scuba dive.

Oh, and I had a great time too.  Now I have visions of Diane and I scuba diving together in exotic, crocodile-free waters around the world.  Diane’s not so sure.

Patrick on the pontoon boat wearing black swim trunks

This guy needs a tan!


Swimming with Manatee

May 21, 2013

Crystal River, a small town (3,500 people) in Citrus County, Florida, is the self-professed ‘Home of the Manatee’.  The city is situated around Kings Bay, a coastal waterway which is fed by over 60 natural springs, keeping the water a constant 22 degrees Celsius (72 degrees Fahrenheit) year round.    During the winter, when temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are lower, Kings Bay is home to over 400 manatees, who can’t tolerate water below 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit).  It is also the only place in the United States where people can legally interact with manatees in the water.Manatees are large, herbivorous marine mammals sometimes called ‘sea cows’.  They measure up to 12 feet (3.6 m) long and weigh as much as 3,900 pounds (1775 kg).

We were excited about the opportunity to see a manatee up close in the wild, but hadn’t made any plans yet to do this.  When in doubt, have a beer and think about it.  Over a beverage (or 2) at Burkes of Ireland, a small local pub with good beer on tap, we met 2 guides from  American Pro Dive Center who said that if we showed up at their shop the next morning around 8 AM, we could join their guided tour, which at that time was very undersubscribed.  We also met a nice accountant named Phillip who let us park The Dream Machine at his office overnight, so everything was working out great.

The next morning we arrived at American Pro, got outfitted with snorkeling gear (wet suit, fins, mask and snorkel), and followed our young captain Deanna down to the marina where she launched the pontoon boat we’d be using.

A pontoon boat with sun cover moore at the dock

Our pontoon boat

After Diane grabbed her last cup of coffee at the floating bait shop, we idled out into the marina. The only other clients on the boat were a young girl and her “mother’s partner” (she corrected me when I incorrectly assumed that he was her father).  Not having done my usual amount of research (due to the Irish pub and the beer and the early start), I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I knew that because we had arrived around the end of April, most of the manatees that spend the winter had headed back out into the warming waters of the gulf.  But I learned that there was a resident population of about 20 manatees that spend all year in King’s Bay.  We didn’t have to go far find one.

A view of the rear of the boat with captain Deanna at the helm, Diane, and 2 other participants

On the boat

Manatees spend a lot of time sleeping in the water, surfacing for air periodically.  They spend the rest of their time grazing in shallow waters at depths of 1–2 meters (3 – 7 feet).  Although they have a large, powerful tail, when feeding they tend to use their stubby front flippers like legs, to anchor and pull themselves along the bottom.

A manatee area warning signKing’s Bay is shallow but the water is dark and murky unless you’re very close to the vent of an underwater spring.  It is sometimes possible to spot a manatee’s grey colour in the water (polarized sunglasses help), but normally they are noticed when they surface to breath, when the water roils from their swimming near the surface, or from their fart bubbles (apparently manatees are quite flatulent, but I suppose I would be too if I ate what they do).

We spotted our first manatee in about 10 minutes.  Deanna anchored the boat and we donned our snorkeling gear as she got into the water. The visibility was terrible, the worst I’ve ever experienced in any water. I could literally ‘barely see my hand in front of my face’ with my arm outstretched.  If anyone touched the bottom, stirring up muddy silt, the visibility dropped to zero.  In the very shallow water, the less experienced snorkelers were encouraged to float on lifejackets to avoid stirring up the bottom.

Finding a manatee in the water under these conditions is difficult.  It’s a bit like looking for a black rhino in the tall grass, you don’t realize you’ve found it until you run into it.  We tracked our guide on the surface, swimming toward her snorkel, until a manatee suddenly emerged from the murk.  With limited visibility, we could only see part of it at a time.  Its head, munching through the weeds like a underwater mower.  Its tail, broad and paddle shaped, not fluked like other marine mammals or its closest relative the dugong.  Its back, scared by deep parallel cuts from a propeller.

The head and face of a grey manatee in the water

Crystal River Manatee

There are an estimated 2000 to 5000 West Indian manatees in Florida (one of the 3 known species of manatee).  They don’t have any natural predators, but they are threatened due to boating and human development in their coastal habitat   It is illegal under Florida law to injure or harm a manatee, but their slow-moving, curious nature and preference for shallow water results in many collisions with boat propellers, leading to maiming, disfigurement, and even death. A large proportion of manatees have propeller scars on their backs.

A sign saying, "Manatee zone.  Idle Speed.  No Wake"

Speed Sign to help protect manatees

Manatees are very peaceful, and generally oblivious to their observers..  We could get close enough to touch our manatee gently on the back, which feels like the rough skin of an elephant, complete with the stiff hairs that extend a couple of inches.  He or she didn’t seem to mind this at all, and kept eating calmly.  After about 10 minutes, our manatee swam away with powerful strokes of its tail.  Manatees can swim up to 30 kph (20 mph) in short bursts.

Patrick and Diane in wetsuits

Patrick and Diane in wetsuits

And that was it.  Although we spotted one other manatee, we couldn’t get close in the water.  If they don’t want visitors, they won’t stick around.  Except for nursing mothers and during breeding, manatees are generally solitary creatures, except when they’re sharing the warm spring waters of Florida each winter.

Baby manatee with her head up against a femaile manatee's right front flipper

Baby manatee nursing from mother’s mammary glands located under her flippers

Even though we only saw one manatee, we enjoyed ourselves.  We were glad to have observed (and felt) a wild manatee in its natural habitat.  And, I was proud of Diane for snorkeling in such challenging conditions.  Perhaps she’ll try scuba diving one day?