A Temporary Escape From The Middle East: Close Encounters Of The Florida Kind…
by Gerald A. Honigman
Despite his sometimes wishy washy politics, it’s hard to beat a Spielberg movie…
With Steven’s classic film in mind for the title of this essay’s virtual namesake, I decided to take a break today from my usual focus–the tumultuous Middle East.
In all honesty, having been involved in this subject intimately for well over four decades now, there really isn’t too much that I haven’t studied, researched, thought, or written about regarding the core, major issues making the news–and other items that should have also been doing so, but weren’t, for assorted reasons.
With non-stop bloodletting continuing in much of the so-called “Arab” world, and the usual choice of the masses being to either settle politically for rule by megalomaniacal secular tyrants or bigoted and fanatical religious despots, I’ve decided to let the dust settle a bit before once again adding my own two cents into the widespread commentary and analysis.
The immediate impetus for this decision came about courtesy of the United States Postal Service…well, sort of. Let me explain.
With an extensive background in biology in additional to Middle Eastern Studies, I’ve come to know my home state of Florida’s fauna pretty well since moving here in 1985.
When we built our home on threatened scrub habitat several stones’ throw away from the ocean, we tried to cause the least disruption possible and left much of our property in its natural state. As a result, we’ve been blessed with threatened Scrub Jays, Gopher Tortoises, Painted and Indigo Buntings, Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes, land crabs, and so forth visiting us as well as the usual raccoons, anole lizards, tree frogs, black racers, toads, box turtles, cardinals, blue jays, opossums, and so forth…all on just about a third of an acre of land.
But the critter which prompted this essay was something all-too-common for this neck of the woods–er scrub habitat.
As I pulled up to my mailbox after a workout at the gym the other day, I reached out of the car window and grabbed the lip of the mailbox door to open it. I felt something fuzzy from below and realized I had put my fingers into a shallow web built under the lip.
After I retrieved the mail, I then prodded the very shallow lip where my fingers had just visited with a stick.
Sure enough, in all of her glory, one of the biggest black widow spiders, showing off a glistening red hour glass on her abdomen, fell onto the ground.
Over the years, I’ve seen numerous brown and black widows on my property. I suspect I have red ones in the palmetto as well. Often, their golden, round egg sacks can be spotted under outdoor furniture, under shelving in garages, and so forth. The round ones with spikes are brown widow sacks; the non-spiked ones are the black widow’s future babies. I’ve known for years to be careful about where to place my hands–yet, we all get lax at times.
I got lucky. Momma Widow–like most widows–wasn’t really aggressive towards people, and I avoided getting injected with a powerful neurotoxin venom reported to be 15 times stronger than a rattlesnake’s. Having some fairly serious medical conditions, I’d be at considerable risk if bitten.
While the widow family is widespread, Florida seems to be prime territory for them (as it is for exotic invasive species such as Nile Monitor Lizards, Burmese Pythons, Brazilian Pepper Trees which have killed most of my native Scrub Oaks, and so forth)–and my property, in particular. Oh yes…we have numerous other varieties of arachnids here as well. My children, G_d bless, say that the movie Arachnophobia could have been filmed inside my house and on the rest of my property. I won’t use toxic pesticides–with the sole exception of what’s required in my termite contract (applied once a year and only as needed).
This USPS widow experience got me thinking about all the other close encounters of the Florida kind I’ve had over the years.
There was the time, for example, while wading through San Carlos Bay near Sanibel, searching for mollusk specimens like Rose Petal Tellins, Pear Whelks, Horse and Fighting Conches, and Apple Murexes, that I finally took my eyes away from the underwater formations and looked upwards–and right into the eyes, not more than three feet away, of an osprey curiously watching my every move from a tree stump along the water’s edge. Its nest was in the tree above. It was making sure I was one of the good guys.
And then there was the time in the Keys, while wading off of Sombrero Beach on Marathon, that when I turned around I came face to face with a five foot long barracuda, loaded with daggers for teeth, staring at me with cold, steely eyes. The list goes on…
But, since I began this part of the essay by discussing events on my own property, let’s continue from there.
When my three of four oldest kids were young, I had always warned them about staying away from the adjacent undeveloped lots with their palmetto thickets.
In one especially hot September, I picked the kids up from school and walked onto the side of the house–about ten feet from the outside wall–to water the beautiful yellow alamanda flowers. They sat right next to some of my own palmetto under a scrub oak tree.
I had filled a bucket, was tired and hot, and proceeded to slowly spread out the water to the roots.
All of a sudden, there was a loud swishing noise–like my lawn sprinkler system had gone off…but, it hadn’t.
Now, keep in mind that I’m a dedicated fisherman for many decades now–and I hate fishermen who tell tall tales. They give us all a bad name. Having said that, let’s continue…
I bent down next to the alamanda and looked under the palmetto fronds–which I had constantly told the children to be careful about. I soon found out what the source of that swishing noise was…
Uh oh…take two.
I had just doused an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (America’s largest poisonous reptile) which, when coiled, was as thick as my thigh…that made it at least 7 feet long. I called the kids over to see what I had been talking about, keeping them a safe distance in back of me. Like the others, there’s much more to this story as well, but for the sake of space, let’s move on to the next up close and personal Florida encounter.
Soon after moving here, I met a great native Floridian. On one of our fishing trips, both Harry and I were standing right next to the water’s edge near the bumpers of a small bridge on Bulow Creek where I had earlier hooked a nice snook from.
All of a sudden, from out of nowhere, Albert rose to the surface within petting distance of both of us.
Albert was the 11 to 12 foot ‘gator who routinely raided the crab traps in the area. Again, I don’t tell fish tales regarding size and such. Some idiot months earlier had coaxed Albert to come entirely out of the water with a piece of chicken in order to take his picture–so I know Albert’s size (and I’m a very good estimator…have checked myself many times).
Harry and I both aged a few years that day…
As the proud “father” of Contessa and Maximus–my Chocolate and Yellow Labrador Retrievers–my latest ‘gator tale hit too close to home.
Another man took his own Lab out for a swim just up the road from us a few days ago. Unfortunately, he wound up making front page news when a large ‘gator got his beloved dog. It’s easy to blame the man for his ignorance…after all, this is Florida. Yet, he was a newcomer and said he just didn’t know. You just can’t be too careful.
And there was the time when my canoe tipped over in the Ocklawaha River–right after we had spotted a 9-footer sunning himself on the bank. On that same weeklong wetlands excursion with other colleagues, we discovered a coral snake with its head crushed outside the ladies cabin one morning. Someone had inadvertently stepped on it and crushed its small skull the night before. Coral snakes, while shy creatures, are cousins to the deadly cobras.
Widows, Eastern Diamondbacks, ‘gators…
The old Ormond fishing pier got nailed by a nor’easter right before I moved to Florida in 1985. Its posts, however, still attracted assorted creatures which in turn brought in target fish species.
It was a low energy summer day. The ocean was as flat as an ice skating rink. I hit the water real early to avoid the heat later on.
I waded chest deep into the Atlantic to cast my line towards the pilings. Structure holds fish.
I was connecting nicely, and reeling fish in from the area of the posts towards myself. I was probably about 60 or 70 feet from the shore.
Then it happened…I got hit solidly from behind and went flying forward into the water.
I got up, looked around–half expecting to see a kid’s runaway surfboard as my attacker.
But there was no surfboard, no surfers, no one else in sight…just me, myself, and I on a very earlier summer morning.
Now, again, as someone who is very interested in biology–especially the marine type–I knew what was going on. I knew–but didn’t want to know…I was catching fish. And I wasn’t about to leave.
Like a total fool, I retrieved my rod, shook the water out from my reel–and then went back into the water…How do you spell “idiot?”
Yep, I soon got wacked again from behind–but this time I was praying to High Heaven and promised I’d never be so dumb again–at least not in the near future.
Remember the scene from that other amazing Spielberg movie, Jaws, when folks on shore kept on telling the guy swimming from the collapsed pier not to look back but to keep on quickly coming to shore?
Well, as I got up this second time from the water and turned towards the beach, I noticed a young boy and what must have been his grandmother frantically waving at me from the condo balcony from above. They were screaming, “get out…don’t you see the fins swimming in and around the pilings?”
No, I didn’t…I was focused on my fishing and they had a better view from above of the whole situation. On other occasions, I had indeed spotted such fins–but not this time. And besides, fishing does things to me…
As with the black widow, I had lucked out here again.
The water was clear, and these were big–but fish-eating–sharks. These weren’t West Coast, seal-devouring Great Whites (yet my county in Florida, Volusia, is known as the shark attack capital of the world).
The ramming I had experienced was shark behavior which often occurs as a prelude to attack. And while Great Whites are not common here, assorted species such as various Tigers, Hammerheads, and Bulls are–and none of those are to be disrespected either.
A bit later, in somewhat shallower water, I got zapped in that same general Ormond Pier area across my back and legs by a Portuguese Man O’ War. It felt like being hit with an electric cattle prod.
And a few years after that, a few miles north, I aged another several years when I turned around while in the water and found that a ten foot long manatee had silently crept up from behind to examine me. I have seen many of these amazing creatures in the estuaries near my house, but this was my first encounter–again within easy petting distance–in the ocean. Keep in mind that I was still shaky from my earlier shark encounter and imagine what was thus going through my mind during those first seconds when I sensed that something was behind me.
Finally, before ending this Florida safari, there’s just one last story I’d like to relive with you.
I had usually headed to points south from our home in north central Florida on my various eco-excursions. Having heard of loop currents which brought Caribbean mollusk specimens into the Panhandle, I decided about twenty years ago to explore there instead. So, off to the Apalachicola Bay area we went…
I found the National Estuarine Sanctuary office and made some contacts. Before long, I was brought into the back area and shown the very specimens I had hoped to find on my own…beautiful Queen Helmet shells, and so forth. It turned out, however, that to really try to get to these, you had to go to the outlying islands–and then have the time to explore–which I didn’t.
Later on that same trip, we visited St. Joseph’s Bay–truly an amazing experience. The water is among the clearest you will find anywhere. On one side of the road sits the Gulf beach with its 50-ft. high sand dunes, and on the other side of that same road sits the bay.
I went wading while my wife played with our now three older children on the shore. I found many beautiful specimens, but no new ones that I had not encountered before. But then it happened…
A pure, bright orange True Tulip http://www.seashells.org/truetulip.htm is considered a fairly rare find. Indeed, of the numerous ones I had discovered over the years, few intact orange specimens were among them.
The day was coming to an end, and the mosquitoes were getting ready to feast. My wife was calling to me to come back on shore. As I turned around, the most beautiful orange True Tulip shell was in front of me in the clear water.
Unfortunately, however, as I picked it up, its new occupant–not the original mollusk which made the shell–came out to greet me.
Don’t get me wrong, I was happy for the hermit crab in his symbioitc commensalism relationship–but just wished that I had come across an empty shell instead. It would have been a consolation prize, of sorts, for not getting a shot at those loop current Caribbean specimens that I had really come to the Panhandle for.
So picture this…
There I was, in St. Joseph’s Bay, with my wife calling to me to hasten my exit, and I was busy talking to a hermit crab trying to convince him or her to trade me for the empty beautiful brown True Tulip shell I had found earlier. And for a while, it looked like success was within reach. He (she?) actually came out a good ways and was exploring the new shell I was displaying with his claws. But my wife was getting more impatient, the mosquitoes were getting more hungry–so I kissed the hermit crab goodbye, wished him or her a good life, thanked G_d for His marvelous creations, and watched a beautiful sunset over the Gulf of Mexico soon afterwards.
I never did find another orange True Tulip again in such vivid color and condition. The fault is largely my own, however–on all counts. Perhaps I need to stop writing and get out there more…
Tropical Storm Debby recently hit Florida. Sanibel Island is still rated as one of the top shelling beaches in the world. Take a look at what washes ashore after such storms…
By square miles, about eight and one half Israels could fit into Florida. And each time I travel to go on my close encounters of the Florida kind throughout this glorious state, I’m reminded that the much maligned, allegedly “expansionist” Jew of the Nations requires a magnifying glass to find it on a world globe.
Somehow I just can’t see the justice in expecting the sole, resurrected state of the Jews to grossly endanger itself so that Arabs may obtain their 22nd nation (most of which they conquered and forcibly Arabized from other, non-Arab peoples), and second–not first–in the original 1920 Mandate of Palestine. Jordan indeed sits on almost 80% of that territory. Yet that is indeed what much of the world expects of it.
But I said I was going to avoid discussing the Middle East for now.
So, until next time, plan you own amazing Florida excursion…but try to avoid the young male black bears being chased out of the Ocala National Forest by the older boys. I almost hit one crossing the road just a few miles from my house the other day.
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.