July 6, 2010

On a short hiking trail in Key Largo, a park sign alerted us to the perils of an encounter with a Poisonwood Tree.  The name itself makes it apparent that it’s not a tree to climb, hug, lean against or cut down.  Reading on, I learned that the sap of the Poisonwood contains alkaloids which can cause major skin and mucus irritations. 

Its bark is reddish-brown or gray, and has oily spots from the irritant sap.  Scaly bark indicates an older tree.

Any part of the Poisonwood can carry the sap so it is best to stay away from the entire tree.  And interestingly, it is not advisable to stand under one during a rainstorm.

If sap does get on your skin, soap and water will not wash it away.  Scratching the irritated skin transports the toxins to other parts of the body, and with the toxins on your fingers , you can easily transfer them to another person.

Naturally, anything related to poison sumac and poison oak raises a red flag for me.  I spend a lot of time in the Florida hammocks, pinelands and sandy dunes, places where the Poisonwood grows.  Being aware of its presence is definitely better than having to learn about it the hard way.


Florida Diving – Part I

June 18, 2010


Florida provides ample opportunities for scuba diving. On a recent trip around the state I managed to dive in three different locations – Key Largo, Key West, and Jupiter.  Happily I can say I saw no oil from the BP oil spill, and none had been reported.  I did ask a Dive Guide in Key Largo about the oil. As soon as I did his body went rigid, and his voice grew less friendly as he shook his head no and blamed much of the fear on media hype.  He compared it to the threat of hurricanes.  The sky could be clear blue and a reporter would still be standing there talking doom and gloom.


We had plans to dive two morning dives and two afternoon dives in Key Largo with Conch Republic Divers.  Since I had not been diving in several months, I wanted to start out with a relatively shallow, easy dive to acclimate myself to the gear and the underwater environment. The two morning reef dives were no deeper than 30 feet. During one of these dives, we saw four large green moray eels tucked up under the reef.  I never get tired of seeing these graceful creatures. Before I started diving I thought moray eels were evil, like the one in the movie The Deep.   That’s hardly the case.

Prior to striding off the boat for the second dive, the captain informed us that lightning cells were in the area and he might call us back to the boat early.  The method for this is loud banging which can be heard underwater.  Fortunately he had no need to call us back before the dive ended on its own.

Unfortunately the afternoon dives were cancelled due to 6-foot seas.  Many times I have ridden 2-4 foot seas waiting for a dive boat to pick me up.  But 6-foot waves are pushing the limit.  Not only could divers get lost in the ocean, they could get pretty beat up hanging on to the boat ladder and trying to climb aboard. 

The cancelled dives were a disappointment because we were to dive two wrecks in the afternoon – the infamous USS Spiegel Grove, a 510-foot long U.S. Navy Landing Ship, and the USCGC Duane, a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter.  I have been diving on these wrecks before and the Spiegel Grove is one of my absolute favorite dives to date.  It sits at 134 feet, with the highest part of the ship between 60 and 65 feet.

Neither words nor photos can express the sensation you get as you descend deeper and deeper and, suddenly, a ship, resting on the sandy bottom, comes into view.  At first your mind thinks it must be a mirage.  But then you realize it is real, and you can swim alongside it, and sometimes through it.  I am not wreck diver certified, nor do I want to be, so I would never penetrate a wreck where no light is present.  A few certified wreck divers have already lost their lives on these wrecks, so I always think twice about whatever I do.  I have to admit sometimes I grow curious about the stairwells or entrances.  I shine my light and allow myself to peek inside but I never enter.

To be continued…..