Archive for the ‘Articles’ Category

In Good Hands

Friday, July 20th, 2018

Jessica Levy, program manager for the Coral Restoration Foundation, hangs new coral fragments on a Coral Tree in the CRF nursery.
Photo by Zach Ransom/Coral Restoration Foundation

Coral Restoration Foundation program manager leads the effort to bring Florida’s reef back from the brink of extinction

For many people, the health of coral reefs is an out of sight, out of mind problem.

“Unless you live by the coast and have regular access to visit a coral reef, people can develop a misconception that it doesn’t affect them and why worry about it,” says Jessica Levy, reef restoration program manager for the Coral Restoration Foundation.

Since 2012, Jessica has worked with the foundation, bringing new life to the Florida Reef Tract. She is driven by a passion to ensure survival of the critically endangered coral reef.

“The reality is that reefs provide so many benefits to us,” Jessica says. “Just because we can’t see them doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about their status and how we can be better reef stewards.”

A Love of the Water
Whether at work or play, Jessica is drawn to water.

She credits the fond memories she made visiting the North Carolina coast with her family for her love of the ocean and her career path.

“We spent time playing in the sand and along the shore, hopping over waves as they broke—typical kid stuff,” Jessica says. “I grew to love all aspects of the ocean and to respect all that it can provide. Being near an ocean and feeling connected to it quickly became my happy place.

“My parents could have taken us camping and I’d probably have a totally different pathway in life.”

When Jessica joined the Coral Restoration Foundation, her work was heavily water-focused. Today, she estimates 75 percent of her time is spent on land managing staff, nursery operations, outplanting, dive facilities and funding.

Outside of work, Jessica enjoys traveling, noting most of her destinations include a dive element.

From early in life, Jessica, 30, says she knew she wanted to work around water.

“I fell in love with diving instantly,” she says. “It was a way to do more and see more than just floating at the surface and being limited by a single breath of air.

“Diving is weird at first because humans aren’t meant to breathe underwater, so it feels odd. Your reflexes are telling you this is weird, but then you trust your instructor, your gear and yourself, and then the weirdness goes away.”

Jessica spent her 21st birthday on a night dive off the coast of Wilmington, North Carolina, which is known for its wreck dives and sharks.

“I was swimming along and all of a sudden started rising slowly,” she says. “Unbeknownst to me, my weight belt had slipped off. I managed to come up under a lovely sand tiger shark and headbutted her in the belly before the dive guide grabbed me and put the belt back on.”

During her undergraduate studies in marine science/conservation, Jessica spent a semester studying in Australia and then Curacao. The summer after earning her degree, she worked with the Marine Conservation Institute in California.

“When I moved to Australia for graduate school, I got to dive the Great Barrier Reef and that was it,” Jessica says. “I knew I wanted to work with corals and focus on their preservation and protection.”

Striving for Survival
The modern order of corals has been around more than 300 million years and has survived three mass extinctions.

“Coral reefs are vital to life on this planet,” Jessica says. “Coral reefs are the oceans’ most diverse and productive ecosystem. It is estimated more than 70 percent of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean—a result of the delicate balance of the interconnected web of life in our seas. Coral reefs are an important component of this balance.”

Coral reefs are estimated to provide goods and services worth $375 billion each year—“an amazing figure for an environment that covers less than 1 percent of the Earth’s surface,” Jessica says.

In an age of increasingly extreme weather, coastal barriers provided by reefs cause waves to break farther offshore, dissipating the water’s energy before it reaches the coastline. As reefs degrade, waves reach the coastline with far greater energy, causing destructive erosion, property damage and loss of life.

“We need people to understand how interconnected the systems of our world are,” Jessica says. “If we lose all of our world’s shallow water coral reefs, this will be the first time that humanity has faced the loss of an entire ecosystem, so we don’t fully understand what the repercussions would ultimately be.”

Education is a vital component of the Coral Restoration Foundation’s work.

“People need to become more ocean conscious, encourage better practices and promote better actions in their everyday life,” Jessica says. “Every choice we make matters. Think about this: Every single piece of plastic you have ever used still exists. Every straw, every plastic bottle, every plastic bag. When we think we are throwing things away, there is no ‘away.’ A lot of this plastic ends up making its way into our oceans.”

Recreational divers have opportunities to help the foundation with active reef restoration. Through Skype, staff “visit” classrooms around the world to talk about coral reefs. Teachers get resources to integrate coral reef information into lesson plans.

“We take part in shows and events, where our team answers questions and gives people insight into coral reefs, the threats they face and the ways everyone can help protect life in our oceans,” Jessica says.

Giving Nature a Boost
During the past decade, the Coral Restoration Foundation has developed a science-driven method for farming and outplanting colonies of staghorn and elkhorn coral, hanging finger-sized fragments on Coral Trees—a structure of PVC pipes—suspended in a nutrient- and sunlight-rich water column.

Colonies are large enough to be planted onto the reef in six to nine months. With around 500 Coral Trees across seven large underwater nurseries, the foundation has now planted almost 70,000 corals onto the Florida Reef Tract.

Outplanted coral thickets now spawn naturally—evidence the work is paying off.

The goal is to bring reefs to a condition where their natural recovery processes can take over, and they can return themselves to a healthy state.

The Tavernier nursery—the largest of seven in the Keys—spans around an acre-and-a-half of seafloor. That is roughly the size of a football field.

“At a personal level, I’m always blown away by the sheer scale of the nursery and its operations,” Jessica says. “At a professional level, I’m intimidated by it, which is why I’m grateful for the staff we have that do this daily, and the interns and volunteers that are so dedicated.”

She says the first thing you notice in the Tavernier nursery is the amount of coral and nursery structures.

“It is one after another,” Jessica says. “Then you start to swim and you see the details—the many different types of corals, the other fish and invertebrates that have made the nursery their home, and all the little polyps with outreached tentacles.

“We are operating at an unprecedented scale, which is amazing in itself, but also is a big responsibility. A lot of times, my mind is on the work we’re trying to accomplish. But then occasionally you get a fun dive or something really cool swims through, like a hammerhead shark or a pod of dolphins, and it’s magical.

“You never know what you’re going to see. One regular working day in the nursery, a school of 100-plus spotted eagle rays just swam by.”

Lessons for Down Under
When Jessica dove the Great Barrier Reef in 2008, 2011 and 2012, she was captivated by its magnitude and beauty.

“It had lots of life, both macro and mega fauna, lots of color and lots of coral diversity—which is starkly different from reefs in Florida, which have been declining since the mid-1970s,” Jessica says.

She suspects it is different today because of coral bleaching, caused primarily by prolonged exposure to high sea temperatures. Due to elevated temperatures, corals expel the algae that lives in their tissues and provides them with food and their color. Without the algae, the corals slowly starve, leaving a stark white skeleton.

“The silver lining is restoration efforts in the Caribbean and Florida have come a long way over the decades,” Jessica says. “As Australia looks toward a newfound need for coral restoration efforts, we can open an avenue of information sharing and helping.”

A major side interest of Jessica’s—almost a second job, she says—is related to her day-to-day work. As a member of the Coral Restoration Consortium, she works with other practitioners, researchers, academics and managers to collaborate on restoration.

“Only by working together can we get this field to the scale it needs to be,” she says.

Although the restoration work is incredibly tough and can be frustrating, Jessica says it has been a rewarding career.
“I enjoy the feeling that I’m doing something worthwhile,” she says. “Showing up to work means something. I have a sense of purpose.”

Fishes Like a Girl, and Proud of It!

Friday, July 20th, 2018

Sandy Flowers rigs rods for a night of fishing for catfish on one of the rivers in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Opposite page, Sandy shows off a flathead catfish she caught.
Photos by John N. Felsher

Love for the outdoors combined with experience and skill

Tell Sandy Flowers she “fishes like a girl,” and she will probably consider it a compliment.

Born and raised in Milton, Sandy grew up around the water and always loved the outdoors.

“I started fishing when I was about 4 or 5 years old,” she recalls. “My earliest fishing memory was a day spent at my grandfather’s friend’s pond where I caught my first channel cat.

“We had fished that pond many times together, but this trip was different. I knew I had something on the line much bigger than any bream I had ever caught. I fought that fish with all my 6-year-old arms could handle—a heck of a battle for someone my size.

“As the fish came to the bank, I remember barely containing my excitement seeing the ‘monster fish’ I had just caught, a 21-inch catfish. Just like the fish, I was hooked!”

As Sandy grew older, her passion for the outdoors flamed brighter. She caught much bigger fish, but she still likes to catch catfish.

The licensed massage therapist regularly joined her father on fishing or diving adventures to the Gulf of Mexico.

Equally comfortable in a boat, a professional advertising photo shoot or working marketing events such as boat shows to support organizations, Sandy’s image has graced numerous magazine covers.

What does a dedicated outdoors girl do when she grows up? Marries a man with a passion for fishing that matches hers.
Sandy’s husband, Glenn, owns and operates Flathead Catfish Hunters, based out of Pensacola, and is president of the Cathunters Association of the South.

He guides for many species, but specializes in catching giant catfish.

Sandy frequently accompanies him on fishing trips.

“My biggest influence regarding fishing has definitely been my husband,” she says. “His passion for the sport and dedication to the industry is inspiring.

“When Glenn and I go, it’s an opportunity to make memories together. In the beginning, he doubted that I would enjoy the type of fishing he does. One day, I talked him into taking me. He could really see I wasn’t some girly girl. I was setting the anchor, grabbing bait from the livewell and tying on hooks.

“Glenn has shown me new methods and so many other skills needed to be a great angler. He has years of experience on the water, and has dedicated his time to spreading that knowledge to build a new generation of catfishing.”

Glenn and Sandy often fish the Florida Panhandle rivers, and venture into the Gulf of Mexico or elsewhere. One day, they hope to challenge one of the biggest freshwater fish in the world.

“I’ve fished all across the Southeast,” Sandy says. “The biggest flathead catfish I ever caught was a 42-pounder. Glenn and I have always talked about visiting Europe to fish for monster wels catfish, which can weigh several hundred pounds. The opportunity to catch such a giant in freshwater sounds like a thrill. Visiting another country in search of such an animal would be an amazing opportunity.”

Although she mostly fishes with her husband, Sandy sometimes joins friends on fishing adventures.

When the modeling, marketing and other activities on her schedule become too hectic, Sandy likes to slip away beyond cellphone range for a little quiet time fishing alone on creeks and ponds for bream and bass.

“I have a passion for the outdoors,” she says. “I enjoy hobbies that help me experience the outdoors in a more intimate way. Whether it’s kayaking, hiking, scuba diving or fishing, I’m ready for the challenge. When I go fishing alone, it’s quiet and peaceful. Even a bad day of fishing is better than a good day at work.”

Although women have made significant social progress in recent years, they still battle old stereotypes.
Sandy fights to change that.

“We hear a lot of false accusations like, ‘There’s no way she caught that fish’ or ‘She’s just there to look pretty and hold the fish for a photo,’” Sandy says. “The women anglers I know are truly skilled and know their stuff. We put in the work.

“My advice to any women who want to learn about fishing is to just go. Also, be patient and try to learn something new every time you get on the water. Try a new fishing spot or a new kind of bait. Experiment with new techniques.

“I am convinced there is a monster fish out there waiting for me to catch it, and that giant is what keeps me coming back every time.”

To inquire about excursions through Flathead Catfish Hunters, call (850) 208-4667 or visit

Photographing Funerals

Friday, July 20th, 2018

Johnny Grimm touches foreheads with his deceased mother, Barbara. 
Photos by David LaBelle

I watched from a distance as Johnny approached the casket. He had shown little emotion to this point, greeting people, shaking hands, talking about his beloved mother. Then came the moment: The floodgates opened and he could hold back his tears no more.

My own eyes blurring, I stayed focused on him and made five or six pictures of my cousin. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see several heads turn and cast puzzled, concerned looks at me. I could read their thoughts: How dare this guy shoot pictures of this raw moment of grief?

It was a tender, some might even say private, moment. But neither Johnny nor his brother, Arthur, felt any intrusion. They know photography is one of the ways I experience and make sense of the world.

For me, photographing a funeral is less about showing loss and grief and more about celebrating love and connection during these times.

There is a time to make pictures and a time to put the camera down and share what is happening. It is a matter of knowing the difference.

I remember a funeral in Kansas for a little girl struck and killed by a car. I practically watched her die in the street.

Her mother asked if I would make a few pictures of her only daughter in the casket. I agreed. But many of those gathered neither knew me nor were aware of the mother’s request. Several people yelled at me and threatened to fight.

Grief—especially when born of the sudden death of a child—can be wild, unreasonable and dangerous. For some swimming in heartache, attacking others (like a photographer) is a way to cope with their frustration and show how much they care.

Often, their anger is an act of displaced aggression.

Photographing funerals is not for the faint of heart. Making meaningful pictures in emotionally charged situations requires a little courage and a lot of confidence that comes only through clear motives. We should be careful not to judge another’s intentions.

If we have been taught it is disrespectful to make pictures at funerals, during church services or moments of pain, we naturally view the photographer as an insensitive voyeur.

It takes resolve to deflect the stares and whispers of those wondering how you can be so cruel, heartless or insensitive to make a picture at such a time. Here are a few tips:

  • Dress so as not to draw undue attention to yourself. The more I can blend in and become invisible, the better.
  • Move slowly and deliberately. Show reverence for the dead and those gathered to pay their respects.
  • Deliberately choose the moments you press the shutter. Do not overshoot. Be an artist, thoughtfully composing moments you feel best tell the story and represent the event.
  • Make eye contact. Allow people to see into your heart. I may smile, but I do so subtly.
  • Avoid using flash unless you have talked with the family and they are comfortable with you being close enough to make pictures with flash.
  • Read the situation. Watch faces and body movements to measure volatility. Remember that sudden, young, violent deaths call for extra caution.
  • Respect religious and cultural customs and traditions by doing your homework. Jewish funerals tend to be different than Native American funerals or wakes.
  • Let an officiate or family member know your intentions. I avoid asking permission, lest I empower another to keep me from doing what I have determined I have a legal and moral right to do. However, I usually let them know why I am there, and find a place where I will not be in the way, yet still can make meaningful pictures. If an officiate asks that I not use flash, I grant them that small sense of control.

David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit

It is Time to Raise the Reefs Together

Friday, July 20th, 2018

Divers with the Coral Restoration Foundation prepare to document the growth of corals in the Tavernier Coral Tree nursery. 
Photos by Zach Ransom/Coral Restoration Foundation

With today’s resources and knowledge, it is possible to bring coral reefs back to a healthy state—but it must be done soon and fast, says Alice Grainger, communications director for the Coral Restoration Foundation, based in Key Largo.

What better time than in 2018, the International Year of the Reef?

“Life on Earth needs coral reefs,” says Alice. “They are the rainforests of the sea, supporting 25 percent of all marine life, protecting our shores, feeding our people, providing pharmaceutical solutions and breathtaking natural playgrounds that underpin economies around the world. Yet coral reefs are among the most endangered ecosystems on the planet.”

Running from north of Miami to Key West, right on Florida’s doorstep, lies the Florida Reef Tract—the third-largest barrier reef in the world and the only barrier coral reef in the continental United States.

The Florida Reef Tract was once dominated by two species of reef-building coral: staghorn and elkhorn. It now hosts just 3 percent of the once-dominant staghorn and elkhorn cover it had in the 1970s.

“These became some of the first corals to be included on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Endangered Species,” Alice says. “Both are listed as critically endangered—one step away from a listing of extinct in the wild. At the current rate we are losing them, all shallow water coral reef systems could be functionally extinct in the next 80 years.”

Unfortunately, the crisis gripping our oceans is invisible to most people.

“It is essential we act together to save and restore these precious ecosystems,” Alice says. “Thankfully, we have the data and technology to enable us to do that.”

Thanks to collaborations with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, universities, Georgia Aquarium, Force Blue, Florida Aquarium, dive operators, private businesses and the local community, the Coral Restoration Foundation has been able to shift its mission into high gear.

The focus is now on restoring eight reef sites along the Florida Reef Tract.

“It is a massive undertaking, but with the right support, it is an achievable goal,” Alice says, noting that true success requires the help of everyone.

There are practical ways to get involved, both on and off the water. Recreational dive and snorkel programs let you help in the Coral Tree nurseries, outplant corals or monitor reefs in the process of being restored. You also can take part in foundation events, volunteer programs, educational activities and donation drives.

“You may feel powerless in the face of threats to our oceans, but hundreds of thousands of ocean advocates around the globe are working to protect the planet’s marine ecosystems,” Alice says. “In the same way CRF’s tiny coral fragments have the potential to grow into large, healthy, reproductive coral thickets, every tiny, individual, positive action adds up to make an enormous difference.”

For more information about the effort to save coral, visit

How to Outdoor-Proof Your Smartphone

Friday, July 20th, 2018

Water is one of a smartphone’s worst enemies, especially saltwater. Even if your phone is in a waterproof case, manufacturers don’t recommend allowing the case to come in contact with saltwater or briny beaches. If that happens, rinse it with tap water and dry it with a soft cloth. Avoid pushing any of the buttons while rinsing or when the case is still wet.
© iStock/tuaindeed

Let’s face it. Your smartphone is a tenderfoot outdoors. Dangers abound, ready at any moment to turn it into a handful of worthless e-scrap.

To protect your phone, consider these five tips to safeguard it from moisture, dirt, sand, sunlight and heat.

  • Cover it. Invest in a waterproof case, which also protects the phone from dirt and sand getting inside. Even something as simple and cheap as a zip baggie or freezer bag provides a basic level of protection.
  • Up-armor it. For a few dollars more than a mid-range waterproof case, you can get one that also protects the phone from drops. Stick with name brands, such as Pelican, Lifeproof and Otterbox.
  • Hide it. The sun and extreme heat can wreck havoc on the screen and inner workings of your phone. Keep it out of direct sunlight and off of the ground—such as in your pocket or backpack—to avoid these hazards. Better yet, a dry area in a cooler provides the perfect refuge for a phone with a waterproof case.
  • Love it. A little TLC goes a long way. Use screen protectors to avoid scratches. Perform regular maintenance, such as cleaning the outside of the phone and blowing out hard-to-reach places with canned air.
  • Leave it. Do you really need to take your phone? Only you can make that determination. If the answer is no, leave it at home and avoid the hazards that lurk outdoors.

Get the Mud Out
Ever notice how catfish caught in summer have a somewhat muddy taste? The best way to eliminate the taste is to cut out the band of reddish dark meat—often called the mud vein—that runs through catfish filets. Then, soak the white meat of the filets overnight in the refrigerator in water and a little lemon juice or vinegar to remove any residual mud taste before cooking.

Three Tent Camping Comfort Hacks

  • Take a cue from RVers: Pack an old carpet to roll out in front of your tent or where you congregate. Consider bringing a second one for inside your tent. Your feet will thank you.
  • Bring toilet paper from home. It is sure to be softer than the sandpaper-quality TP found at most campgrounds.
  • If you sleep on the ground, put a closed-cell sleeping pad under your egg crate or air mattress. It will insulate you from the ground better, keep you warmer and inhibit condensation on your mattress.

Special Days in August

  • August 1, National Mountain Climbing Day
  • August 4, Campfire Day
  • August 4, U.S. Coast Guard Day
  • August 10, National S’mores Day
  • August 18, National Honey Bee Awareness Day
  • August 20, World Mosquito Day
  • August 31, National Trail Mix Day

Got a Tip or a Whopper?
Send us your favorite outdoor tip, photo or story. If selected for publication, we will send you $25 for one-time use. Tell us the story behind the picture, and remember to identify people and pets. Email your submission to

Many of Curtis Condon’s fondest memories involve outdoor adventures with friends and family, whether fishing with old school buddies, backpacking in the mountains of the Northwest with his sons, or bird-watching along the Gulf Coast with his wife. He feels fortunate having the opportunity to write about the outdoors and other subjects for more than 30 years.

Cool Dips, Hot Tips

Friday, July 20th, 2018

One of the main tourist attractions in Coral Gables is the Venetian Pool, which is filled and drained daily.
Photo courtesy of the city of Coral Gables

As summer winds down, there is still plenty of time to hit the water in some rather unconventional places.

The historic Venetian Pool, was designed as a luxurious casino in Coral Gables. Opened in 1924, many celebrities visited during the Golden Age.

It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Created from a coral rock quarry, coral lines the edges of the pool and was used to build several structures, including archways and two watch towers. The pool has a waterfall, a cave and a sandy beach. It was renovated in 1989 and again in 2009-10.

The 820,000-gallon pool is fed by an underground aquifer. Children younger than 3 are not admitted because of safety concerns.

Known for its natural sulfur spring near the middle of town, Green Cove Springs, has drawn tourists since the mid-1800s.

The 2,200-gallons-a-minute spring feeds a city pool and empties into the nearby St. Johns River. The spring boil is fenced off but visible.

Admission to the 72-degree pool is $4 for adults, $3 for military and seniors, and $2 for children 2-17. It is open Tuesdays through Sundays through Labor Day, and weekends through September 30.

For an invigorating splash, visit the state’s tallest waterfall at Falling Waters State Park. Boardwalks and both sandy and paved trails meander in the park near Chipley, in the Panhandle, and lead to the 73-foot tall cascading waterfall.

Must-Have Travel Apps
Whether planning a road trip or travel by plane or train, check out these travel apps:

HotelTonight, lists last-minute hotel deals.

RoadTrippers, plans routes and identifies things to do along the way, places to eat or stay, and outdoor activities.

GasBuddy, searches fuel prices and calculates trip costs.

Netflix, streams movies to keep passengers entertained.

Happy Cow, lists vegetarian and vegan specialty restaurants.

Airbnb, lists private homes, vacation properties, apartments and condos for deals on overnight accommodations.

Carry-On Packing Hacks
Envy the people who never check their bags, even if going on a three-week vacation?

Here are tips for your carry-on to avoid baggage fees and still have everything you need at your destination:

  • Your roller bag may be snagged at the gate to be checked, but a duffle more easily gets past gate agents. The roller bag won’t strain your arms and shoulders, but a duffle can “squish” better and may fit under the seat.
  • Pack wrinkle-free clothes, choosing cottons, jerseys and knits. Choose a color scheme and think about layering to change your look.
  • Consider buying inexpensive essentials such as toiletries, socks and underwear at your destination to save room. Buy cheap and leave them behind so you will have room for souvenirs.
  • Pick your personal item carefully. Don’t waste it on your purse or a computer bag/brief case. Choose a larger item like a beach tote or a roomy diaper bag. Smaller items, like your cross-body bag, neck pillow, headsets, chargers and snacks fit nicely, and you will have your in-flight essentials close at hand.

Florida native and travel enthusiast Pamela A. Keene is a freelance journalist who specializes in travel, gardening, personality and feature writing. She is also a photographer and accomplished sailor. Her website is

Don’t Ruin the Moment

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018

Pulitzer Prize-winning artist Art Spiegelman speaks at Kent State University along with a plastic water bottle that appears to get equal billing.
© Photo by David LaBelle

I remember the first time one of my young sons used a foul word to describe a natural body function. He waited for his mother’s sharp response and was surprised when she repeated the word again and again, loudly, and even began using it in a singing sentence.

It wasn’t the response either he, his brother or I expected. Let’s just say it took some of the gas out of their new word.

Since endless articles offer tips for making better pictures—I have done my share—I decided to try a little reverse psychology to help you make better pictures.
Here are a few ways you can ruin breathtaking scenes and beautiful moments.

The dreaded plastic water bottle. Want to visually pollute a beautiful, natural scene? Include a plastic drinking water bottle in your picture. The challenge used to be making an interesting and natural picture without a water glass or loud promotional banner in the background, but those distractions were nothing compared to the ever-present plastic water bottles.

The clear, shiny water bottle is becoming the signature of our time. We find it in every business meeting, in locker rooms, positioned at every podium—always visually screaming “look at me.” It will be an easy mark for historians and archeologists assigned with dating an era. They will say, “Oh that was the pre- or post-plastic water bottle era. Maybe it will even replace the eagle as our most-recognized national symbol?

We can electronically remove these ugly blemishes from our pictures with programs such as Photoshop, but then we would be lying and altering history, creating an inaccurate portrait of our time.

Someone on a cellphone, laptop or iPod. In the beginning it was a novelty, like pictures of people talking on telephones. You don’t see someone tied to a cord while talking much anymore.

It wasn’t many years ago I gave the assignment to a college photo class, challenging them to see if they could make a picture with two or more people on a cellphone in the same frame. Now, the challenge is to make a picture of 20 of more people in a public place without someone on a cellphone, iPod or laptop.

While I still like photographing people on their cellphones because they seldom notice me, too many pictures are becoming like our world—too visually noisy.

Leave your camera bag, bicycle or car in the picture. Seeing how many times we could get a picture published with our vehicle in the background was one of the games some of us played as newspaper photographers. We did this during outdoor portrait sessions, parades, even news scenes. Hey, every occupation looks for ways to have fun and break the monotony.

But accidentally leaving distracting, attention-stealing items in your compositions can be the difference between an artist and a picture snapper.

Use flash to create a sharp, artificial feel to your pictures. If there is enough light to make pictures and capture spontaneous moments, avoid flash. Artificial flash is, well, artificial. It changes, even kills, the natural mood of a scene and calls undo attention to you and the camera.

Flash is a great accent and necessary illuminator with some types of photography. But for subtle, quiet, natural moments, turn your flash off.

Like golf course signs that warn us to watch out for rattlesnakes or alligators, we need invisible mental warnings reminding us to pay attention to those loud, manmade objects that can harm our natural and pristine pictures.

David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit

Skydiving in the Zone

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018

Above, a skydiver comes in for a landing against a setting sun in DeLand. Right, tandem jumpers make the adrenaline-producing leap from the plane.
Photos by Gabrielle Merritt, for Skydive DeLand and West Volusia Tourism

Former hobbyist makes a career of parachuting, positioning Skydive DeLand as a jumping destination

Bob Hallett gets a thrill jumping out of airplanes. As owner of Skydive DeLand—the busiest skydive center in the world—Bob spends more time these days helping others jump than jumping himself.

Bob’s love of adventure and heights started when he was a kid growing up in Neoga, Illinois.

“When I was 8 years old, my dad was putting up a television antenna on our roof and he left the ladder leaning against the house,” 67-year-old Bob says with a mischievous smile. “I think I had seen a cartoon or something that showed someone floating down under an umbrella, so I ran in the house, got an umbrella, climbed right up and jumped off. It was my first taste of what it felt like to free fall.”

Although it did not work out as planned, thankfully, he was not hurt.

When Bob graduated from high school, he joined the Army, with an eye on paying for college with the GI Bill.

After a little more than two years in Vietnam, he came home and enrolled at Eastern Illinois University.

He joined a parachute club and began skydiving in earnest. His hobby connected him with other clubs and top-name competitive skydivers.

In the early 1980s, Bob and his team competed in a world meet in Zephyrhills. While there, Bob says he found “a little obscure, not very active parachute center in DeLand.”

He decided to take over lease of the property and start a drop zone there.

“It was a chance to have some fun and maybe make a little money at the same time,” he says.

DeLand was already on the radar for innovation in skydiving and parachuting. Skydiving pioneer Bill Booth had opened United Parachute Technologies there in 1972.

Bill was instrumental in developing the equipment used in tandem jumps. His inventions increased the safety and technology of the sport.

United Parachute Technologies employs nearly 600 people in DeLand. It is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of parachuting gear and equipment.

“When I came here, my role was to develop a parachuting program in DeLand,” Bob says. “DeLand began to attract other innovators who came here to test out their ideas, but it was Bill who set the stage for DeLand to be one of the foremost skydiving locations on the globe.”

The center offers two first-jump options: a tandem jump where the novice is harnessed to an experienced jumper and the freefall training program.

The facility has four planes and numerous full- and part-time instructors. Some of the staff belong to competitive teams and travel around the world for their sport.

The best in skydiving also comes to DeLand. For more than a dozen years, Skydive DeLand has hosted formation skydiving competitions.

Through the years, people have flocked to central Florida to attempt to set world records for various aspects of parachuting. Lake Wales was the site of the largest canopy formation of 100 parachutes in 2008, according to Guinness.

In November 2013, parachutists set a new record in sequential large formation skydiving at Skydive DeLand. It involved 110 jumpers and several days of waiting until the weather was suitable and safe, and a half-dozen attempts during a three-day weekend.

“DeLand is now going for more complex, smaller record-setting formations because we outgrew our own aircraft several years ago,” says Bob. “When the formations got above 150 people, we didn’t have the equipment. Now the world record for the most parachutists in a single formation was set in Thailand, with 400.”

Each spring, the facility hosts the Shamrock Showdown, which attracts parachutists from around the world. It is the start of the global competition year.

Skydive DeLand draws a mix of people—from those who want to try tandem skydiving to those who sign up for the seven-lesson package and jump to become certified.

“The folks that come here for tandem jumps probably won’t come back for another jump,” Bob says. “For them, it’s another milestone to check off their bucket list. But we’ve also turned novices into competent, experienced and safe jumpers who keep coming back.”

Most experienced skydivers go there to train for several weeks at a time.

“The thing about skydiving is you’re not concerned about your mortgage, your bank account or what your future will look like,” Bob says. “You’re totally living in the moment.”

In addition to skydiving, Skydive DeLand offers airplane rides, a kids’ playground and a full-service restaurant and bar. For more information, visit

Living It Up With Lemurs

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018

The critically endangered red ruffed lemurs are the largest lemurs in the Myakka City lemur colony.

Scientists work to bring lemurs back from the brink of extinction

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that more than 90 percent of lemur species face extinction in the next 20 years.

Alison Grand, executive director of the Lemur Conservation Foundation in Myakka City, is determined to help lemurs fight that devastating trend.

“One reason working with lemurs is so fulfilling is that unlike other species I’ve worked with, lemurs are really struggling to survive in the wild,” Alison says. “There’s a critical conservation element to what I’m doing as well.

“This isn’t just about having these animals here for people to come see or research. It’s bigger than that because they are the genetic safety net for the individuals that are struggling for survival in the wild. That elevates everything to a whole other level. You’re doing the research and you’re doing the husbandry, but you’re doing all of this because if you don’t, they may not survive.”

The primatologist and conservationist originally wanted to be a veterinarian, but she found herself drawn to primates, their communities and their behavior during her undergraduate studies. While she enjoyed working with a variety of primates, lemurs had a certain allure.

“Lemurs are really complex,” Alison says. “A lot of people think of them as simple, primitive primates, but they have very complex social structures and they can be a challenge. Their behavior is complex, so they’re really fun to observe. Every day is a new adventure when you work with lemurs.”

Alison, who has a master’s degree and doctorate in neuroscience and behavior, brings a variety of experience to the Lemur Conservation Foundation. Before joining the conservation foundation, she worked at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which gave her the opportunity to travel to the Democratic Republic of Congo to study and develop conservation programs.

Alison spent much of her time there supporting the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center, commonly referred to as GRACE.

Her work was about more than primates, however. She worked with community members to stress the importance of conservation and community building.

Alison also helped create community development projects, including a rabbit breeding program and skills/business training for women.

The experience shaped her career.

“It opened my eyes to a whole new world of studying primates and wanting to save primates,” Alison says. “It’s not just about the furry primates. It’s about human primates as well, and incorporating the community work to save habitat. That job set the baseline for my career.”

Alison says she enjoyed her time with Disney’s Animal Kingdom and learned a lot about the importance of relationships between humans and their furry counterparts, but she wanted to get involved with lemurs again.

She says the perfect career step would blend all of her previous experience.

“I had the research piece, the conservation piece, the animal management piece and I didn’t want to give any of them up,” Alison says. “I love all of them, and that became the challenge because for most jobs, you could pick one. Rarely do you have a job where you have all three, but that’s what I found here. I got to come full circle and work with lemurs again. It was the perfect fit.”

Alison began volunteering with the Lemur Conservation Foundation, and eventually took on the role of animal care manager in 2013. She oversaw daily care of animals and lived onsite for 31/2 years.

As executive director, her role has expanded greatly.

Joining Alison in the fight for lemur survival is Erik Patel, conservation and research director. Like Alison, he has seen the impact of community programs on lemur habitat.

Erik, who first traveled to Madagascar to study the silky sifaka—one of the rarest lemurs—for his doctorate project, has gone to Madagascar every year for the past 16 years.

He says his early travels to study and develop projects in the northeastern region of the island were a lesson in hardship, but also in the importance of helping conserve the beauty and the resources provided by the rainforest.

There was no infrastructure, he knew no one and communication was difficult.

As the years passed and Erik was more familiar with the culture and the people, he became involved in several projects for the Lemur Conservation Foundation that included conservation, education and, most recently, ecotourism.

Madagascar’s northwest region, where most of Erik’s lemur research takes place, is home to the nation’s largest remaining rainforest. Approximately 80 percent of those living near the protected land live on $1.50 a day. Seventy percent are subsistence farmers who are running out of land.

Because so many people live near the protected lands, some will trek into the reserve to hunt lemurs or illegally harvest wood, both of which are detrimental to lemur populations.

“One of our goals is to support human livelihood and reduce dependence on forest resources while improving biodiversity conservation,” Erik says. “We work on village projects because we recognize a lot of local communities don’t have many options. It behooves us to address some of the socioeconomic drivers of the habitat destruction.”

Erik says much of the destruction is not caused by clear cutting or large-scale corporations, but small-scale operations by people who need things to live.

“The trouble is there’s very little forest left outside the protected areas,” Erik says.

One section of protected land getting positive attention from locals and researchers from around the world is Camp Indri, one of the Lemur Conservation Foundation’s ecotourist projects. When Erik first visited the site in the mountainous Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve, it was little more than a flat patch of grass. The 280-square-kilometer reserve is 90 percent primary forest—home to 11 species of lemurs and more than 100 species of birds.

“It’s remarkable,” Erik says. “It’s just full of life, but there wasn’t good access for visitors or researchers. We knew we couldn’t bring tourists unless we built at least toilets. So the first thing we built was a toilet, and there was great celebration locally over that. Then we built a dining area and four covered tent shelters. We provide tents and even running water.”

As word spreads about Camp Indri, named for a lemur species, more visitors arrive each year. With visitors come money, publicity and more employment for locals—work that doesn’t involve cutting down trees or illegal hunting.

“Having visitors and researchers come to the area brings so much money in,” Alison says. “The more money Madagascar national parks can bring in, the more it can transform the community to have this area be a place where researchers and visitors come. That’s the hope—to bring this new business to the area. They make money from the area and have more reason to protect it.”

Camp Indri offers educational programs created to teach the importance of environmental conservation to youth throughout the region, including local children who do not have enough money or the clothing and equipment to travel into the dense rainforest. Children often grow up with stories of the mysterious lemurs and hearing the calls from the trees, but many have never seen one.

The program is popular with children and their parents. The trips are in constant demand.

“The most challenging part is there are so many kids, and we can only organize so many visits,” Erik says. “They have so much fun, and they get to see large lemurs in the rainforest, like the indri lemur and silki sifaka.”

Alison says the educational programs are a great way to teach the next generation about conservation and lemurs.

“This is the kind of program that changes a kid’s life,” she says. “Just like my experience in undergrad at the Duke Lemur Center opened my eyes to a whole new field that changed the direction of my life, these kids would never have these kinds of experiences otherwise.”

Education is important, but so is reforestation—another part of the Lemur Conservation Foundation’s work to slow the decrease of lemur habitat and provide a source of income for locals.

“You can’t have enough trees,” Erik says. “The area we work in has reasonably good soils compared to the rest of Madagascar. We plant a variety of cash crops people can make money from, but are unlikely to cut down.”

Foundation staff and locals planted at least 6,000 trees in 2016. Erik says it should not be hard to double and triple that in the years to come.

Each tree planted—and each one not illegally cut down—is one more the endangered lemurs can call home. Each community taught about the animals’ plight can be an advocate for a symbiotic relationship with one of Madagascar’s fastest-disappearing animals.

Myakka City Lemur Reserve is not open to the public, but does host special events. Go to for information about special events and open houses.

Up a Creek Without A Boat

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018

Paddleboarding is boating for the minimalist. The basic equipment includes what amounts to an oversized surfboard and a single-blade paddle. Even so, a good, basic board and paddle combo can cost several hundred dollars.
© iStock/kzenon

Back in the day, they didn’t have a name for paddling a log or slab of wood down the creek. Kids just did it. Today, they call it paddleboarding.

Standup paddleboarding is the fastest-growing outdoor activity in the U.S., according to The Outdoor Foundation. Its annual surveys show the participation rate has increased by an average of more than 20 percent in each of the past three years.

Two benefits of paddleboarding are balance and core-strength development. It’s also an ideal hot-weather activity, especially for beginners who may spend as much time in the water as on the board.

Here are four things to consider if you think paddleboarding could be in your future:

  • Learn from experience. First-timers should consider taking lessons or accompanying an experienced paddleboarder.
  • Rent or borrow first. There’s not much equipment involved, but it can be expensive. Give the sport a try before spending several hundred dollars on a board and paddle.
  • Seek calm water. Learning to paddleboard in calm conditions is hard enough, so avoid breezy days and choppy water caused by wind and boat traffic.
  • Expect to fall. Few people can hop on a board and paddle away the first time. Like any other activity that requires balance, coordination and core strength, it takes time to learn. That means taking some falls in the process. Set your expectations accordingly.


App of the Month
Paddle Logger is perfect for paddleboarding, canoeing and kayaking. The app features a GPS tracking and plotting feature, overhead trip view and trip summary. Summary details include date, time, distance, duration, pace, and average and maximum speeds. You also can take photos along the way and “pin” them to trip waypoints in the digital logbook. Paddle Logger is available for Apple devices only for $3.99


Two Tips to Keep Your Cool

  • Ice cubes are the best all-around choice for use in the cooler. Cubes last longer than crushed ice and provide more contact with contents than block ice.
  • Cooler management is key to keeping things cool: Keep it full, keep it closed and keep it in the shade.


Mosquitoes Hate a Breeze
It is difficult for mosquitoes to fly in almost any kind of wind. Most species are weak fliers. Even a modest breeze—1 to 2 mph—is enough to ground many of these pests. Lesson learned: The wind is your friend for summer outdoor activities.


What’s Special About July?

  • National Picnic Month
  • Capture the Sunset Week (July 15-21)
  • July 16, World Snake Day
  • July 22, Hammock Day

Got a Tip or a Whopper?
Send us your favorite outdoor tip, photo or story. If selected for publication, we will send you $25 for one-time use. Tell us the story behind the picture, and remember to identify people and pets. Email your submission to

Many of Curtis Condon’s fondest memories involve outdoor adventures with friends and family, whether fishing with old school buddies, backpacking in the mountains of the Northwest with his sons, or bird-watching along the Gulf Coast with his wife. He feels fortunate having the opportunity to write about the outdoors and other subjects for more than 30 years.