Want to experience the estuaries up close?

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BY JACK SHORT – Sometimes, to understand something, you have to be willing to dive right in.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is hoping that bringing people into close contact with the nature around them will help convince people of the need for preservation.

They have begun shuttling people to see the preserves firsthand, for free.

“The main goal is for people to have a good time and enjoy the resources,” said Stephanie Erickson, CHAP environmental specialist. She added that she hopes people will take from the experience a better understanding of seagrass beds and why it’s important to protect them.

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That need for protection is crucial because of how many different kinds of wildlife spend part of their life in the fragile ecosystems like marine grass beds. Florida’s 2,000,000 acres of seagrass beds filter water, stabilize sandy bottoms, and provide shelter for marine life – over 80 percent of all recreationally and commercially important fish species depend on seagrass in some way, according to material provided by CHAP.

But they are also susceptible to human activity, particularly damage from boat. Efforts to rehabilitate and replant seagrasses have been supplemented by F.L. 253.04 (3)(a), which makes destruction of seagrass in Aquatic Preserves a violation of law that carries a penalty of up to $1,000.

CHAP monitors not only seagrass, but water quality and colonial nesting birds, and keeps invasive species like Australian Pines and Asian Green Mussels at bay.

They also provide education and outreach through programs like the snorkeling trips. Most recently, participants were taken to the trestles near the north end of Gasparilla Island to explore and look for creatures large and small, from dolphin and great egrets, to pinfish and stone crabs.

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The trips last approximately two hours and gear, obtained through a grant, is provided, but participants should wear a bathing suit and bring any needed towels, water, or sun protection like hats and sunscreen.

There is no cost, but participants must pay $5 for parking at the Gasparilla Marina, from which the trip departs.

Erickson said the response has been great and that many upcoming trips are full. They will add some dates, but those interested shouldn’t hesitate to contact CHAP at (941) 575-5861 for more information about how to reserve a spot.