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Dolphins: Panama City Beach

Last year I attended a conference with my friend Kathi in Panama City Beach.  Included in our registration was a ticket for a cruise of the harbor and nearby environs.  But we do live in Florida and a hurricane was threatening and we weren’t even sure if the conference would still run or whether it would be canceled.

As frequently happens, and very luckily for us, the hurricane made a last minute hook and veered further out into the Gulf.  Our convention was on.  However, as we got closer to our destination on I-10 from Jacksonville, we became aware that we were probably going to feel at least the edge of the hurricane in Panama City Beach.

We checked into our hotel and got our first view of the ocean.  The water was pretty churned up sending long rolling breakers crashing onto the shore.  The wind was blowing real strong and we wondered if our harbor cruise would be canceled.  We were not too sure if we would even want to get into a boat with weather conditions as they were!

We went down to the reception area and found out that the cruise was on and shuttles were running down to the harbor.  We decided to go check it out and were so pleased to discover that most of the area that the boat would be operating in was very protected.  So, along with about forty other people, we boarded and set sail into the approaching sunset.

The coastline was very pretty and there were little islands dotted around here and there.  Seagulls and pelicans swooped low over the water, probably hoping for a last meal before the sun went down.  The captain announced that he was going to pull around and head into an area where they usually saw dolphins.  Kathi and I decided to station ourselves right at the front of the boat so we wouldn’t miss a thing.

We cruised along a stretch of the outer harbor without seeing a single dolphin.  We were all scanning the waves but to no avail.  After running a little over time, the Captain said he would have to turn around and head back into the harbor. Shortly after his announcement a shout was heard and sure enough there were a couple of dolphins swimming ahead of the boat dipping in and out of the water.  We were all very excited and quite happy to have made the sighting.

At this point Kathi and I decided to step back from the front to allow others to watch.  We sat a little to one side (don’t ask me if it was port or starboard, I’m not a sailor!) and just chatted as we watched some of the small islands on our return to port.

Suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, immediately to the side of the boat and right in front of our eyes, a dolphin leapt out of the water.  This was not one of those curved-body, breaking-of-the-waves jump.  This was a straight-up-in-the-air,  shot-from-the-barrel-of-a-gun, all-muscles-involved leap of joy. 

We gave a great shout and leapt to the side railing.  My heart was beating wildly as I watched this incredible creature.  Just as he reached the pinnacle of his leap he gave a slight twist to one side, then went crashing back down into the sea. 

I was breathless, speechless, almost dizzy with joy at this amazing sight.  I clung to the railings trying to take it all in and was about to say something to Kathi when, whoosh, with a sudden surge the waters opened and up he came again. His body was sleek and powerful , his muscles rippling smoothly, glistening in the last rays of the evening sun.  It was almost as though he was saying, “Look at me!  See how beautiful I am!”.  And oh my God yes, he was strikingly beautiful as he hung fleetingly suspended in mid air.

He disappeared under the waves and I could feel my happiness collecting wildly in my throat.  I wanted to shout and scream and jump.  Tears were welling up in my eyes, the emotion was so strong.  We scanned the surface of the water but to no avail.  The show was over and the Captain turned into the port channel and took us safely back to our berthing.

I was quiet for this last leg of the cruise.  I needed to process the feelings, the sense of wonder that filled me.  I said a quiet thank you to God in my heart for this amazing gift that he had presented me with.  This world is truly an incredible creation that I need to appreciate and respect more and more with each passing day.  Back to the hotel we went and I slept with a heart overflowing with gratitude and love that night.   

Dolphins: Marineland, Florida

Jax - Marineland 27 Sep 07 027 Jax - Marineland 27 Sep 07 047  Jax - Marineland 27 Sep 07 041

Just south of St. Augustine, Florida on Route A1A is Marineland.  My husband and I had read about Marineland when we researched dolphins in Florida.  However, when we did our initial research we learned that it was closed for renovations.  So we put it on the back burners of our minds and only just remembered about it last year.

Marineland is actually a town, albeit very small.  The population in 2006 was – ten!!  There are probably more people employed at the Dolphin Conservation Center than actually live in the “town”.  The Center was originally built in 1938 as one of Florida’s first theme parks and was described as the world’s first “oceanarium”.  In 1999 Hurricanes Flloyd and Irene caused a prolonged closure and also much damage.  In 2003 it was decided to completely close the place and do a major overhaul. 

It was opened as the Dolphin Conservation Center in early 2006 and is now a hands-on interactive center for the public and the dolphins.  There are many different “packages” that can be booked offering a range of interactive programs from swimming with the dolphins, to training them, to painting with them.  Yes, I did say painting!  However, it is also possible to pay just a general entrance fee and simply admire and watch the dolphins as they swim freely in a huge round tank and then watch a short “performance” as the trainers put them through their routines.  As you watch them in the round tank you may get lucky and find yourself playing “catch” with the dolphins as they toss their balls over the walls of the tank to unsuspecting members of the public!    

It takes about an hour and fifteen minutes to drive there from where we live.  So one beautiful day in late spring 2008 we decided to take the Harley for a run.  The weather was perfect – not too hot, a nice breeze, and no rain on the horizon.  We chose to elongate the ride by following 17 south past Palatka, then we cut across SR 100 and enjoyed a beautiful ride over to A1A.  What a blessing it was to be enjoying God’s creation together!

We parked the bike, paid our admission fee, and headed on in.  The set up is very beautiful with a well laid out visitor and gift center and also a small restaurant/cafe.  We followed the walk along the sea wall from the center over to the dolphin tanks.  There were hundreds of butterflies (Monarchs I think) so it may have been migration time for them. 

As we approached the first big round tank there were three or four dolphins swimming there and no sooner did they see us than they began to toss their toys over the top of the tank to us.  We spent a while “playing” with them and just watching the grace and beauty and strength of their bodies as they moved so easily in the water.  I don’t think I will ever tire of watching dolphins swim.

Shortly after this we were called to come to the big rectangular pool (about half the size of an Olympic swimming pool).  A couple of trainers entered the pool and opened the gate to the tank.  One of the dolphins came through and we watched as the trainers showed us exactly how they trained the dolphins and we marveled at their intelligence.  The gate was opened once more and two more dolphins came through and for the next fifteen to twenty minutes we were mesmerized as they leaped into the air, carried trainers on their noses, on their backs, and showed off their talents, skills and intelligence.

Although this was a much smaller “show” than any I had seen before, I still enjoyed just being in the presence of these incredible creatures.  I always feel as though I am in the presence of some great energy.  For me being with the dolphins is a very spiritual experience.  We rode home after the show and I know my heart was full of joy and my soul was singing. And I found myself wondering when my next dolphin experience will be. 

Gardening: Spiritual & Physical Therapy

 

I love gardening.  Whether it be the back-breaking digging and weeding, or the planting of flowers and shrubs, I love it all.  Understandable really; I come from good British gardening stock.  My father was an “uncertified” master gardener.  He won many local city awards for his garden in London and was featured several times in our local newspaper.

The clearest memories that I have of my father are connected to the garden.  When we moved into what would become our permanent family home, I was eleven years old.  The house was a two-storey brick townhouse with a very large garden to one side that was a huge quarter circle in shape.  The house had just been built by the local council and consequently this garden area was an ex-construction site.  It was a mess!

I cannot remember how long it took my father to completely dig over the whole area.  I do remember that he would come home from work and dig and then spend the whole weekend digging.  It seemed to go on forever; he had such patience.  What I remember most about that evolution was his insistence on digging down at least three or four feet “to get rid of the builder’s debris”,  and that he dug up a flattened exploded bomb from World War II.  And I remember his sweat covered torso (he always wore long pants because he had one artificial leg), glistening in the sun as it slowly turned dark brown.

The end result was an exquisite garden.  A large circular lawn which was always in perfect condition, surrounded by flower beds full of roses, dahlias, asters, larkspur, delphiniums and London Pride, all bordered by white Alyssum and deep blue Lobelia.  Along the back fence, which separated our garden from my Dad’s rented allotment, several trees were also planted: lilac, apple, pear, and a couple of others whose names I do not remember. 

So as I dig and weed and seed and plant I feel a small connection with my Dad.  I am grateful for this because, even though he was a very good father, always at home doing something for the house or the family, we did not have a rich or close relationship.  He was just there in a very quiet and noncommittal way. 

I’m a bit of a “fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants” kinda woman and my gardening follows suit.  It’s a sort of chaotic yet orderly mish-mash of things and I’m sure my Dad turns in his grave sometimes:-).   But it gives me great pleasure and enormous satisfaction.  And the butterflies seem to like it, which in turn reminds me of my Mum.  But that’s another story.

I try to wear gloves to spare my hands, but sometimes I just have to get my them into God’s earth and feel it, and feel the plant going into it.  On hot, swampy, Florida days the sweat streams down my body and I think of Dad digging his “three to four feet down”.  And as I watch the seeds sprout and the plants burst forth in bloom, I feel a connection to my Creator that I cannot find anywhere else.  And I have a tiny human idea of what He must have felt as He put the Universe together.

And so I find myself praying when I garden.  As I stretch and use my muscles I talk to God.  I let Him know my joys and sorrows, my aches and pains.  I thank Him for all the gifts that fill my life.  I argue with Him, and then place myself humbly in His care.  And just recently I have begun to praise Him , to magnify Him in the midst of His creation.  (There’s another story behind that which will have to wait for another day!)  What better therapy could there be – and it doesn’t cost me a dime!              

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