After our rocky-but-turned-out-fine start in Naples with the flat trailer tire we were relieved to finally arrive at the Low Key Hideaway in the late afternoon. (Click on the link to see the gorgeous photos the owners, Pat and Cindy Bonish, took from the campground dock). Craig and Jean were already set up so greeted us with a welcome glass of wine on the dock.
The next morning we rode our bikes into town for breakfast and a little sight-seeing. On the way home we walked our bikes through the Southern Cross Sea Farms parking lot which was covered with what looked like fish nets. I asked a worker why the nets were just laying there with trucks driving over them and he said “come on back at 1:00 PM for the tour”.
Of course, we went back for the tour and it was amazing. Cedar Key had a fishing industry which was put out of business with the stroke of a pen 16 years ago when Florida banned fishing with nets so there would be some fish left for the tourists to catch. They switched to clam farming and now this area is the largest producer of clams in the US, where 500 people harvest nearly 200 million clams annually. Southern Cross produces the seed clams that farmers buy to plant on leased areas of sea floor. Two years later they harvest mature clams.
Scotty, the company’s marine biologist, gave a great tour explaining the month-long process from fertilization to a salable seed clam about an eighth of an inch in diameter. We saw 19 day old clams that looked like grains of fine sand to the naked eye but exact in every detail copies of their momma under the microscope. The ‘nursery’ was a series of plastic tubs containing in total 48 million baby clams. Clams eat by filtering single cell organisms from seawater and it takes a lot of itty bitty critters to feed 48 million growing bivalves so a major part of the nursery activity is producing the food. They raise many different species photo-plankton in these 5 gallon water bottles.
The seed clams are wrapped in the nets we saw laying in the driveway, put on the sea floor and pulled up two years later covered with tasty hard shells. The used nets are laying in the driveway so sun light and tires can remove most of the sea weed and other sea things that grew on the net along with the clams. On an ecological note, the clam farms improve bio-diversity and one clam (by virtue of building its shell from the minerals in seawater) removes as much carbon from the environment as an acre of pine forest.
Tuesday dawned chilly and cloudy so we lazed around the campground then went into town for cappuccinos and a change of scenery. The knowledgable young barista was a Cedar Key native and recommended we visit the The Shell Mound Unit of Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge which was a short drive up the coast. This was a good choice for an easy hike and an interesting history lesson.
The shell mound is literally a mound of clam shells roughly 28′ high and covering a five acre area. Indians living here from 1500 BC to 1000 AD piled up shells, bones and other refuse (looked like 100% shells to me) to create an area raised above the dead flat marsh land to provide more breeze and less bugs. Not much to take a picture of but interesting to see a hill covered with trees, grass, etc with nothing but shells on the sloping edges.
There was a very nice nature trail through the swamp linking little islands with boardwalks. The sky cleared so we stopped at an observation deck overlooking a pond to bask in the sun and spotted a blue crab methodically working the edge of the weeds grabbing little things we couldn’t see and shoving them into his mouth. I know this sounds dumb but it was a great live-in-the-moment experience to watch the crab work while enjoying the pristine natural environment and warm sun. I bet we just stood there leaning on the rail for half an hour.
After the clam lesson even the vegetarians decided they would like some clam chowder for dinner. When I asked Pat, the park owner, to recommend the best place for chowder in Cedar Key he replied we could get the best clam chowder in the whole world at Tony’s Seafood Restaurant. They, in fact, won the world title three years in a row at the chowder cook off in Newport RI. It was good, no doubt helped by being in the epicenter of fresh clams and equal parts half and half and heavy cream.
We bid Jean and Craig farewell and left for Enterprise Wednesday morning to spend Thursday and Friday with the kids (and Sue can get another healthy dose of the grand children). We will be home in Michigan for a few days, then to Chicago to visit Matt and Renee in their new house, then off to Isla Mujeres, Mexico. I’ll update the blog after we are back in the warm sun.
A last picture from Cedar Key taken from the campground dock as I tried out the panorama feature of my new iPhone.