Up in the Air

The plane roared to life and I experienced the age-old feeling of excitement whenever I fly. As we chased the runway and the plane slowly lifted, I pressed my face to the window to see the ground fall away. I will never tire of that feeling of utter weightlessness – the peculiar thought of something so bulky taking to the air.

I’d been invited onto my boss’s plane for a morning trip to Naples, a city in southwest Florida looking out onto the Gulf of Mexico. We were flying to break in a new engine, and planned to refuel in Naples before returning to Yulee. It was a whistle-stop state tour, a four hour round trip that would take twelve in a car.

Within moments of take-off we were over the beach – long piers stretched out into the sea like the teeth of a comb. At 9am on a Saturday the beach was almost deserted. It was a treat to see so much uninterrupted sand before the tourist tide came rushing in.

We curved back inland and passed over a maze of river and marshland that I had already explored by boat, but this time we were too high to look for egrets. The only movement was the white streak of a lonely boat as it navigated the watery trails. I wondered how many alligators were down there, then decided not to think about that.

The marshy solitude of Amelia Island dissolved into towering office blocks, and I soon recognised downtown Jacksonville. There was the Landing, where I’d been just a week before the shooting. It had been enough to dissuade me from visiting downtown again, but I still had fond memories of the river walk, the MOSH museum and the topaz blue water of Friendship Fountain.

Leaving vast, sprawling Jacksonville behind, the landscape was soon dominated by trees again. Green was undoubtedly a primary colour in Florida – a patchwork quilt of field and forest stretched as far as the eye could see. In some places the trees were confined in tightly packed cubic parameters. In others, they were sprinkled sporadically. Criss-crossed over it all were the highways, dead straight lines in parallel and perpendicular.

Fluffy cumulus clouds were gathering, and a rather ominous feeling began to grow in my stomach as we bumped over them. Sunlight poured into the stuffy cabin, which did nothing to suppress my queasiness. Because of the new engine, we had no choice but to fly low. While the views were still stunning, I was somewhat distracted by the turbulent ride, and as Naples came into view I couldn’t help feeling slightly relieved that we’d be getting out of the clouds.

Once down on the ground, we stopped just long enough to stock up on drinks – fuel for the plane, a Gatorade for me – before taking off again, back through the spectrum of concrete jungles and green wildernesses.

More to See, More to Zoo

Last week I visited Jacksonville Zoo, which boasts “more to see, more to zoo”. And it certainly delivered, with a broad range of exhibits including some very special ones that I’d never seen before. A particularly unique exhibit was Wild Florida, a collection of species native to the state. I discovered just how big alligators are (which only confirmed my decision not to go anywhere near a river during my time here) and caught a glimpse of a manatee as it glided underwater. Manatees are the state marine mammal of Florida but threats such as collisions with boats, habitat loss and the devastating red tide have now made them endangered.

In response to these threats, Jacksonville Zoo is in the process of making the first manatee critical care centre in northeast Florida. This will allow more injured animals to be rescued and cared for, and minimise travel distance to other centres such as the ones in Miami, Tampa and Orlando. To make the experience as natural as possible for the manatees, they have a very large tank, which can only be viewed from one side. They are only seen occasionally when they swim close to the tank’s edge, giving them much needed privacy.

Elsewhere on the site was the Emerald Forest Aviary, where I met my new favourite bird: the roseate spoonbill. Native to Florida, this extraordinary wading bird is candy floss pink in colour and sports a magnificent bill that it waves from side to side underwater to sift through the mud. There was a group of them in the aviary, perched on branches overhanging a deep, dark pond. I positioned myself to put this dark pond behind a particular bird who had stood beside some very photogenic foliage. After just a little editorial tweaking, I was pleased with the dramatic result.


Although I always love seeing the star animals of the zoo, some of my best moments from the day were the wild individuals that had snuck in uninvited. As usual, I fell in love with some new lizards, including one that posed for me with an over-the-shoulder glance.


However, the most incredible moment came just before I left. I was wandering past the lions and admiring the wildflowers that were attracting all sorts of butterflies and dragonflies. Then, I saw something larger than an invertebrate zooming around and was thrilled to discover it was a hummingbird!


I fumbled to get my camera ready, and for a while took lots of blurry pictures of flowers. Eventually, I got used to the hummingbird’s pattern of flying and managed to capture the animal in frame. I stood watching it for ages, as usual receiving looks from passers-by wondering what I was so interested in. For me though, it was an amazing sight and one of those perfect surprises.