Hidden Jacksonville (Cover Story)

photo courtesy of Tom Pitchford and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission.

(Plus three little islands you know little about, hidden just a few miles away).

by Kaki Flynn
Managing Editor, Jacksonville Magazine
Cover Story - Hidden Jacksonville

I sought out some of the more off-the-beaten-path places in the River City. Everything from nature parks to funky restaurants. Join me for a boat ride to an island free of people near the Cumberland Sound, eat at some of the tucked-away restaurants, and learn more about the often ignored waterways that border Northeast Florida.


Up to 200 of the estimated 350 right whales that exist worldwide migrate down the coast of Florida every year, passing by Cumberland Island, Ga. and heading on to Amelia Island and Jacksonville. Considering the number of whales that come through - with many the size of a school bus - it is surprising how hard the whales are to spot.

"The majority of the whales are pregnant females that swim here from the Northeastern United States and Canada to calve," says Tom Pitchford, a wildlife biologist in charge of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Right Whale Project.

The right whales mostly travel through our waters from mid-November to mid-April, but can start showing up as early as October. "This is the only place in the world we know these whales calve," adds Pitchford. "Most that come through are pregnant females, while the other females and males stay behind. Some males and juveniles also come down, but we don’t know why."

Right whale and baby. Photo courtesy Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

The right whales can come as close as 100 yards off shore, making them visible to people standing on the beach, but Pitchford says that most people miss seeing them because they just aren't flashy swimmers.

He says that viewers may be more likely to see a humpback whale, another endangered species that passes through our waters.

"The humpbacks come through in fewer numbers, but they lob tail-which means they create a huge splash using their tail (fluke) or their flippers."

The right whales are such slow swimmers, Pitchford says that he has gotten calls from people thinking that they are looking at a sick whale.

"If you catch a glimpse of some large floating object off of Jacksonville Beach, you probably saw one," says Pitchford.

While the whales are hard to see, each whale is very distinct looking. The markings that are seen on the head of each of the whales is as unique to them as our fingerprints are to us.

Pitchford points out the importance of having people that document and catalog each of these whales, so that they can be tracked.

He sends a team of researchers up in the air every flyable day of the season to look for the whales. The team then reports any sightings in real-time to the maritime community so that collisions can be avoided.

Pitchford says people are more likely to see the Cessna Skymaster’s used for those trips than the whales.The odd-looking white aircraft with bright orange stripes and propellers in the front and back fly up and down the coast between 9 AM and 4PM during the season.

Daisy May, the Possum

The possum’s name is Daisy May, and she came to MOSH (1025 Museum Cir., 396-674) two years ago after her mom was hit and killed by a car. 

Daisy May was just three weeks old and still in her mother’s pouch with her four brothers and sisters, who were killed in the accident. 

Daisy May was taken to Hayley Wynn, a naturalist at MOSH, who took care of Daisy until she was four months old. Wynn then brought her to MOSH’s Florida Naturalist’s Center, a science exhibit where all of the museum’s live animals reside.  

She lives in a tree house in a glass enclosure she shares with two gopher tortoises named Emmette, 76 years old, and Gooder, 22 years old.  

Show up on Saturdays at 2:30 PM for Marsupial Madness, and you can pet and play with Daisy May, or watch her eat watermelon, her favorite food. 

“People think possums are mean because they hiss and show their teeth,” says Wynn, “but they are really pretty friendly, misunderstood animals.”

Artificial Reefs 
This is hidden Jacksonville. A series of artificial reefs off the Northeast Florida coast provide an underwater playground. 

As deep as 100 feet and as far as 25 miles off the coast lies over a hundred artificial reefs consisting mostly of discarded boats and concrete, many of them put there by the non-profit TISIRI (Think It, Sink It, Reef It). 

“Algae and things that can’t grow on sand breed on these reefs,” says executive director Joe Kistel. “Groupers usually show up right away, out of curiosity and gratitude to have another place to hide from predators. Coral, sponges and reef fish like amberjack, angel fish, and gobies start building a community, and pretty quickly a new reef can look like it has been there for years.” 

After boats and materials are donated, they are stripped down to the steel hull and “swiss cheesed” to make them sink. 

The Spike, a newer reef 25 miles east of Jax Beach that used to be a 75-foot Coast Guard tugboat is a popular spot for fishermen and scuba divers. 

Some of the objects sunk to make the reefs can be unusual. 
“There are four press boxes from the Gator Bowl that are now out in the ocean 15 miles east of Mayport,” says  Kistel.
“Scuba divers can even swim through the bathrooms.” 
Later this year, 100 tons of surplus concrete made up of bridge beams and other scraps from construction projects will be submersed about 12 miles east of Ponte Vedra Beach in an area called Floyd’s Folly. 
Tuff-E-Nuff, once the oldest tugboat on the East Coast is also now a reef. 
The boat was built in the 1890s, making it older than the Titanic. 
Not only are these reefs hard to find, but many times, companies or people that sponsor a reef ask for coins, letters and other sentimental items to be concealed on the reef. 

Corporations - or anyone, really - can have a reef named after them.
Shark Teeth 
You probably know about the Civil War history of Fort Clinch (2601 Atlantic Ave., Fernandina Beach), but you may not know that from now until the end of March, it is one of the prime places for beachcombers to find shells, shark teeth and fossils washed up on the beach. 
Every three to five years, the Cumberland Sound is dredged to keep the channel deep enough for the U. S. Navy’s Trident submarines that pass through. 
The channel needs to be kept at a depth of 60 feet to accommodate the subs, which can be as long as two football fields. 
This year, Great Lakes Dredge & Dock will dredge from Kings Bay, Georgia to the end of the Fernandina Harbor until March 30th. 
That means hidden treasures deep from the ocean bottom are washing up on those beaches.
Firefly Gatherings 
Fireflies come to Northeast Florida in a short burst for around two to three weeks between the months of March and May every year. 
The dates are hard to pin down because the short lifespan of the fireflies combined with factors such as weather and food supply make it difficult to determine exactly when and for how long they will appear. 
Just as hard is finding an accessible place to view them. 
One of the best places to catch the fireflies is the space between the service road that loops around the edge of Fort George Island and the Fort George River. The problem is getting there, since the only parking available is at the Ribault Club (11241 Fort George Rd.), which is only open Wed. to Sun. until 5 PM, long before the hour after sunset that is best for catching the blinking lights of these tiny bioluminescent creatures. 
Kaki Flynn (that's me, the editor) guides kayaking trips to hidden spots to see the fireflies. 
Also, check the wooded areas of the 4,000-acre Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve State Park (13802 Pumpkin Hill Rd.) on the north side of town.
Tiger Island 
Not many people, even in Jacksonville, have heard of Cumberland Island, the tiny island that stood in the national spotlight when John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife Caroline were married there. 
Even lesser known than Cumberland is another island that runs alongside Amelia Island and the mainland. This virtually unknown location is called Tiger Island.  As a guide that takes people on trips between Amelia Island and Tiger, I loved to tell people that it has the distinction of housing the largest population of rattlesnakes in the United States, just as we were out in the middle of the Intracoastal waterway and were about to pull up to the island. 
I haven't seen any scientific studies, but based on Southern Fried Science - the knowledge you get from talking to all the fisherman that are in the harbor almost 365 days a year - it’s because the St. Mary's River is the Atlantic Ocean drain for the Okefenokee Swamp. The snakes get washed out of the rivers during a rainstorm, and grab onto Tiger Island before they get washed out to sea. 

The fishermen talk about watching pigs, deer and coyote making the half mile or so swim across the channel. 
The pigs swim over, according to those Southern Fried Scientists, to eat the rattlesnakes.

That’s a brave swim, considering that the Sound between the two islands is also the largest breeding ground for hammerhead sharks on the East Coast. 
Around the perimeter of the island are aquifers, which are basically fresh water springs that attract Manatees in need of fresh water to drink.
Checker BBQ and Seafood 
The local favorite here is the “Trailer Trash” special—a pulled-pork sandwich, 20 shrimp, hand-cut French fries and fried green tomatoes for just $9.99. Owner and chef Art Jennette founded Checker (3566 St. Augustine Rd., 398-9206, artofcrackercooking.com) in 2006. 
The unique set-up includes a family-style buffet dinner on Friday and Saturday nights, where Jennette rings a dinner bell promptly at 7 PM to signal the 60 or so guests that it’s time to dig in. 
The buffet consists of peel-and-eat garlic shrimp, deep-fried Southern-style whiting fish, crab cakes, collard greens with smoked pork, cheesy-cheese grits, smoked ribs, fried green tomatoes and fried corn. 
During dinner, Jennette, almost always wearing a brightly patterned chef’s hat, walks around and serves blackened shrimp in an iron skillet to the tables. The $18.95 buffet also includes homemade dark chocolate or ginger cookies for dessert. Food is prepared in an old-fashioned cooking pit built in 1967. 
Grab lunch Monday through Thursday from 11 AM-3 PM and dinner from 6-8 PM. He calls his food “cracker-style cooking,” which he says comes from the Irish slang word for “entertainer.”  

Animal Attraction 

Pet a turkey. Feel sorry for the ostrich banned from the Jacksonville Zoo for being anti-social. Check out three different breeds of wolves that live together in a den.

It isn’t a Doctor Seuss book, it’s Skunkie Acres, located in White Springs. 

The animal rescue refuge is run by Bernard and Barbara Haake, and houses 400 animals, from a cougar to a four-horned Jacob sheep. 

The couple came across a despondent skunk in a pet store around 2007, and decided to rescue him. Fast-forward to today—voila, Skunkie Acres, a downscale roadside attraction 70 miles due west of Jax. 

Some of the animals are in cages, others roam free. Horse rides are available for $20 an hour. The rescue site is bare-boned, so pack a lunch. 

The baby water buffalo loves attention, and petting and hugging her is permitted. 

Entry is free; donations are welcome. Skunkieacres.com.
Virgin Mary Statue 
A statue of the Virgin Mary set in a grotto in the grass next to St. Michael’s Catholic Church (411 N. Fourth St., Fernandina Beach, 261-3472) has a much more interesting history than the plaque on its base suggests. 
It only tells visitors that it was built by Frank and Florence Mayer in 1950, but how it was made is its own story. The 3-foot base and 6-foot grotto are made from stones painstakingly collected by Frank in the harbor around Amelia Island on the northwest side of the island now called Old Town. 
The dark-colored rocks are ballasts—materials used to balance an empty boat—that came from the bottoms of the ships sailing in from other countries. The ballasts were placed in the cargo hold until the ship came to shore, when the crew would toss the rocks overboard to replace them with cargo. Frank, who passed away in 1993, modeled the grotto after one in the small town of Sonthofen, Germany, where he was born. 
His widow, Florence, 96, still visits the memorial.

No comments: