On Becoming a Maryland Master Naturalist: Part 4

naturalist blog logoChapter Four—A Side Journey

Before I signed up for the year-long Maryland Master Naturalist training program, my family planned a Christmas-season cruise to warmer parts—an ongoing choice to spend time together rather than exchange gifts at this time of year. Of course, the previously arranged cruise came the same week as the December naturalist training class, so I will be reporting on that December session (Botany) later this spring, when I “make up” the missed class. In lieu of that post, I thought I would share a few thoughts on our trip and how one can bring a naturalist’s frame of mind and heart along on any journey.

Since I seem to serve as my family’s tour director and general Mother Hen, I did often get to choose what sights (and sites) we were to experience. After landing in Fort Lauderdale, we even stopped by a nature center on our way to the first night’s lodging! The Anna Kolb Nature Center advertised an observation tower (with elevator), a natural history and ecology museum, and a 2 p.m. behind-the-scenes talk about the inhabitants of the aquarium. Okay, so the nature center was quite small, but the exhibits were beautifully done and focused on the local inhabitants of the brackish inland waterways. The


Atlantic needlefish (nas.er.usgs.gov)

docent who delivered our talk was young and enthusiastic and gave us a whole new insight on puffer fish behavior. He also helped me identify the needlefish (Strongylura marina) I had seen off the dock at our al fresco lunch. Well worth the $2 admission fee, and I was happy to see some critters, even though they were in tanks.


Our first excursion was a history and nature walk on the private Half Moon Cay—a bit of hiking, a beautiful protected lagoon, interesting remnants of 18th century brick houses, and manta rays in a corralled beach area. Although the sign warned of all kinds of creatures, I only saw a mockingbird (the spitting image of his Maryland cousin).

After a day at sea, we landed at Georgetown, Grand Cayman, and promptly took a taxi-Cruise Half Moon Cay lizard signvan to the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park—beautiful plants, including many in bloom even in December. An orchid boardwalk and a xeriphytic garden (plants that have a low supplemental water requirement) were the highlights, but, again, not many birds or other creatures. I did hear rustling in the undergrowth, but never saw anything larger than a tiny lizard.

The next day, in Cozumel, Mexico, we went to Chankanaab Adventure Beach Park, which sounds very touristy, but it was actually a nature park with some Sea World-type programs. We caught the tail end of a sea lion demonstration, then rented snorkels and masks and FINALLY saw some critters: a beautiful, light-colored spotted spiny lobster (Panulirus guttatus), crawling along about 8 feet under the surface; many yellow and blue striped clown fish who came right up to our masks; and a much–larger (maybe 18-inch) bonefish that snuck up on me and was suddenly—VERY suddenly—in my field of view.

We walked all through Chankanaab Park, mostly intrigued by the flowers and plants, with only a few iguanas occasionally peeking around a stone or outcropping. I guess I ended up studying botany after all, since the animals and even insects were so scarce.

Cruise botanical garden pond reflection

Reflection pond, Queen Elizabeth II Botanical Park, Cozumel

I might have brought along a guidebook to the local plants—and I sorely wished I knew more about plant identification—as there were some exotic flowers and seeds for which I had no counterpart in my northern experience. And we did not have access to the many pictures and identification sources on the Internet, so we were left Cruise - botanical garden red flower 3 closeupto hypothesize about the function of the plants we saw. Our docent the first day, on Half Moon Cay, did talk a lot about “bush medicine,” the folk medicinal uses for many of the plants we saw. She even convinced a few hardy souls to try a taste of a small persimmon that grows wild there (now THAT was a fruit I knew from a Maryland childhood and a teasing older brother who pretended to eat one to convince me to try it).

One last naturalist thought—as we cruised past the island of Cuba, I was struck by how lush and unspoiled it looked. Although I know that the economic and political difficulties in Cuba have been very hard on the people there, part of me recognized that the natural environment may have been spared some of the overdevelopment that prosperity often brings.

I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with the latest essay in our regular Becoming a Maryland Master Naturalist series—thank you for going along with me on this side excursion into the natural world of our close southern neighbors. As always, you can leave comments here or email me at BethLLawton@gmail.com.

by Beth Lawton
Maryland Master Naturalist in training


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