UT Students to Visit Wildlife Refuge
Paddling the ocean while dolphins play in the distance isn't students' usual winter break activity.
However, a group of UT students will travel to Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge located off the coast of Southwest Florida this break to sea kayak, camp and observe nature. The refuge is located right next to Everglades National Park.
The seven-day trip is provided by UTOP and will give students an adventurous alternative to the usual Netflix binge that occurs on winter break. The group will head south on Dec. 14 and return on Dec. 21.
Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge is 35,000 acres of land and sea and home to mangrove habitats housing several endangered species of wildlife. Despite the name, the string of islands only number in the hundreds. The usual winter temperature on the islands is in the low 70s, which will provide pleasant weather for those attending the winter break trip.
Sarah O'Leary, a senior in College Scholars, went on the kayaking trip three years ago, and this year, will return as one of the trip's leaders. UTOP has provided the trip for five years, and O'Leary said it is usually a big hit.
No experience is necessary, and the trip is designed for beginners. However, O'Leary said, those with previous experience will still have a great time.
Once the group arrives at the refuge, they will make camp, practice kayaking procedures and explore whichever island they land on first. Then, the real adventures begin with the group kayaking from island to island and backcountry camping.
“Backcountry camping means we don’t have any water, we don’t have any bathrooms,” O’Leary said. “We bring all of our water in, and we just do everything without facilities, so that’s a lot of fun.”
The winter break sea kayaking trip usually has a full list of students attending, with some students even getting placed on a waitlist. Eight students and three group leaders attend the trip each year, with some years even having enough willing participants to create another trip.
Delaney Washington, freshman in wildlife and fisheries science and a trip participant, is no stranger to outdoor activities. After she attended Ignite Outdoors this past summer, Washington began actively searching for another adventurous opportunity.
“I love being outdoors. I go backpacking, hiking, skiing and snowshoeing all the time,” Washington said. “I really just want to see the Everglades and get some awesome kayaking in.”
Although Washington has participated in various outdoor water activities like white-water kayaking and raft packing, this will be her first time in a sea kayak.
A sea kayak is sturdy enough to handle the rough waters in the ocean, yet gentle enough to not disrupt the wildlife.
O’Leary said the trip is a wonderful experience full of glimpses of wildlife.
“I was there my freshman year of college, and we saw sea turtles and stingrays,” O’Leary said of her experience on the sea kayaking trip three years ago. “We saw dolphins, which was incredible.”
Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge is home to around 200 species of fish, 189 species of bird and common mammals like the river otter and bottle-nosed dolphin. A few of the endangered species that inhabit the refuge are the West Indian Manatee, the Bald Eagle and two different types of sea turtles.
O’Leary said the trip isn't strenuous kayaking the entire time. Some days will include time to relax on one of the island’s beaches and explore the shores.
For students who missed out on signing up for the winter break sea-kayaking trip, O’Leary said there will be more opportunities in the spring.