My 4-year-old held a spraying sea squirt, eyeballed a blue-eyed sea robin and tossed an Atlantic brief squid back to sea — all before naptime the morning we took a cruise on the Amelia River.
The best part was, we had someone with more facts at the ready than an encyclopedia to tell us what we were looking at: Andrea Margiotta, the witty, knowledgeable marine biologist who led Amelia River Cruises’ Eco/Shrimping Tours last year. This year, the tours will be offered again. Although Andrea has moved away to continue her college studies, the entire Amelia River Cruises staff has a great understanding of the incredible creatures hiding just under the surface.
These tours are designed with families in mind, offering hands-on experiences that keep kids entertained, and sights and information that bring out the child in the grown-ups, too.
The 2-hour tour, which will be offered throughout the summer, teaches participants about the shrimping industry and its history in Fernandina. Passengers get to ride past the shrimp boats as they unload their precious cargo, and then they help deploy an Otter Trawl shrimp net right from the tour boat. Fifteen minutes later, the net comes back on board, along with a variety of critters who are promptly placed in an aquarium. The guide teaches the passengers about them one-by-one, letting people pass them around and often touch them before they’re safely returned to the water.
Your guide will rattle off facts about the sea creatures you find in an animated, down-to-earth way that kids can readily understand and relate to.
Holding the Atlantic brief squid at one point on our tour last year, for example, our guide pointed out the creature’s massive eyes.
“On humans, that would be like having eyeballs the size of basketballs,” she said, opening her eyes widely as the kids chuckled.
She explained the squid’s eyes were so large because it mostly seeks its food at night (when it would be hard to see if you didn’t have eyes the size of basketballs).
I have to admit, I had never been on the tour because I thought my toddler was too young. Two hours is a long time for a little person to pay attention. But two hours of this lively, hands-on experience flew by.
Our adventure, as my son likes to call it, included dolphin sightings, oyster beds and even a small shark as we explored the river, Tiger Basin and Lansford Creek. We saw a roseate spoonbill and learned that its pink coloring is the result of its love for shrimp. On other tours, they have spotted manatees and collected crabs, jellyfish, kingfish and many others.
“Every day we’re out here, it’s a little bit different,” our guide told us.
For the kids, the most exciting part came when the guide pulled our shrimp net back on board. There was a massive butterfly ray in our catch, much too big for the aquarium. We all crowded in to take a look and snap some photos before it was returned to the water.
Then it was time to examine the remaining creatures one-by-one. There were two kinds of shrimp, a spotted flounder fish, a sponge and a hogchoker, among others.
When our guide held up the sea robbin, she asked the kids to guess why it had what looked like legs. Then she gave them a hint: “They use their legs just like the tickler chain on our net.”
“Oh!” a little boy said. “To stir up the bottom!”
And, in case you were wondering, she explained the sea robbin’s legs are actually an extension of its pectoral fins.
We also learned where the nudibranch gets its name, which means naked gills. We let the scared sea slug sit alone in a container for a while, and once he relaxed, he opened his feathery gills, which hovered above his body.
My son held the nudibranch and wrinkled his nose, noting how bumpy the sea slug was. But he wasn’t the least bit grossed out when the slimy Atlantic brief squid suctioned its tentacles to his little hand as he carried it to the side of the boat. At our guide’s command, my son released the squid back into the water, which he later told me was his “most favoritest” part of the day.
The tour was an absolute pleasure, and a huge education for mama and son, alike.
Our group was split between locals – including another almost 4-year-old boy who’s been on the tour four times – and out-of-towners from as far away as Texas and New York.
“There are plenty of people who live here and they’ve never had the opportunity to get out here in their own backyard,” our guide said.
Amelia River Curises is hoping to change that and bring as many locals as possible out to see what’s hiding just beneath the surface.
Tips for families:
Don’t forget that, when you’re out on the water, it’s often much cooler and windier than it is on land. I was glad I brought along jackets and a hair tie. They also have blankets on board for you to use. There are bathrooms for men and women on the boat. I know this all too well, because I made the mistake of letting my son use the bathroom early on our tour, and he was absolutely fascinated. He insisted on going back to the bathroom at least five times during our trip, including when mama was trying to get a picture of the shark!
If you want to go:
When: Tours depart at 10 a.m. Monday through Saturday starting June 10. Plan on showing up about 30 minutes before departure time.
Where: All tours depart from Fernandina Harbor Marina, One N. Front St., Fernandina Beach, FL. Their kiosk is just to the right of Brett’s on the Waterway when you’re facing the water.
Price: $27 for adults, $17 for children under 12, plus tax. Group rates available.
Contact: Call 904-261-9972
For more information: Go to www.ameliarivercruises.com
Disclosure: Amelia River Cruises let us hop on board for free to help them get the word out about this awesome tour.