GULF ISLANDS NATIONAL SEASHORE, Fla. (AP) — Tampa-based photographer and ecologist Carlton Ward Jr. traveled the world for breathtaking landscape and wildlife images before he turned his lens on what he terms his own backyard — the swamps, forests and beaches of Florida. Ward and two other conservations hiked, biked and paddled more than 900 miles during a 70-day journey that began in the Orlando area and ended late Thursday at Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola Beach.
Florida Wildlife Corridor, a nonprofit created to promote conservation of Florida's natural habitats, spearheaded the adventure with help from National Geographic. The same group trekked the state's East Coast from the Florida Keyes to St. Augustine in 2012.
"One of the things that I am realizing is that we here in Florida really take these amazing wild places for granted," Ward Jr. said during a celebration marking the finally of his group's 2015 adventure.
Here are some details about the journey, which began Jan. 10.
Ward, biologist Joe Guthrie and Florida Wildlife Corridor Director Mallory Dimmitt wanted to highlight the state's wildlife and landscapes and to encourage Floridians to look toward the future while keeping in mind the importance of preservation. Although the state has many protected areas, the buffers that allow them to thrive and connect them with other protected areas have become increasingly developed. This threatens plants, wildlife and natural resources statewide, the group said. They hope to save these buffers from development and instead create wildlife corridors.
"I have convictions about what I would hope for the future of this state, and this trek was a chance to raise awareness about that," Guthrie said.
Ward, Guthrie and Mallory spent most nights camping in wilderness areas and most days hiking, paddling or biking through difficult terrain. They said their trip through the Apalachicola National Forest was especially difficult because of cold temperatures and heavy rains.
"It was a bit of dream and a bit of a nightmare for me as photographer because the pace of the journey was so intense," Ward said. "I have a long list of places that I want to go back to and spend more time photographing."
From West Indian Manatees and Florida Black Bears to Swallow-tailed kites and Okaloosa Darter fish, they saw a variety of Florida wildlife.
"You cannot beat paddling though the water with dolphins jumping alongside you," Dimmitt said.
The group also encountered woodpeckers, gopher tortoises, alligator gar and numerous snake species.
The group toured water management districts throughout Florida to see firsthand how development affects the state's water supply. The trekked through areas where development has threatened the survival of once-natural areas. They also met with Floridians throughout the state to learn how people view Florida's natural lands.
"It will take tremendous foresight and public investments to protect our natural areas, but I am encouraged it can happen," Ward Jr. said.