By Anna-Marie Menhenott
ST. LUCIE COUNTY -- For Barry "Chop" Lege, time spent on the Indian River Lagoon is as rewarding as it is relaxing.
For the past 16 years, he has been a tour guide on the pristine estuary, taking visitors, locals, school children and 4-H members on excursions down the Indian River, around the Spoil Islands in search of manatee, dolphin and even the occasional bobcat.
"These are some of the most beautiful natural resources in the country," said Captain Lege. "It's important that the younger generation knows the value of this area."
Each morning, Captain Lege takes up to 30 students out on the river. As he makes navigates the waterways, he offers stories of history and humor to keep students engaged. As the "gator" churns north from the Fort Pierce Marina, he explains the importance of the first houses built in St. Lucie Village.
"Not many people know that those houses were the winter homes to many of the early senators," Captain lege explained. "That house in particular was called the White House of the South," he said while pointing out a gorgeous home to the west. "Senators met there and discussed who they wanted to be the next president. "
Over the years, more than 40,000 St. Lucie County students have enjoyed the 90-minute excursion around the lagoon.
"We used to be able to take 5,600 kids a year on field trips," said Captain Lege. "Then there were so many budget cuts and one of thing that suffered was outings like this. The kids didn't get the chance to come out and learn about the lagoon. You'd be surprised how many kids have grown up here and have never been out on the lagoon. We want to expose them to the environment and introduce them to some of the thousands of plants, fish, birds and other wildlife that inhabits the area."
Due to a grant received by the St. Lucie County Extension Service, children are beginning to once again enjoy the experience of the lagoon tour. Captain Lege also offers lectures and nature walks to give students and adults a more hands-on experience. It's often that he can find a bobcat trail with the remains of their last fish supper.
Revealing animals in their natural environment comes naturally to Captain Lege. He comes from a long line of game wardens and boat captains who navigated the bayou in Louisiana.
"My dad, me and all four of my brothers grew up on the bayou," Captain Lege said. "We grew up hunting and fishing with my grandfather on the coast of Louisiana. My dad and brothers are land managers. You could say this type of work is in our genes. But, I didn't realize just how important teaching the younger generations about the environment was until I had my own child. Once you have a child things get into perspective and you see that taking care of the land and its resources is one of the most important things you can do. Also, it's great for them to see animals at play, without being at a zoo or aquarium."
Captain Lege is familiar with the spots in the lagoon where dolphins frolic and where manatees enjoy the warmth of the Florida sun.
"I can usually find them and show the kids these animals in their natural environment," Captain Lege said. "It's one thing to see them on television or at Seaworld, but to actually be on a boat and see a momma dolphin and her baby jumping out of the water is an experience someone will never forget."
The tour leaves from the Fort Pierce Marina at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. daily. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Captain Lege offers a water taxi service which takes passengers to many of the riverside restaurants.
For more information, tour times, availability and prices, call (772) 464-4445 or visit www.IndianRiverLagoonBoatTours.com.