Justin Riney was searching for a unique way to raise awareness of the natural beauty found in Florida’s waterways.
He found it in a man who ventured to Florida some 500 years ago.
Riney paid visits to Apalachicola and Carrabelle over the past week, and was in Port St. Joe before that, as part of his yearlong quest to paddleboard the state’s waters, spending the first six months navigating the entire perimeter of the state’s coastline before embarking on six months of exploration of the state’s major interior waterways.
Riney’s travels, called Expedition Florida 500, coincide with the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s arrival somewhere on Florida’s beaches.
“We are focused on the conservation aspect and anything we can do to raise that profile,” Riney said. “The whole goal of the project is conservation based. We want to drive home the point how beautiful we have it in Florida and how precious the natural environment in Florida is.”
Riney embarked on his journey from Pensacola on New Year’s Day. His visits, at Ten-Foot-Hole Jan. 26 and at the Carrabelle Public Beach Wednesday, were among the opening days of a journey he expects to span 365 days. He also visited 2Al’s at The Beach Café, Up The Creek Raw Bar and the Apalachicola Maritime Museum during his visit here.
“I should be finished with the coastline and be in Jacksonville on July 4 and then I will move inland,” he said.
And while it is true that Riney alone will cover the entire breadth and width of Florida’s waterways, he is not alone and that is part of the allure of the project.
Along the way, Riney and fellow paddlers put on events, particularly at schools, trying to “plant the seeds as early as we can.”
There are cleanups, such as the ones during both visits here in the county. The goal, engage the public along the way, create in them the passion that Riney feels about his native state and its waters.
“Literally, hundreds of people have joined me along the way,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of events, a lot of interaction along the way. Everywhere we go we do cleanups. One of the unique aspects is we do engage the community to come out.”
Riney’s project sprouted from his roots.
A native of Vero Beach, Riney said he grew up an outdoorsman, loving time on the water and in nature. He was also raised by entrepreneurial parents and that diverse background helped create his own non-profit as well as Expedition Florida 500.
His passion for the water fed his scientific search and after studying business at the University of Florida he “cut his teeth” in business before returning to his passion for the water.
Riney said he was in a unique situation – scientists have difficulty with the business end of marine life; those on the business end, creating products from the marine world for example, could not speak expertly to the science.
“I’m wearing both hats,” he said. “I know the science side and I know the business side. I was something of an intermediary.”
After spending some time in the Bahamas, his love of the water once again became his mistress.
He moved back to Vero Beach, sold his belongings and, as he put it, “jumped off the cliff” and established his non-profit Mother Ocean.
“The mission of the non-profit is to create, inspire and empower ocean advocates worldwide,” Riney said. “I hope, with the year’s worth of paddling, we can raise a mass amount of awareness so people can learn to respect and appreciate these waterways. We want to make sure these waterways are here 500 years from now.”
Riney, though, notes he is one among many. A greater goal is to use the latest technology and social media to create a network of ocean advocates around the globe, both engaging a younger generation and broadening awareness.
In bringing awareness to his non-profit and its goal, Expedition Florida 500 was a perfect fit. Riney’s project is a signature project for the celebration sponsored by the Florida Department of State and Riney’s project also receives logistical support from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
“What an amazing platform this is to raise awareness about the waters of Florida and to raise awareness of my (non-profit),” Riney said.
Panama City Beach resident Gabriel Gray, owner of Walkin’ on Water Paddle Boards, joined Riney’s conservation movement last year, accompanying him on a number of conservation paddles throughout the state to prepare for the upcoming expedition.
Riney completed six conservation paddles to train and raise awareness for the cause, through the St. Johns River, Apalachicola River, Kissimmee River, Indian River Lagoon, Everglades and Florida Keys.
They learned the environment and worked out the kinks for the project ahead.
“The two unique elements of the project are one this is happening in real time,” Riney said. “It is tangible, people can connect to it. The second, we really want people to come out and paddle with us. We welcome paddlers of all shapes and sizes. They can see our passion, feel the passion and take that passion home with them. My goal is to engage as many people as possible.”