Justin Riney is living his dream.
The 31-year-old from Vero Beach is spending a year touring Florida’s coastline on a paddleboard to raise public awareness of pollution of the state’s waterways and beaches.
His only possessions: a paddleboard, a knife and machete, an iPhone, a waterproof case and a bundle of necessities.
With 2013 marking the 500-year anniversary of Florida, Riney took the opportunity to celebrate its most valuable resource – water. Through his organization, Mother Ocean, he launched the Expedition Florida 500 (XF500) project, a yearlong exploration of Florida’s coastline.
“One of the main reasons I’m doing this project is because the waters have given me so much over the years, and I’m looking to this as an opportunity to give back,” he said. “This is my way of giving back.”
The first half of the expedition explores the coastline, including the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and the Dry Tortugas. The second half of the year will be spent along the rivers, lakes, marshland and estuaries. In the midst of camping, kayaking, canoeing, sailing, stand up paddling, spear-fishing and free-diving, Riney stops at local beachside communities to host cleanups of the shores.
XF500’s mission is to raise awareness of Florida’s valuable waters that many of its residents take advantage of while highlighting how important it is to preserve the state’s ocean, coastlines, waterways and marine ecosystem.
Paddleboarding is Riney’s form of transportation throughout his journey, but it is not his primary focus. His goal is to inspire people to want to better Florida’s waterways, not to paddleboard.
“It’s all great and fun that I am risking my life in certain cases and having a good time and paddleboarding, but people tend to get stuck on the paddleboarding thing,” he said. “They want me to paddle every square inch of the coastline and I have no motivation to do that. My motivation is to raise awareness of the waterways.”
As Riney paddleboards through Florida, he also documents his journey by taking pictures, using social media and writing. His iPhone, which is protected by a waterproof case, is his only connection while out in the water.
Besides poor cellphone service hindering Riney’s ability to post writing entries and photos at times, the weather is another determinant in the success of his daily journey. “It changes everything,” he said.
With favorable weather Riney paddleboards about 10 miles a day, which takes him two to three hours and gives him time to meet people and host an event. But, when the water is choppy or he gets “hammered by some winds,” it could take him up to 14 hours to travel 10 miles.
Encounters with sharks and alligators have become second nature to Riney, who says there is no reason to be afraid of them. He has come across many sharks – some the size of his paddleboard – and been stalked by an alligator, which he admits did catch him by surprise. He has yet to see a Sasquatch, skunk ape, black bear or panther – which are on his list.
People in the communities he visits have been his “ground support.” Since his project manager schedules his events days before he arrives, some will offer to let him stay at their house or give him rides to the grocery store.
Many XF500 followers have gotten involved with Ocean Hour, an event Riney created that encourages people to go to their local lakes, rivers or beaches every Saturday morning, clean for an hour, and then post pictures of the trash pile.
“Everywhere we go there is trash and it’s very discouraging,” he said. “These kinds of pictures piss people off and it creates a movement. It makes a huge difference.”
Riney, a University of Florida graduate with a degree in finance and entrepreneurship, cut his teeth in the business world before creating Mother Ocean in 2012 and launching XF500 in January. He said he wanted to get experience in the business world so he could apply it to the ocean community.
“I grew up in the science community so I was exposed to a lot of biology and now I can speak the business language as well so I could wear both hats,” he said.
Mother Ocean’s mission is to create, inspire and empower ocean advocates to come together to work on projects and support each other. XF500 is Mother Ocean’s first big-time project.
“I want people to think bigger and follow the journey and be excited about it, but to also know that the only reason we are able to do this is because we have beautiful resources at our disposal right now,” he said. “We need to make sure they are there 500 years from now.”
To follow the XF500 journey and see when Justin Riney may be stopping in your local community, visit motherocean.org or Expedition Florida 500 on Facebook.