PANAMA CITY BEACH — Justin Riney will be putting a lot of miles on his paddleboard next year.
On New Year’s Day, Riney will embark on a yearlong tour of Florida’s waterways, paddling the entire perimeter of the state’s coastline and down its major interior waterways, to raise awareness to the importance of conservation.
The journey, dubbed Expedition Florida 500, will be completed in conjunction with the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s arrival on Florida’s beaches.
“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,” said Riney, of Vero Beach. “We want to make sure these waterways are here 500 years from now.”
Expedition Florida 500 will kick off in Pensacola, where Riney and his accompanying paddlers will host a beach cleanup before launching into the water at Big Lagoon State Park.
Riney is set to paddle through Panama City Beach on Jan. 15 and 16, with a number of cleanups and events planned upon his arrival.
“I’m going to be doing the full 365 days, but everyone else will be kind of flowing in around me,” Riney said. “We really want everyone to come out and experience this with us — come out and do paddles with us, come out and do cleanups.”
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.
During the trips, the duo paddled on the outskirts of two hurricanes and one tropical storm, spotted 183 alligators in one day on the Kissimmee River and even saved a man’s life while paddling through the Keys after he fell off his boat while lobstering.
And, everywhere they stopped, the group conducted cleanups, which also will be a goal of Expedition Florida.
On two of the conservation paddles, they hauled in more than a ton of trash.
Riney founded the nonprofit group Mother Ocean in January, and the group has become somewhat of a social media sensation since. Through a designated “Ocean Hour” every week, the group encourages people to participate in cleanups in their own areas.
It didn’t take long for the movement to reach around the world, with groups from Taiwan, India and the Philippines posting photos of their cleanup efforts on Ocean Hour’s Facebook page.
Social media also will be a driving force behind Expedition Florida.
“I’m going to be posting in real time on a daily basis so people can see when we’re coming into their area,” Riney said. “All of the pictures you see are taken from a paddle board on an iPhone.”
To help with Expedition Florida 500, Riney’s nonprofit Mother Ocean has partnered with Quicksilver Waterman Collection, Tahoe SUP and Viva Florida 500, a project headed by the Florida Department of State to recognize the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s discovery.
Riney said the project’s timing surrounded the project with the perfect combination of history, adventure, stewardship, science and sport.
“The main goal of this project was all conservation-based,” Riney said. “We want to lead by example; we want others to follow.”