Monday, January 27, 2020

First Paddle of 2020 - Florida Mangrove Tunnels with Adventure Kayak Sarasota, January 19th

Photo by TQ. Look, Ma, no drysuit!

As usual, click on any photo for a better look - "x" in the upper right hand corner brings you back to the post.

So the neither-Kansas-nor-Brooklyn place mentioned in the last post was Florida, where TQ and I met up with my folks and my sister for a very nice winter vacation in the Sarasota area, staying in a VRBO in the same Gulf Coast town my folks had introduced me and my sister to around the same time of year last year. Not quite the complete thaw-out you might think - Florida has its winter cold snaps too and an early look at the weather forecast had me wanting to get in a paddle on Sunday the 21st, as that day was going to be in the high 60's/low 70's and not too windy. After that it was going down to the 40's for a couple of days, and although it was eventually going back up to around 70, the wind was looking like a potential issue for the entire stay.

Longer-range forecasts can (and very often do) shift as you get closer to the days involved, but I didn't want to count on that so I really lobbied for paddling on Sunday -- I haven't been able to get out on Jamaica Bay at all in January, we've had some lovely days in NYC but all on work days. Bah! So after my December full of paddling fun, I was really itching to get out in a boat at least once while we were down there.

My dad had been quite intrigued by things he'd heard about paddling tours that took you into mangrove tunnels. A little Googling and we'd found Adventure Kayak Sarasota, offering just the sort of tour we'd been looking for, launching out of the Ted Sperling Nature Park on Lido Key. I called in the morning to make sure they were doing trips that day and signed us up for the 2:00 tour. Unfortunately my mom and dad decided not to go because their little dog Belle was not being her usual laid-back self to the extent that they were concerned (she's gone blind from glaucoma and being in a strange place is trickier for her than it used to be, but she was tense beyond normal travel anxiety - she ended up being fine but at the time we were getting ready to go she was still stressed out to the point we were worried she was unwell), but I made reservations for TQ and my sister and me and at 1:45 we'd met up with our guide and the one other couple who were the other attendees.

I think our guide's name was Dan, although I'm really bad at names and they do have another guide, Phil- I'm just going to call him Dan for the rest of the post just for simplicity's sake . He was a relaxed young Florida local who knew tons about the area and the creatures who call it home. The fleet was Pungos and the like, very decent recreational kayaks. Karen and TQ and I were all in singles, with the other couple taking a double. Ended up being a nice group, everybody had done at least a little paddling and the guide was able to lead us around at a reasonable yet unhurried pace, with plenty of time for looking around and taking pictures. 
Kayak launch at Lido Key

The website talks about the possibility of manatees and dolphins. Unfortunately, the charismatic megafauna was nowhere to be seen on this trip. Dan told us right at the start that the manatees had already made their seasonal move up into to warmer water and that although it wasn't completely outside the realm of possibility that we might stumble across one or two lingerers, that was highly unlikely. He did try really, really, really hard to find us some dolphins, taking us to a couple of spots where he said they would usually see them, but no luck.

However, the cormorants just about made up for the missing mammals with some very amusing and surprising behavior that the local birds have taught themselves! As we were setting out, Dan pointed out a couple of cormorants that he described as "hanging out with those kayaks out there" (not part of our tour). TQ and I weren't that excited by that, cormorants are a common bird in our NYC waterways and I just took "hanging out with those kayaks" as colorful-Florida-guide-dude-speak - until a minute later we had our own little fleet of companion cormorants!

This totally startled us because in NYC, cormorant attitudes towards kayaks range from utterly indifferent at a distance to something to run away from if a paddler gets too close. They might pop up by your boat after a dive in the bay's murky water, but they look very startled to see you there and they go right back under and get as far away from you as they can in one dive. This particular Florida population, however, had worked it out that kayaks make fantastic fishing cover in the area's clear, shallow waters! So they come right up to you, dive under your boat, and come up almost every time with a fish. Clever birds! They're super fast, so I didn't get any really good close-ups, but here are a couple with our guide - 

here's one diving under my boat, zip zip

and here's one following my sister. So much fun to watch!

Here's the whole tour heading for the mangrove tunnels

In the tunnels! Dan told us that these channels had originally been cut into the mangroves as a mosquito mitigation project, I think he said starting in the 1910's or so. They didn't end up working the way they were hoped to, but they do make for some really neat paddling. I was glad to have a guide, I felt like I would've gotten totally lost on my own, although the company does offer rentals and supply a laminated map of the tunnels with those. 

There was some interesting wildlife in here - this egret retreated up on the mangrove roots while we went by, going right back down to the water as soon as we'd passed by.

Dan was very observant of all the little critters that live in and around the mangroves. Over the course of the paddle, he pointed out a big hermit crab, a decorator urchin (a sea urchin that sticks shells and stuff on its spine to add camouflage and maybe additional armour - he showed it to us as a really good reason to stay in our boats even though the water was mostly not more than four feet deep, if that, but it was also neat to see), upside-down jellyfish (which actually lie on the bottom with their tentacles sticking up looking for food instead of floating around like most jellyfish), oysters encrusting the mangrove roots, and the little black mangrove crabs that go down among the roots at low water and then climb up the trees as the tide starts coming in. All sorts of stuff to observe!
Oysters on the mangrove roots

Mangrove crab heading aloft
TQ leaving the mangrove tunnel
Lots of ospreys! 

Back by the parking lot, one more wildlife sighting - two young raccoons. This was kind of sad - there were a number of outfitters running tours here and the guides knew this pair and hadn't seen Mom Raccoon in a couple of weeks, were guessing something had happened to her. Good place to be a raccoon, though, the guide we got talking to about them said he'd seen another adult hunting the mangrove crabs by putting its face against the trunk with its mouth open, then reaching around the trunk and grabbing at the crab with its paw from the opposite side - the crab would see the paw reaching for it and run right into the open mouth, mistaking it for a safe hidey-hole, and the raccoon would have its snack. All kinds of good things for a raccoon to eat here.

Sounds like the guides here get to see some really neat stuff, and they clearly enjoy sharing it. Dolphins would've been the cherry on the sundae but even without, it was a really interesting and fun place to kick off my 2020 paddling season.


Alana said...

I was in Sarasota right after you. But while I visited several mangrove areas (both in Punta Gorda and in Sarasota) it was from boardwalks and that is a whole different experience. This is really getting down and upclose. Thank you for taking us on your tour. P.S. We went to the Manatee Park near Ft. Myers and saw the grand total of two manatees - and yes the heat wave Florida had during part of my visit had driven them back to the Gulf. But we did meet a 92 year old tour guide who had been working at the park (and maybe other places) for 47 years as a manatee educator - and that, in itself, was fascinating.

bonnie said...

Oh, my, we went to the Manatee Park on Thursday last week. TONS of manatees - plus a fantastic long sighting of a wild river otter. We'd loved the otters at the Mote Marine Lab the day before and this was even better. That was from their boardwalks over the creek that runs into the river next to the power plant outflow. We actually decided to skip the paddling there because the viewing was so good from shore. Paddling would of course have opened up the possibility of a really up-close encounter if a manatee got curious, but that would be entirely at the critters' discretion, and we were seeing such neat stuff from on shore we decided to just stick with that. Excellent day. The docents there had so much info!

LauraEhlers said...

Have been wanting to read this series for ever! Aren't the mangroves amazing!! And your pictures are fantastic!