Tag Archives: fort de soto

Attack of the Manatees

manatee copy

It is amusing how we humans tend to diminish the intensity of an animal’s true power in order to feel we are at one with them. Snuggly little stuffed bears, ball bouncing killer whales, and the basis for much of what is Disney attempt to break down the barriers between hand and claw. Aren’t they cute? But it is only as real as the choice between you, me, or them. It is survival, plain and simple. The only caveat being we seem to have the upper hand. It is up to us to decide what we want to live, and what we want to die.

Florida Manatees

For the time being, we have decided to allow enough room for 3,000 or so Florida manatees to navigate boat propellers, pollution, and encroachment to their habitat. Even when they do find a brief respite, they are assaulted by the very humans that have been generous enough to give them some room to breathe. Imagine snorkel-breathing animal enthusiasts hell-bent upon stroking the backs of innocent manatees no matter the cost. I tell you all of this only because of guilt. I recently became one of those humans who was directly responsible for infringing upon the manatees’ way of life.

On a recent sea kayaking trip out to Egmont Key, I realized through simple observation that quite a few manatees find their way up the waterways behind the island of Fort de Soto. I followed a few as they moved to deeper water with the outgoing tide, each of them displaying propeller scars on their backs as a right of passage. I tried to keep some distance, but they would often approach my sea kayak curious to see if I was something more. I tried to shoot video footage of these docile creatures, but they often surfaced and submerged before I could get anything worthwhile.

I decided to return the following weekend to see if I could capture any more video for the archives.

You Will Not Believe What Happened To Me

Almost immediately upon arriving to Fort de Soto the sky unleashed. The normally placid surface of the Gulf of Mexico turned angry and the palm trees braced against the wind. The rain beat down upon the hoods of countless cars making their way across the bridge to the dry, air conditioned safety of their Tampa Bay homes. I sat and waited. I was happy to see the earth wash itself clean of people even if for a little while.

Soon the sky cleared, and I slowly unpacked my gear and prepared for a paddle out into the Gulf. The sun beat down, and the water was slick and steamy. No one was around except for an apathetic raccoon snacking on mollusks alongside the river bank. All was quiet except for the occasional breach of air given off by distant manatees.

I saw several manatees surface a few yards away from me and then quickly disappear. I was floating quietly in the shallows when a baby appeared under the boat. I fumbled for the camera, but it was gone before I was ready. The water was murky from the rain, so I could not anticipate where they would surface next. I decided to take a less proactive approach and fished for a while in hopes they would we find me. After a while I grew tired of the attentive gnats and the disregarding fish. I decided to call it a day.

I was paddling back to my car when a rather large manatee surfaced to my left. Without thought I instantly reached my left paddle blade into the water and placed a hard brace to stop myself. I thought, maybe I could get some video footage after all? Instead, this motion immediately set off a chain of events that I am still amazed by. The manatee abruptly arced its entire body through the water kicking up a sizeable wake. It began to buck wildly, thrusting its tail out of the water as it moved quickly towards me.

Have you ever been in a situation where you curiously marveled in fear at the brute force of an animal? As the manatee’s tail came closer and closer to me I wondered if it would knock me unconscious. I did the only thing that I could do which was paddle. I began stroking like I was poised above the tallest waterfall, for that is exactly what it looked like. The water was frothed and white like a river rapid, and just as I began to pick up momentum my entire body and kayak were lifted from the water.

My sea kayak surprisingly came down right side up; although, it was filled halfway with water. I was totally drenched but naturally ecstatic to see everything was okay. I could not believe what had happened. Weren’t manatees supposed to be gentle creatures?

Because the water was clouded by the rain, I will never know exactly what happened. However, I am fairly positive that I disturbed a pair of adult manatees that were safeguarding an infant. The baby would explain the defensive behavior, and the incredible amount of agitation in the water would point to more than one manatee. Even in the moment of action, I am quite sure I felt at least two bodies push underneath me. The tide was going out, and I must have cornered them in a fairly confining space. My only other explanation is that dolphins somehow got mixed up in the melee.

I am humbled by the parents’ protective display. Manatees do not have fangs or claws, but they do have the will to survive and take care of their own. You or me would have done the same if a threatening stranger had come into our house. Next time, I will remember my place.

If you can shed any more light on what exactly happened please feel free to leave a comment.

Egmont Key State Park

Edgmont Key Old Pier “I wouldn’t paddle out there.”

That is what the guy who worked at the kayak rental shop told me when I asked about sea kayaking to Egmont Key State Park. Why, I asked?

“Full moon, out-going tide; it’s like Niagra Falls out there right now,” he said.

Well, I certainly do not want to get swept out to sea, I replied.

“I’ve been out there when the buoys were almost laid down flat from the current,” stated one of the other kayak rental attendants. “I’d suggest you go to the island in a motorboat before you attempt to paddle out there. At least wait until there is an incoming tide,” he added.

It was at this point that I began to actually question whether I should paddle out to Egmont Key. It could indeed be risky. I’d lived in the mountains a long time – maybe I was underestimating the swiftness and power of ocean currents? I had heard about the beauty and history of Egmont Key, but I had also heard that the paddle across the deep water shipping channel was only for experienced kayakers.

“Try out the kayak course behind the island,” suggested the man behind the counter.

I thanked the guys at the shop and headed back to my car. I looked out towards the Gulf of Mexico and thought, are these guys messing with me? I could see the island just 1-mile offshore. Surely it could not be that difficult?

But a voice inside of me said, perhaps you should be prudent. I continued to justify that rationale by thinking, I haven’t paddled the backside of the island yet…and I don’t want to flip out there and end up as shark bait. It was then that I decided to err on the side of caution and put-in on the established kayak course. I would tackle Egmont Key another day.

I put my Perception Carolina Kayak in the water, threw in a cooler and a fishing rod, and stuck off north towards Mullet Key and the outlet to the Gulf between Fort de Soto and Summer Resort Key.

I rode the current out and spent some leisurely time casting my rod towards the oyster banks and the mangrove roots in hopes of catching a bass or snook. At one point, I was startled by a large shape moving under the water towards me, but relaxed when I realized that it was just a manatee. I caught sight of some others and enjoyed following their sea shadows and intermittent surfacing until I lost them at the northern point of the island.

I was still bothered by the fact that I had originally planned to paddle out to Egmont but relented at the last minute. I chewed on this as I pulled over to take a swim on the front side of Fort de Soto. The water was clear and blue and stretched wide over an unending bank of shallow white sand. The water was refreshing; but I was not satisfied.

Eventually I found myself donning a spray skirt and lifejacket. I’ll just paddle a ways down the front side of the island and see how I feel, I decided. I cruised offshore, casually dipping between the waves, and progressively made my way down the length of the island. I should just paddle out to the shipping channel and see how the current is, I thought. I can always turn around.

I kept paddling until I eventually found myself directly across from Egmont Key with nothing but the 90-foot deep shipping channel between me and my target. There were plenty of boats around; in fact, some of them were actively engaged in rod-bending fights with Tarpon and other large sea creatures. I figured if anything went wrong they could at least rescue me. So, I struck off for the other side.

It was no big deal.

Sure, if you have not spent much time in a kayak and cannot roll one on your own then you should probably refrain from making the trip. But for someone who is in fair shape and capable enough, it really is not that hard. Granted, I’ve been kayaking once or twice myself, but it is really just a matter of ferrying across some current. Who knows, it is quite possible that there are times in the tide cycle where it gets worse, much worse.

Egmont Key State Park is really quite beautiful. Between the open beach front littered with palm trees, migratory birds, and turtle nests,  and the interior island with its old lighthouse, red brick thoroughfares, and ruins, there is plenty to see and do. Wander the island or simply relax and stare out across the Gulf of Mexico. Either way, there is something romantic about the fact that Egmont was a resource for settlers in the 1700s, a place where Seminole Indian prisoners were kept in the 1800s, and a base for troops during the Civil and Spanish-American Wars.


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Sea Kayaking Tampa, Florida

Sea Kayaking Tampa If you are going to go sea kayaking in Tampa, Florida you better bring lots of gas, a big outboard engine, and your racing stripes. We take sea kayaking here seriously people! Personally, my paddle converts into numb chucks just in case I get pissed off, which is a lot. To get ready I generally shove cigs, cold corn beef hash, and Folgers Crystals into my craw. I then chase it all down with a Big Gulp from the 7-11. This magic combo gets me fired up to convene with nature even though I would really just prefer to shoot everything that comes near me. Also, don’t get too close. My kayak has an exploding tip, and I won’t hesitate to paddle into your’s if it suits me. You should see me coming though. I generally have my tunes playing pretty loud.

Just teasing!Sticker

Actually, it is quite the opposite. I really like the health and stealth a sea kayak brings me. A motorboat can be a good option, but if you are looking to get into places where they can’t go, achieve a nice upper body workout, and maybe even sneak up on some fish in the flats, a sea kayak is a great way to get out and explore.

In the time I have been in the Tampa, Florida area I have managed to discover quite a few nice places to explore in a sea kayak. Many of them are within an hours drive of downtown Tampa and can easily be accomplished in a day or less. Choose from brackish rivers, saltwater estuaries and white-sand beaches; it is all up to you as to what you want to experience.

What is amazing about the state of Florida is that it pumps out an estimated 8 billion gallons of spring water on a daily basis. Percolating up through, around, and down the limestone layers that make up the state, a significant portion of this water either finds its way  into Tampa Bay, or in close proximity to it. What’s more, Tampa Bay constitutes 300 square miles of open water filled with opportunities to dip a blade. There is a reason why it was such a favorite hiding place for pirates back in the day.

Here are a few sea kayaking trips around Tampa to get you started.

Weedon Island Preserve

Weedon_Island The Weedon Island Preserve offers a 4-mile long canoe and kayak trail that winds through mangroves, lagoons, and across open water. It takes about 3-4 hours to complete and is marked with numbered signs to help keep you from getting lost along the way. There is a Cultural and Natural History Center close to the put-in that details the life of the former inhabitants, and right across from the entrance are sea kayaks for rent in case you need one.

The paddling through the narrow alleyways is a great experience. Look for the countless little fiddler crabs that cling to the mangrove roots, and keep a sharp eye out for mammals crossing the passages. You will most certainly see a myriad of bird life including, herons, egrets, ospreys skimmers, spoonbills, white pelicans, and wood storks. If you are lucky you might see a bald eagle or even a manatee. There are also some hiking trails and an observation deck if you want to do some more exploring on foot.

Be sure to make your plans around the high tide; otherwise, it gets too shallow in the places you really want to see. There are some great fishing spots in the area, so you might also want to bring a rod.  Finally, bring bug spray for that afternoon take out. Every time I’ve been to Weedon Island the gnats have been ferocious in the afternoon, and there is nothing more agonizing than trying to tie your kayak on the car while being molested by these little creatures.

Hillsborough River

Hillsborough River The Hillsborough River is just northeast of downtown Tampa and offers several sections to explore by kayak. You can choose to set a shuttle to avoid retracing your steps, or paddle in and out. There is easy access at the Hillsborough River State Park, and you can ply upstream or downstream and still return with relative ease. The mix of hardwoods, palm, and cypress knees make for a beautiful combination, and it really lends itself to that feeling of “Old Florida” you so often hear about. Alligators, turtles, and birds abound, so you must be comfortable with the rustling and bustling of wildlife around each turn.

If you are fortunate enough to witness dozens of white ibis take wing over the course of the river that alone is well worth the trip. I for one was completely enamored with the beautiful reflections off of the brackish waters, the calm stillness, and the fact that hardly anyone was around even on a weekend.

If you want to mix it up you can also bring a bike with you. There is a maze of trails in the park to explore and a nice loop that equates to about 25 miles.

Myakka River

Myakka_River The Myakka River State Park is about an hour south of Tampa on the outskirts of Sarasota, and it is an absolutely wonderful place to visit. It is one of Florida’s first state parks and Wild & Scenic Rivers. Even if you just want to walk or drive around it is well worth the trip, but the people that really get it bring a bike or a kayak. You have to obtain a permit if you want to paddle into the Preserve. The ranger station only gives out 30 per day, and there is no advance reservations allowed. I saw nary a soul when I went and had no trouble getting one. Even if for some reason a group grabbed all the permits you would still have plenty of worthwhile places to paddle, including the Upper Myakka Lake and the parts of the river that are not in the Preserve.

If you are looking to see alligators, this is the place. In fact, I would strongly advise never putting yourself in the position of tipping and having to swim. What is it about a thin colored piece of plastic that convinces a 2 million year old mind that you are not easily edible? At one point I was paddling around a very narrow and overgrown sluiceway when I rounded the corner and locked eyes with an alligator that was easily 12 feet in length and just a few feet away. There was a pause, and then there was an explosion as both parties hastily went their separate ways. I marveled at the raw power of the alligator and the rapidity of my heart before deciding I had experienced enough.

After successfully exiting the river, one should take time to explore the Canopy Trail and the bird walks, for there is plenty to see and experience here as well. It is these well-organized and cared-after parks that makes me take pause to appreciate what tax dollars and motivated individuals can do to protect a very valuable place. Stop by the coral monument and give thanks, and then give a high-five and a big smile to the rangers when you leave.

Anclote Key

Anclote_Key Anclote Key Preserve State Park is located two miles off of the coast of Tarpon Springs and approximately 45 minutes north of downtown Tampa, Florida. It is a beautiful island that features both back and open-water kayaking with abundant bird life and great fishing opportunities. The best way to sea kayak it is to launch from Fred Howard State Park and paddle straight across. It is best advised to have a spray skirt and pump in case it gets choppy, for you will cross some exposed open water and a waterway for motorboats.

There is an old abandoned lighthouse on the island that was built in the 19th century, as well as a campground if you want to stay overnight. According to the website, “these northernmost barrier islands are considered by experts to be among the top five sites in the state for diversity and numbers of beach-nesting birds.” I can tell you this, I saw a multitude of birds and more. It is absolutely beautiful out there, and you will feel like Robinson Crusoe walking down that white-sand beach. Paddling back to Fred Howard State Park I watched a a very large Tarpon launch some 4-5 ft out of the water and caught several blue fish on an artificial lure.

My suggestion: plan to have time to check out Tarpon Springs after your paddle. It is an old Greek community that has made history from the practice of diving for sponges. The town is rich with colors, sounds, and smells of the Meditteranean, and a photographers dream with the old boats, nets, and people laying about. You will certainly get an appreciation for time and place despite the town’s attention to tourism.

Fort de Soto State Park

Fort_de_SotoEmerge from the ubiquitous development and the pervasive amounts of people, cross the bridge, and boom, paradise. It would serve you well to go on a weekday, but if not, it is still worth the venture. Fort de Soto has consistently been voted as one of “America’s Best Beaches” because, well, it is.

Palms, white-sand, and blue water stretch for miles in either direction. Choose to put in a rigorous 10-mile loop, or just cruise around and catch trout and bass on the fly. Put your kayak in on the front or back side of the island, and no matter what you will have plenty of paddling options. You can even make the 2-mile trip out to Edgemont Key if you don’t mind open water. Just remember it is 2-miles back.

If and when you are done sea kayaking, you can proceed on foot and explore the old forts that are located on both Fort de Soto and Egmont Key. At one point these were major staging grounds for soldiers, but now they stand vacant in the tropical sun.

There are kayak rentals and tours out at Fort de Soto if you need them.

Honeymoon Island State Park

Honeymoon_Island This island can get quite crowded on the ocean side, but behind the island you will often see nary a soul. I like this paddle because it is a good distance for me from the causeway, just before the entrance to the park, to the far point of the island and back again. If you are feeling especially expeditious then you can paddle across the Saint Joseph Sound to the far island between Anclote and Honeymoon.

There are several stops along the way, including Pelican Cove. Bald eagles nest here along with many other shore birds. Paddling close to the mangroves you will see snook, bass, and several other tropical fish. If you paddle around the horn to the ocean side you will generally see several dolphin schooling about, for this seems to be a popular spot for them. 

Also see:

Additional Resources

I highly recommend picking up a copy of John Molloy and crew’s book, “Canoeing & Kayaking Florida.” The descriptions are excellent, and there are helpful guides for running the shuttles and navigating the various nuances of Florida’s waterways.

Also, the folks at Osprey Bay Outdoors are extremely knowledgable and friendly, and they organize regularly scheduled trips all over the Tampa Bay area.

Here is a map of the locations discussed in this post:

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