A Day Out{side} Paddling The Mangroves In Florida

Paddle through the mangroves in Florida where there are plenty of unique views and wildlife to see along the way.

By Courtney Johnson
Explore Ambassador

From dolphin tours and the Naples Zoo to the Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples and pirate boat excursions, there is always something fun to do when visiting my parents in the Sunshine State. With 770 miles of Gulf of Mexico coastline in Florida alone, one of the best ways to see the ocean and beaches is from the water.

Looking for new ideas for adventure, we decided to book a paddle trip through the mangroves along the Florida coastline. Many outfitters offer guided trips via kayak or stand-up paddle board (SUP) through this popular area. We booked our trip through Paddle Naples, an outfitter that has been giving kayak and paddle board tours and kayak fishing expeditions since 2014. Its launch site is at Big Hickory Island at Bonita Beach about 40 to 45 minutes north of Naples.

Big Hickory Island is a part of the Estero Bay portion of the Great Calusa Blueway.

Along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, ​the Big Hickory Island Preserve is approximately 186 acres and contains mangroves, mangrove islands and gulf beaches. With no development on the island, the only way to access the area is via boat or other watercraft.

We met our group at a pull-off area of Bonita Beach Road. We chatted about our familiarity and experience with stand-up paddling, went over safety rules (including the current and wind speeds) and talked a bit about the adventure ahead. They do not have kid-size paddle boards, but they supply a wide and stable Bic Sport ACE-TEC 11-foot, 6-inch board that is good even for younger paddle boarders.

Before we took off, they offered us a waterproof case for any valuables, like phones and keys, and brought a tow rope in case our daughter got tired and wanted to jump on one of our boards. My daughter was required to wear a PFD, while we had the choice to wear one or not.

Trip times are based on the incoming tides, with a 9 a.m. morning trip and 1 p.m. afternoon trip available. They also offer a sunset paddle on Estero Bay. Based on water and air temperatures, we chose the 1 p.m. trip. This ended up being the ideal time, with two days of back-to-back morning fog making everything on the much cooler side.

After a larger group of kayakers headed out, we jumped on our boards and headed into the current. A few strong paddles took us through the current and into calm and flat water.

Our group was my family of three paddle boarders, two kayakers and our guide, Lex, who was also in a kayak. I personally recommend that you don’t mix kayakers and paddle boarders (minus the guide) as kayakers can move at a much faster pace. The two in our group were given the option to join the other group of kayakers, but they decided to stick with our smaller group. I think this ended up being something they regretted, especially toward the end when we battled a headwind that was much easier for them to navigate through.

The tour began with introductions, including names and where we were from. Lex then began telling us about the three types of mangroves — red, black and white — and how to distinguish between the three.

The saltwater keeps alligators away so you can get off your boards.

My daughter often likes to hop into the water from the side of her board or sit to paddle with her feet dangling a bit into the water. Since alligators don’t care for saltwater, there is no threat from them while paddling through the mangroves. No worries of losing any appendages if we fall off or hop off the boards at any time.

About 10 minutes into our paddle, our guide jumped out of his kayak to catch a surprise for the group: a red mangrove tree crab. The only species in its genus, this crab feeds off the red mangrove tree and is between 1.8 and 2 centimeters wide, depending on the sex. A few of us in the group were brave enough to hold the crab and check him out before we put him back in the water and paddled on.

There is a lot of wildlife to see in the mangroves including a red mangrove tree crab.

While we had a good chance of seeing a dolphin or two in the channel area, we were saddened to hear from Lex that the manatees were all up north still, near the nuclear power plant in Tampa where the water temperature is quite a bit warmer. We happened to visit that area a few years back, so we were familiar with how much the manatees love that warm water.

As we continued to paddle toward the beach area, the water went from cloudy to clear. Lex explained that the water around the mangroves is often brown from the red dye of the mangroves. The tide helps clear out the dye, so that is why the water was clearer as we got closer to the shores of the beach area of the preserve. We began to see oysters, baitfish and shells galore.

Many kayakers were docked on the beach as they enjoyed a shore break.

We led our boards to shore, along with the kayakers in our group, on the backside of the reserve. Many other paddlers were docked, enjoying the ocean breeze, soft sand, picnic lunches and warm sun. We took about a five-minute walk through some mangroves to the open beach on the gulf side, where we saw trees decorated with shells much like Christmas trees. Our guide told us that the trees were decorated for the holiday and were left that way. We added our own shells to a mangrove tree before my daughter decided to jump right into the gulf for some wave jumping.

On the open beach there were trees decorated with shells much like Christmas trees. Our guide told us that the trees were decorated for the holiday and were left that way.

The area is known for great shelling since it is only accessible by boat or other watercraft. I could tell there was an abundance of shells not typically found at the surrounding public and crowded beach areas. We had thrown a shell bag into our dry bag for shell collecting on this excursion.

Lex offered us water and some fruit before we headed back out on the boards. The tour took us into the open ocean channels, where we hugged the shoreline to the right to avoid the wakes of powerboats. Along the shoreline, we could see a range of birds, from large pelicans sitting on branches overhead to blue herons and ibises.

Among the wildlife was a large pelican

My husband saw a manta ray pass under his SUP before the waters turned cloudy again from the mangrove dye. Being a weekend, the channel was very busy with boat traffic. With the increased noise and other factors, there were no dolphin sightings in the channel for us that day.

Once we were away from the majority of boat traffic, we went under one of the Bonita Beach Causeway bridges — home to Brazilian free-tailed bats that come out especially around sunset to feed on insects. While we saw no bats, we could sure smell the guano as we passed under the bridge. Lex did point out an osprey guarding a nest high in one of the more mature mangrove trees.

The mangrove tunnels bring about tight quarters

Our next destination was the mangrove tunnels, a tight section of waterway where you have to kneel or sit on a paddle board and maneuver your way through. Ducking, small paddle strokes and a little bit of luck are all needed through these stretches so that you don’t get stopped by the mangrove roots or branches. The tunnels are popular, and you can only navigate them when the water level is high enough.

From the bridge, we headed north past groups of kayakers and paddlers headed in the opposite direction as we made our way to the first of two sets of tunnels. The tunnels, which can be found throughout the state of Florida, were formed for different reasons. Some tunnels formed naturally, while others formed from ditches that were dug unsuccessfully for mosquito control. Today, the tunnels are maintained by eco-tour outfitters, including Paddle Naples, conservationists and park services.

The tunnels we traveled through were formed naturally. Lex gave us some pointers, from getting low on our knees to being prepared to be bumped around. Swinging a paddle is not ideal in the tight spaces within the tunnels, so we learned that using our hands was often more successful for navigating.

Ducking, small paddle strokes and a little bit of luck are all needed through these stretches so that you don’t get stopped by the mangrove roots or branches.

It felt a bit like being trapped in a pinball machine, bouncing from side to side, trying to avoid the low-hanging branches and roots. Still, the experience was amazing, being enveloped by this natural beauty. Little beams of sunlight found their way through the tightness of the mangroves that surrounded us in all directions. The water was very clear. While the tunnel was short, it was a unique experience, hard to describe unless you have experienced it yourself.

While trying to navigate the roots and branches, I managed to see a few of the mangrove crabs holding onto the branches of the mangrove trees. After successfully navigating through one tunnel, we had some wide-open paddling for a bit before entering the second tunnel.

Sitting is necessary in some areas

There is no established direction for navigating through the tunnels and mangrove-laden waterways. In the second tunnel, I encountered a pair of paddlers in a clear-bottom kayak. Thankfully, they were experienced with the tunnel and knew a good place to stop, so I could navigate safely by them. I let them know there were two more paddlers behind me, so they stayed put until we all passed. Out of the tunnel, we came upon a large group of more clear-bottom kayakers waiting for our group to exit the tunnel.

From the last tunnel, we headed toward the open ocean. We battled a headwind and waves from passing powerboats. From personal paddling experience, we knew that getting lower, putting our weight forward and moving our hands down on the paddle could help us battle the wind. We began to use choke strokes — shorter and faster strokes. Lex also suggested getting on our knees for more stability and to make better headway paddling through the waves and wind.

Heading toward the open ocean

My daughter eventually got tired of battling and ended up on the front of my husband’s SUP. Lex tied her SUP to the back of his kayak for the last bit of paddling back to the launch area. After 10 minutes, we hung a left away from the open ocean and into the protected area of mangroves. The wind died, and we coasted into the small beach area where other kayaks and boards were docked.

We ended our trip just across the road from where we started. Lex offered us cold water for the drive home and sent us photos via iCloud. All in all, we really enjoyed our experience up close with the mangroves. A sunset mangrove paddle sounds like a perfect experience to book the next time we head to Florida.

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