The Boston Herald

Kayak Tour Gives the Lowdown on Wildlife

May 15, 2003

By Robyn Taylor Parets

KEY WEST, Florida -- “Do the limbo,” shouts Captain Gary Rex, as he leans backwards.

Rex isn’t doing a backbend on a cruise ship. He is leading a kayak tour through Archer Key, a red mangrove island about six miles off Key West. As we paddle through a narrow channel flanked with thick mangrove trees, the best way to avoid branches is to lean back in your sea kayak seat and watch the branches glide right over your head.

Kayaking through the mangrove islands surrounding Key West isn’t what most tourists typically do when visiting the southernmost tip of Florida, known for popular waterports like parasailing, deep sea fishing and snorkeling. In my book, that was all the more reason to try sea kayaking in the Key West backcountry. As my husband and I boarded “Outback,” the 32-foot boat which takes kayakers out to the mangrove islands, Rex explained that we were about to see wildlife that tourists don’t usually experience.

There are a few other kayak operators in Key West, but they lead large groups of about 20 kayakers. The Outback, however, is unique in that the tours take a maximum of six kayakers on three boats. On this particular bright sunny day, we were the only ones aboard. There’s nothing better than a private tour.

The Outback took us near Archer Key, located smack dab in the middle of Key West’s National Wildlife Refuge. Rex lowered the kayaks into the ocean, gave us a quick paddling lesson, and we were off. We paddled to Archer Key with Rex leading the way. Larger boats aren’t allowed in or right around the protected islands, so sea kayaking is the only way to experience the marine and bird life that thrives in this wildlife preserve. There are also no four-legged animals on Archer Key, primarily because it has no solid land. Rather, the entire island is one giant root system of red mangroves.

Once we made it to Archer Key and began “limboing” our way through an inlet, we saw the first of many herons, ospreys and pelicans. As we paddled out of the waterway and around the island, a giant sea ray gracefully glided past our kayak. Then it was on to shark-hunting, Rex’ version of searching for sharks in the shallow ocean beds surrounding Archer Key.

Rex stood up in his kayak to get a better view of the clear water. “There goes a barracuda,” he said, pointing his paddle in front of him. We paddled fast and when we got close enough, watched the three-foot long predatory fish swim right by our kayak. After a few more minutes, Rex pulled a foot wide horseshoe crab out of the water. We held the ancient-looking crab by the tail as it squirmed around and then let it go into the ocean.

Yet to see a shark, we began paddling back to the Outback for the hour-long trip back to Key West. On the way, Rex stood up and shouted, “There’s a shark.” We looked into the crystal clear sea and saw a small nurse shark zip by. Rex said he rarely takes a group out without a shark sighting. Luckily, this trip was not the exception.

If you’re vacationing in Key West, it’s easy to find the Outback, docked in the small marina in front of the Hyatt Key West Resort on Front Street. The ideal place to stay, the Hyatt also offers wave runner tours, parasailing, sunset cruises, and deep sea fishing right from its marina. But even the concierge will tell you that the Outback kayak tour will be the highlight of your Key West vacation. She was right about that. The three-and-a-half hour backcountry tours cost $59 per adult and Hyatt hotel guests can book their adventures through the concierge. Trips can also be booked through tour operator Floridays. For more information, call Hyatt Key West at 305-296-9900 or log on at www.hyatt.com. You can also contact Floridays at 1-888-733-5455 or at www.floridays.org.

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