Kayaking gets you up close and personal with wildlife of all types. Remember not to feed wild animals and to keep your distance so as not to disturb them. The variety along the Great Calusa Blueway is stellar – read on.
MANATEES: Where can I see manatees?
These mammals are sensitive to cold. When the Gulf of Mexico’s temperature is 68 or below, look for them inland along Phase 3/Caloosahatchee River, particularly on the Orange River at Lee County Manatee Park. When water is warmer, keep a lookout throughout Phase 1/Estero Bay and Phase 2/Pine Island Sound. Manatees are curious and often approach kayakers and canoeists.
Manatees reach an average size of about 10 feet and 1,200 pounds. Their distant relationship to elephants can be seen in their grayish-brown skin and the toenails visible on the edges of their flippers. Like all mammals, manatees have lungs and must surface to breathe, something they do every five minutes or so when active. While resting, manatees can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes.
Although they are solitary creatures by nature, it is possible to see groups of manatees swimming or feeding together. These groups are typically small, usually numbering four or five. Larger groups of a dozen or more are sometimes spotted. It’s illegal to feed or give water to manatees. Watch from a distance so as not to alter their behavior. To report an injured, dead, harassed or orphaned manatee, call 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) or on a cell phone dial *FWC or #FWC.
ALLIGATORS: Will I encounter gators on the Blueway?
Phase 1/Estero Bay and Phase 2/Pine Island Sound are coastal, with salt water, so you’re more likely to see a manatee or a dolphin than an alligator. Phase 3/Caloosahatchee River has more fresh water, so you may see one. Alligators tend to ignore paddlers or submerge themselves until paddlers have passed.
DOLPHINS: Will I see dolphins?
Most likely. Lee County and Southwest Florida are home to one of the highest concentrations of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in the United States. Dolphins are curious and playful and often come quite close to kayakers. The dolphins here are an average of nine feet long and weigh in at about 500 pounds. They have distinct home ranges – areas of water in which they spend most of their time – so the individuals you see in the bay live here year-round.
SEA TURTLES: When might I see a sea turtle?
It’s possible to see them year-round, but sea turtle nesting and hatchling season begins May 1 and ends Oct. 31. Five species can be found in the Gulf of Mexico: loggerhead (most common), Kemp’s Ridley (most endangered), green (occasional), leatherback (occasional) and hawksbill (occasional). All are protected.
SHARKS: Are there sharks in the water?
Yes. Lee County’s estuaries are like a nursery for shark pups. Thirteen species grow up here. Sharks typically are not a danger to paddlers; kayak anglers should be careful when catching and releasing sharks.
BIRDS: What birds am I likely to see?
More than 300 species can be sighted in Lee County throughout the year. Among those typically seen:
Heron: yellow-crowned, black-crowned, great blue, little blue, green, Louisiana or tricolored
Egret: reddish, great, snowy
Ibis: white, glossy
Woodpecker: pileated, red-bellied and others
Terns (any and all kinds)
Gulls (any and all kinds)
Pelican (brown year-round, white in winter)
Many Blueway locations are also on the Great Florida Birding Trail (http://floridabirdingtrail.com)
What’s the best way to take photos from a kayak or canoe?
Take a strap or bungee cord to hold your paddle to your kayak.
Keep your distance from birds; be conscientious.
Bring a towel or shammy to wipe your lens.
Take a small anchor or a stake to keep your boat in place.
Carry a dry bag; keep your camera in it close by while you paddle.
Consider purchasing a monopod to mount and make your camera steadier.
What else might I see?
River otters, stingrays, sponges, starfish, sand dollars, fish (tarpon, mullet, snook, redfish, sea trout), crabs (horseshoe, hermit, decorator, spider, blue) and mollusks (lightning whelk, kings crown conch).
How can I help wildlife?
Dispose of trash and food items properly.
Observe all wildlife from a safe distance. When on board a vessel, use binoculars or a telephoto lens to get a good view.
Don’t feed wildlife purposefully or inadvertently. It is illegal and causes animals to lose their natural fear of humans and increases their vulnerability to injuries and death.
Use caution around seagrass beds at low tide. Seagrasses are a valuable part of Florida’s marine environment and are essentially marine life nurseries.
Pick up fishing line and other debris – leave the scene cleaner than you found it. Fish, birds, sea turtles, dolphins and manatees frequently suffer from encounters with monofilament line.