Venture Farther into Key West

With plenty of shallow water, mangroves, sand bars, and marine life, the Florida Keys are a wonderful area for beginner kayakers and eco tourists. Those who book Key West sailboat camping on the Ninja and Mango will find channels, mangrove maze tunnels, coves, nurse sharks, eagle rays and other wildlife all within a short, easy paddle from the boats – making it an ideal base camp to experience kayaking. However, because the boats are conveniently located near the Key West airport, the plane noise keeps many birds out of the mangroves (although there is no shortage of pelicans nearby). In addition, the area is well known, so guests will frequently see other boats and paddlers. Having thoroughly explored the waters where the Mangrove Ninja and Mango are located (just off shore), we decided to venture farther into the islands where things were a little quieter.

Zappa Venturing down "Pigeon Canal" in the back country.

Zappa Venturing down “Pigeon Canal” in the back country.

Isolated mangrove keys (like Cayo Agua) in the backcountry (about five miles from the sailboat base camp) are home to thousands of nesting birds: Florida cormorants, magnificent frigates, egrets, herons, and more. To paddle there on your own is do-able, but it is not to be taken lightly (beginners should not attempt it alone). We highly recommend contacting Kayak Kings of Key West to arrange for guided exploration of the area.

Amber and AJ the oener of Kayak Kings of Key West

Amber (blog writer) and AJ, the owner of Kayak Kings of Key West

The day we selected in May was perfect: extremely calm winds from the north, plenty of sunshine, and an early start (mornings are the best time to explore). AJ of Kayak Kings provided great company and transportation to the drop-off point a quarter mile from the mangrove islands we’d be paddling around (there is no land/beach out here; just mangroves). No one knows the area like he does, so Zappa and I knew we were in good hands. From here, there isn’t another soul on the water. Boats buzzing by, other paddlers, and jet skis are nonexistent. Out here, we found complete stillness and nature (as AJ calls it “therapy.)”

First, we simply laid on the kayaks and paddled with our eyes closed, drifting a little and listening to the slow ripple of the water and the slight breeze going by. I call this, “blissing out,” (a term we used on an epic Dry Tortugas adventure a few years ago). From there, we entered a glassy mangrove-lined canal that runs through Cayo Agua (which we renamed Pigeon Canal because of the familiar bird sounds). Spontaneity determined our course: there are numerous islands nearby that we could paddle to.

We headed left toward an old sailboat shipwreck that rested on its side so that the inside was still visible. The half that protruded from the water was covered in Florida cormorants that flew in every direction as we approached.

Florida Cormorant scattering off a shipwreck

Florida Cormorant scattering off a shipwreck

Each mangrove key was full of birds in the branches calling loudly to announce that we were getting too close. We tucked into the shady mangroves beneath them, entering their secret lair, and listened to the sounds of nature with nothing but mangrove branches surrounding us. The birds sounded like howler monkeys in the jungle, and their loud songs were constantly changing. It was incredibly powerful.

We also stopped at a sandbar that we dubbed “the cucumber garden” because it was loaded with massive sea cucumbers – much larger than the ones we’d seen near the sailboat base camp. We held them and let the cucumbers “hug” our hands. It’s a really cool feeling.

Our paddles were stuck in the stand in order to anchor the kayaks so we could swim in “the pool,” temporarily claiming it as our own little paradise.

Claiming the sandbar as our own little paradise

Claiming the sandbar as our own little paradise

On the paddle back, we spotted three black tip sharks and a fast-moving stingray. All of them were spooked by our kayaks and took off when the saw us. Turtle nesting season is just getting started (May-October), and I spotted a small little guy but he didn’t stick around for long. Unfortunately, I had to get back to go to work (ugh, work!) at Blue Heaven restaurant, or we would have stayed even longer. We vowed to return and uncover new places the next time.

There are thousands of islands in the Florida Keys to explore, and kayaking without any particular schedule is one of the most peaceful ways to do so.

So many mangrove islands and bird nesting areas to explore

So many mangrove islands and bird nesting areas to explore

Those interested in recreating our trip should tell our friend AJ at Kayak Kings that you heard about his “back country bird-watching paddle” on BoatCamping.org and he can help arrange a similar experience! Be sure to bring snacks, bug spray (they weren’t bad but just in case), lots and lots of water, sunscreen, hats, sunglasses, waterproof cameras, breathable long sleeve shirts, perhaps a thin light towel, and an adventurous spirit! (Visit KayakKingsKeyWest.com.)

As always,

Dream. Drift. Discover.

-Amber & Zappa