Friday, April 23, 2021

Down Close and Personal

A mother and son explore nature by kayak at the Conservancy. SUBMITTED PHOTO

A mother and son explore nature by kayak at the Conservancy. SUBMITTED PHOTO

By Bill Rhodes, Conservancy of Southwest Florida Volunteer

Visitors to the Conservancy of Southwest Florida love the electric boats, effortlessly gliding along the backwater estuary and into the Gordon River, with captains eager to share insights while pointing out interesting local trees and animals.

What many may not know is that the Conservancy also offers kayak tours guided by trained naturalists, with as many as 15 people going at a time, using single and tandem kayaks. The tour lasts two hours, and, as one guide told me, offers visitors an unparalleled glimpse into the watery world around the Conservancy. Kayakers, sitting low in the water, practically become part of their surroundings, and are able to quietly poke their kayaks into the shallowest of hidden areas.

Paddling away from the launch area, the guide explains about the unusual ecosystem found around the Conservancy grounds. Here freshwater from our strong Florida rains mixes with saltwater to become brackish, while every few hours tides bring in an influx of saltier water from Naples Bay. They tell about the three types of mangroves, red, white and black, found along the shores and how they protect shorelines from erosion and the onslaught of tropical storms and hurricanes, and provide habitat for small fishes and crustaceans. Kayakers learn about the importance of clean water – fresh, brackish and salt – to Southwest Florida, from Lake Okeechobee through the Everglades and out into the Gulf, and the Conservancy’s programs educating the community to beneficial natural resources stewardship. Wading birds, such as ibis, herons and wood storks, are spotted and identified, along with the occasional circling or nesting osprey, or perching eagle.

The highlight of any tour, though, is the sighting of the unexpected or unusual – like the time five large manatees (Trichechus manatus) lazily swam into the midst of kayakers, following them along their trip, close enough so you could hear the animals’ occasional breaths. Manatees are large (they can be almost ten feet long, weighing over 1,000 lbs.) marine mammals distantly related to elephants. They are a remarkable sight, slowly and seemingly obliviously swimming by, gently undulating their large paddle-like tails, munching seaweed like grazing cattle – which is how they get their common name, “sea cow.”

You don’t have to be from northern climates to be in awe of these animals – and being so close you can hear them breathe is a memory that lasts a lifetime. Rare? Yes. Worth the chance encounter? Of course!

The next time you visit the Conservancy, give yourself extra time to explore – but do it from the water, getting “down close and personal” to the wonders of nature.

Book your kayak tour at the Conservancy Nature Center by calling 239-403-0304. The Conservancy of Southwest Florida is located at 1495 Smith Preserve Way, Naples, Florida (just south of the Naples Zoo). For more information on how you can see us for yourself, go to: www.conservancy.org/nature-center.

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