FLORIDA KEYS -- Paddle a kayak through the backcountry waters of the Florida Keys, and you'll see one of the world's most diverse marine life ecosystems. The quiet, shallow backwater region of flats and mangrove islands has inspired many naturalists and outdoor enthusiasts to combine environmental tourism with the sport of sea kayaking.
Not easily accessible to boat traffic, the backcountry area is largely untraveled, unspoiled and teeming with fascinating plant and animal life. Avian inhabitants include roseate spoonbills, osprey, great white herons and even some bald eagles. The roots of the tangled mangroves are a great place to spot young grouper, lobster and barracuda, while the sponge flats are home to bright-colored sponges and soft corals.
In part because Keys waters are protected within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the tranquil region is an excellent locale for exploring nature by kayak.
"Everything in the Keys has some layer of protection designated by the sanctuary," said Bill Keogh, owner and operator of Big Pine Kayak Adventures in the Lower Keys. An expert kayak and nature guide, nature photographer and author, Keogh has explored the Lower Keys for decades and knows them intimately.
"The shallow, clear, protected waters contribute to the pristine condition of the Florida Keys," Keogh said. "That's what folks want to see and these conditions are ideal for wildlife viewing."
The kayaking trail throughout the Keys runs some 100 miles from Key Largo to Key West. Each area of the destination features specific spots for optimal paddling and close-up viewing of the Keys' natural world.
Key Largo offers launching locations at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Sunset Park, Dove Creek and Florida Bay Outfitters, among others.
Monica Woll, owner and operator of Florida Bay Outfitters with her husband Frank, said they welcome kayakers to launch from their shop.
"Since we're located in Key Largo, we use Pennekamp and occasionally go to Dusenberry Creek which is canopied over," said Woll.
She echoes Keogh regarding the beauties of kayaking in the Keys.
"The water is so clear and there are so many things to see like stingrays, sharks and turtles," Woll said. "Kayaks have no problem with the shallow dips of the water, so it's really the perfect boat to explore nature."
Continuing south through the destination, launching sites can be found at Islamorada's Founders Park, Lorelei Restaurant, Whale Harbor Channel Bridge, Florida Keys Kayak at Robbie's Marina and Anne's Beach.
In the heart of the Keys at Marathon, kayakers can launch from Curry Hammock State Park, Tom's Harbor Cut and Sombrero Beach. The Old Wooden Bridge Marina, Bahia Honda State Park, Looe Key Reef Resort, Dolphin Marina and three sites on No Name Key are prime launching spots in the Lower Keys.
At the end of the island chain in Key West, launch sites include Key West City Marina, Smathers, Higgs, Simonton Street and Dog beaches and Lazy Dog Island Outfitters.
Guided kayak excursions are available throughout the Keys, designed for paddlers of all skill levels. Kayak rentals are available for those who want to venture into the backcountry waters on their own.
With their pristine conditions, abundant wildlife and numerous launch sites, the Keys can be a paradise for kayakers. Even a strong wind, the kayakers' worst enemy, doesn't have to scuttle a day of paddling in the island chain.
If high winds make conditions rough, just heed the words of expert kayak guide Bill Keogh: "You can always find an island somewhere in the Keys to hide behind and kayak."
For more information about kayaking and other ecotourism activities in the Florida Keys, visit www.fla-keys.com/ecotourism/index.cfm.
Paddle a kayak through the backcountry waters of the Florida Keys, and you'll see one of the world's most diverse marine life ecosystems. Photo by Bob Krist/Florida Keys News Bureau
Visitors eager to experience the Florida Keys by kayak can find guided excursions or rent their own kayaks at facilities throughout the island chain. Photo by Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau
The Keys' waters are protected within the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, offering an unspoiled region for tranquil exploration. Florida Keys News Bureau photo.
Kayaking through the Keys' thick mangroves is a great spot to see young grouper, lobster and barracuda. Photo by Bob Krist/Florida Keys News Bureau