When it comes to paddling, kids pick up the skills and excitement as if it’s second nature.
An osprey rises from the waves clenching a silvery fish in its talons and squawking a warning to would-be thieves. Manatees rise to the surface to snort for air. Pelicans fly in a V-formation, while two dolphins glide alongside the kayak like unofficial escorts and goodwill ambassadors.
Within its 190 miles, the Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail winds through the habitats of hundreds of birds and fascinating sea creatures. There’s no better way to get close to the wildlife of The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel than by paddle.
Here are a few stretches of the Blueway that are best suited to families and wildlife viewing.
Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve at Fort Myers Beach is New York City for dolphins. On a good day, kayakers and canoeists can paddle through the water thick with the intelligent mammals and watch them flip fish to one another, frolic with their babies and perform unsolicited leaps.
For a fun day of family paddling, rent from the Lovers Key State Park concession and launch bayside. Paddle south through New Pass, into the park’s estuary and past Dog Beach, where pets often swim up to greet you. Enjoy a picnic lunch on the beach at Lovers Key, then head northward to the aquatic preserve and circle back to the launch site.
Big pink birds that look like they eat with spoons and trees that walk on tiptoes: The sights along J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge’s Tarpon Bayand Commodore Creek Trail on Sanibel Island are wondrous and other-worldly.
Take a two-hour, naturalist-led tour or head out on your own with rentals from Tarpon Bay Explorers, the refuge’s official recreation concession. The easy, still-water paddle takes you past rookeries and through arching tunnels of mangroves, trees that seem to stand on long legs in estuaries where pink-colored roseate spoonbills often feed.
A winter paddling excursion at Manatee Park in east Fort Myers begins with watching the blimp-shaped namesake creatures surface for air with their young in the warm waters of Yankee Canal. By then, the kids are psyched but maybe still a little intimidated to jump in a kayak and ply the waters of the Orange River, where manatees congregate beginning in November.
The guide who leads the kayak clinics, however, points out that sightings are a special treat, and the animals are docile. If you’re lucky, one may swim under your kayak to scratch its back (but no touching is allowed). On-land and in-water lessons teach the basics of the easy sport, and then it’s off upriver to see the birds, fish and, if you’re lucky, manatees that call this waterway home. When there are youngsters along on the clinic, the instructor often incorporates games to assist the teaching process and hands out a kit with nature games and coloring books.
Like finned popcorn, the mullet of Matlacha Pass Aquatic Preserve at Pine Island burst from the water in powerful leaps. Several theories try to explain why they do this, and you’ll hear about them on a three-hour guided tour with Gulf Coast Kayak.
You can also rent there and head out on your own, with get-out-and-stretch breaks at the colorful seafood restaurants and art galleries set right on the water. Families with their own kayaks can launch at Matlacha Park, also a good spot for a picnic lunch.
Fishing and racing enthusiasts will enjoy the Calusa Blueway Kayak FIshing Tournament each November in Matacha. Battle on the Blueway SUP & Kayak race each June on Fort Myers Beach.