Friday, May 25, 2018

Kayaking through Fort De Soto, looking for the sharks and manatees

I called the Topwater Kayak Outpost in Fort De Soto Park hoping to paddle the waters there for the first time.

Aaron Peterson, a 33-year-old Wisconsin native, with a genuine Wisconsin accent, was manning the rental shack that day. He told me the outpost was getting less traffic than usual, because of a "rancid" Red Tide smell at the only entrance to the park. But in the park, and around the kayak trail, he hadn't noticed a smell, at least most of the time. When he did catch a whiff, it was nothing like the entrance to the park, he said.

I figured I should say I'm a reporter looking for something to write about.

"I've got a story for you!" he said.

Peterson said the dead-end cove that the rental shop overlooks was teeming with sharks that day. He didn't know why they were concentrated there, but said he'd "never seen anything like it."

Seeing the sharks for myself sounded like a story. If I came to kayak the next morning, did Peterson think the sharks would take a bite out of the kayak, or worse, me?

"They shouldn't," he said.

So I drove down to Fort De Soto the next morning, hoping the finned frenzy would return at least one more time.

It didn't. But that was okay.

"Not too hot, nice breeze," Peterson said from the shore as I drifted with the wind around the dead-end cove. "Perfect day."

The outpost is situated at the southern end of an L-shaped mangrove cove called Soldier's Hole in Pinellas County's Fort De Soto Park. Peterson said I would have a chance to see sharks, dolphins, manatees and rays.

I started my two-hour trek on a self-guided tour starting at the outpost, paddling around the bottom of the "L" before hooking right, heading north toward an easy-to-spot island in Mullet Key Bayou and then looping back. I didn't smell anything.

As I paddled away from the shack, egrets and other birds were hanging out on mangrove branches. Some didn't flinch when I glided near, others flapped away. Mullet jumped out of the water, flopping and splashing.

When I had looped around the island, I hadn't seen any sharks, dolphins, manatees or rays. I kept my eyes peeled. The water around the island is clear, unlike most of the cloudy channel leading there. Some spots had beds of sea grass, and others were covered in oyster beds.

After passing the island, it was fair to say I was somewhat discouraged after not spotting any big animals. Then I saw ripples on the surface. They didn't have the same splashy, sharp sound as the mullet that flopped out of the water. This was a slow, easy ripple. I paddled closer to the clear spot and saw what I thought was a manatee.

"Oh my God," I whispered. I looked down to grab my phone to take a picture, but of course the manatee had disappeared into the cloudy water. Was it ever there at all?

I looked around for a few minutes and at that time caught my first whiff of the Red Tide, and saw a bunch of dead fish belly up. The smell wasn't "rancid" but I wasn't going to kick my feet up and get comfortable.

Heading back toward the rental station, there were two families on the water, and they seemed thrilled at every wildlife sighting. I thought I heard one girl say "manatee" and got irrationally jealous.

When I reached the outpost, Peterson said there were manatees and sharks nearby. I remained skeptical.

I won't bury the suspense any longer, there were tons of manatees. And by tons, I mean maybe four or five that could've easily weighed a ton each. They surfaced under the mangroves, they surfaced in the middle of the cove, they surfaced right in front of my kayak.

Two people were kayaking at the very dead-end of the cove, and they spotted a shark. We traded places; they went to see the manatees, and I went to see the shark.

"It's white, easy to see," the man said.

Sure enough, there it was. Maybe 4 or 5 feet. It looked gentle, as far as sharks go, and definitely didn't look interested in chomping on me or the kayak. It slunk by, disappearing into deeper waters.

Contact Jack Suntrup at [email protected] or (727) 893-8092. Follow @JackSuntrup.

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