IT’S A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT WORLD, a relaxing and fascinating sensation. Gliding, swooshing or floating in a kayak, one can explore many sights overhead, all around and just below the tip of the paddle. Few know better than Sarasota’s soft-spoken and friendly kayaking guide and nature expert, Scott Whitehead, owner and chief paddler of Bay and Gulf Adventures. Whether leading a small group or solo adventuring through the mangroves and other areas just off the coast, Whitehead is passionate about kayaking Sarasota’s open and obscure waterways. The 53-year-old nature and wildlife authority enjoys sharing his expertise and explaining the thrill of experiencing the Suncoast from a kayak. He offers a relaxed, low-key and unpredictable kayaking experience, often complete with guaranteed gator-spotting, possible frolicking manatee and dolphin sightings, glimpses of egrets, pelicans, ospreys, turtles, sea stars and sea urchins, and maybe some tarpon brushing up against the kayak as it floats in the mangroves, bayous and the out-of-the-way nooks and crannies of Sarasota Bay.  

PHOTO BY EVAN SIGMUND

“Of course most people want to see manatee and dolphins,” he says with a smile and a shrug, adding that Lido Key would be your best bet to spot them. “Sometimes the timing may not be right. It all depends on the season, the time of day and feeding patterns. Many people want to learn about wildlife and there’s lots of marine life and shore birds to make it interesting. Recently, we saw some juvenile devil rays; even I was surprised. It’s always a hit when I reach down and pick up whelks, conchs and different types of jellyfish.” For various reasons, the increasingly popular pastime of kayaking (and its grueling and rugged distant-cousin sport of whitewater kayaking) have made a subtle, but resounding comeback. Maybe it’s the return of quiet and peaceful outdoor hobbies, like repelling down baron cliffs or enjoying the adventure of kayaking along Sarasota’s wetlands.In Sarasota, as in other popular coastal and beach areas, water-lovers are abandoning the high-pitched whir of jet skis and opting for the solitude and intimate pleasure of experiencing nature and the outdoors in bright orange, red, yellow or blue single or double-seater kayaks that are surprisingly lightweight. Most recreational kayaks are now made of rotomolded polyethylene, a tough, flexible and relatively soft plastic, and are, on average, about 11 feet long and weigh from 35 to 45 pounds. “The new kayaks have much better seating and better foot braces,” Whitehead points out. “They are much more user friendly. And although it’s a common question and worry, kayaks very rarely, if ever, tip over. At least not during the leisurely kind of kayaking we do in Sarasota.”

Top 5 Kayaking Trips

Lido Key Mangrove Tunnels

“There’s not quite another kayaking experience in Sarasota like gliding through the mangrove tunnels around Lido Key,” says Bob Nikla, founder of I Kayak Sarasota. The kayak trail is considered one of the most diverse in Southwest Florida. Launch your kayak from South Lido Park where you’ll make your way into Little Grassy Lagoon, a shallow body of water with rich seagrass beds where manatees graze. At the far southern end of the lagoon, the trail continues east down a tunnel that was originally constructed as a mosquito ditch. Paddling down the narrow passage, you can better view the complex root system of the red mangroves and the dynamics of mangrove ecosystems. One of the highlights of this kayak trail is drifting quietly down Brushy Bayou.

Sunset on Anna Maria Island

Experience the sublime tranquility of sunset on your own little floating island off Anna Maria Island. Launch off Manatee Avenue Bridge or at the south end of the island at Coquina Beach and see everything from modern beachfront homes to untouched wilderness. On the waters east of islands, you’ll be sheltered from prevailing winds. The transition between day and night is a stirring, scuttling time along the shoreline as the creatures of the day make way for the critters of night. Move along further north to view the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the distance. Along the way is a mangrove island where during the day you can view fish eggs, hermit crabs and mullet jumping in the seagrass.

Robinson Preserve

Undergoing an incredible transformation, this environment recently went from disturbed farmland to coastal and wetland habitats, the largest habitat restoration in the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program. Native plants now flourish as numerous exotic invasive species have been cleared. Discover the narrow waterways, coves and shady mangrove enclosed streams that take you from Robinson Preserve to the Manatee River. In the clear waters of the bay, you’ll spot sea eagles, osprey, herons, rare sandhill cranes and roseate spoonbills. Once off the water, climb the lookout tower above the canopy.

Myakka River

A trip along the Myakka River will take you through the beautiful blackwater river and an extensive freshwater marsh. Most kayakers choose a six-mile loop around Upper Myakka Lake, which is an ideal day trip for bird watchers, or a short stretch to the south in the wilderness preserve above Lower Myakka Lake. The river begins in a hardwood swamp and runs through more than 60 miles of diverse terrain before emptying into the fertile fishing grounds of Charlotte Harbor. The area is home to an incredible array of wildlife including about 250 species of birds and over 50 kinds of reptiles. Curious otters, cautious fawns, wild turkeys and foxes often make their way to the river’s edge, but the main Myakka attraction is alligators.

Jim Neville Marine Preserve

The Jim Neville Marine Preserve is a 35-acre protected area that surrounds Midnight Pass in Little Sarasota Bay. You’ll only see other kayakers and canoeists along this preserve, which is closed off to motorized engines. Made up of several small islands known as the Bird Keys, this spot is a bird watcher’s paradise with unobstructed views for bird watching great blue herons, kingfishers, anhinga, great egrets, snowy egrets, wood storks and night herons. You can launch right there at Turtle Beach and the shallow water allows you to collect shells and observe dolphins and manatees up close. –Shane Donglasan