Southwest Florida is known for its laid back vibe and gorgeous beaches, but did you know it’s a nature lover’s paradise too? It’s the only part of the United States located in a sub-tropical climate zone, and it sits at the very edge of the wilderness known as the Florida Everglades. This delicate ecosystem is perfect for adventure and outdoor enthusiasts who don’t mind getting a little wet because there’s water, water, everywhere in this part of the Sunshine State. From Naples to Miami and everywhere in between, you’ll find mangroves, white sand beaches, cypress swamps, freshwater prairies and slough (pronounced slew), coastal lowlands, pinelands and hardwood hammocks, all within the slow-moving "River of Grass". It's an explorer's paradise, and the many boardwalks and hiking trails here may surprise you. But one of my favorite things to do in the Everglades is kayaking, whether it's through a shady mangrove tunnel or the many wide open and calm back bays and estuaries. If you're looking for some Everglades adventure, head out with the folks at Rising Tide Explorers, one of the best Everglades kayak tours around.
We were intrigued by Rising Tide Explorers and curious how they might differ from other kayak tours in the area, since they distinguish their tours as being led by qualified biologists. After looking at their website, we decided to check out their mangrove kayaking tour firsthand, also known as the Mangrove Tunnels and Mudflats tour of Rookery Bay near Marco Island.
Reserving Your Tour
Right off the bat, I was impressed with their efficient online reservation system, which included all the details of our tour, a clickable link to the Isles of Capri launch site with Google map, and an electronic waiver for us to “sign” and send back so we could save time before the tour. All this was quickly completed on my mobile phone and confirmed on their end just as fast.
We arrived a half-hour ahead of the tour as requested, and were greeted by Ryan Young, the friendly and enthusiastic owner and Chief Explorer at Rising Tide, who clearly herds cats with ease. He unloaded kayaks from his truck, corralled our group of 10 kayakers, answered questions, took extra care of a family with small children, and kept everything running smoothly so we could start at 12:30 sharp. After a quick background on his impressive formal education (undergrad and Masters degrees in Environmental Science) and related work experience, he gave us an interesting overview on the Rookery Bay ecosystem, educating us on the plants and animals we might see (sea stars, bald eagles, wading birds, dolphins and manatees), explaining terms and relating everything back to protection and preservation. It was clear from the start that Ryan loves what he’s doing because the eco-mojo he was throwing around was contagious, and everyone was excited to get started.
We knew this was going to be fun!
Next came a quick overview of kayaking, how best to hold the paddle, and tips for preserving your shoulder muscles by using your core for strength. And then, one by one, we were off.
Mangrove Tunnels and Mudflats
The 3 hour, 4.5 mile paddle took us through the Rookery Bay Reserve at the start of the 10,000 islands, one of the few remaining undisturbed mangrove estuaries in North America. It was a bit windy that day so paddling out against the wind was challenging but nothing even a beginner kayaker couldn’t handle. Once we made our way into the mangroves, the wind died down and the water was as smooth as glass and clear to the shallow bottom. Ryan pointed out the birds flying overhead: osprey, turkey vultures, and swallowtail kites. Our first rest stop was at an oyster reef where we glided over 2 feet of water. The sandy bottom was littered with oyster shells and Ryan explained the importance of oysters to this environment. Did you know that just one oyster naturally filters 50 gallons of water a day to eat and breathe? Imagine how much water is filtered by this clump (below), and how necessary they are to the ecosystem.
We paddled through the back bays and narrow mangrove tunnels where the “walking trees” stretched out their root system to prop up its expanding footprint. I never imagined I’d be so enthralled with the science behind the “live birth” and growth of the red mangrove system, but Ryan made it understandable and really entertaining. He had everyone in the group laughing while gaining a new appreciation for the ecosystem. Even the small kids in the group were into it and having fun. And as we rounded the next bend, Ryan got out of his kayak and bent low in the water to retrieve something big, and pulled up a gigantic live horse conch the size of my head. A real crowd pleaser!
Thankfully, the wind was at our back for the rest of our paddle back to the launch ramp, and it felt more like surfing than paddling. We were tired but totally impressed with the tour, and the unique value Ryan brought with his educational approach. Biology degrees aside, the real treat here is his passion for sharing the Rookery Bay and Everglades ecosystem, and showing us all how we can be good stewards for this fragile environment.
Overall, we had a great time on the tour and thought Rising Tide Explorers more than lived up to its mission of being a kayak tour company led by local biologists. This alone distinguishes them from others and their commitment to protection and conservation is admirable.
If I had one suggestion, it might be to change the name of the tour - because this isn’t your average kayak tour. It's so much more. Call it Continuing Education: Mangrove Kayaking 101, Intro to Rookery Bay Bird Identification, and Everglades Ecosystems 300. It's like an entire semester-at-sea in one afternoon with Ryan as your Professor.
Kayaking through the mangroves in nature’s most beautiful classroom is my kind of education!
We were guests of Rising Tide Explorers on this trip, and as always, all opinions are our own based on this first hand experience.
If You Go
- Kayak tours in Naples, Marco Island, Everglades, and the 10,000 Islands. We loved the Mangrove Tunnels and Mudflats Kayak Tour, but their Sunset Bird Rookery Tour and occasional Full Moon Kayak Tours look amazing too.
- Tours start around $65 for adults, less for children, and reservations are required. Check their website for more details and launch sites.
- Hourly, daily, and weekly kayak rentals are also available for self-guided tours.