Being the unabashed vacation maximizer that I am, Hannah and I were buckled into the first flight out of Columbus last Friday.This meant landing in Tampa a full six hours before check-in time on Anna Maria Island, a short hour’s drive to the south. Our “plan” was to have no plan. We’d packed swimsuits where we could easily find them, figuring that part of our “non-plan” might involve the ocean we’d be driving alongside. And, as we neared St Pete, that seemed even more likely.
I’d seen the brown Parks and Recreation signs for Fort De Soto Park and remembered its North Beach to be a “Dr Beach” national award winner. A helpful toll booth operator confirmed our choice. He remarked upon the popularity of St Pete’s beaches contrasted to the relative quiet and natural beauty of Fort De Soto. It was an easy choice to keep following the park signs.
Our first stop was at the Eggmont Key ferry pier for a quick change of clothes. Hannah had momentary pangs when we spotted the Paws Playground, knowing how much our chocolate lab Lily would enjoy splashing into the ocean, but shared my thrill in spotting a rack of kayaks on our drive toward North Beach.
We secured a two man kayak from Coby and Frank at the Topwater Kayak Outpost and slipped into the brackish mangrove-lined waterway, hoping to spot our first non-confined manatees. Fiddler crabs darted about the sandy launch site, but it was the mangrove trees that fascinated us most.
The prop roots of the red mangrove curled into the water with the arching curve of a pianist’s fingers. The long seed pods that dangled down from its branches puzzled us when we spotted them on an Anna Maria beach the next day; it took us a couple of more days to identify the washed up pods as a fruit of the mangroves we’d seen earlier.
Within a couple of bends, we reached a large expanse of water but had still seen nothing larger than an egret. There were few kayakers about due to an approaching storm, but we finally came upon two boats hovering at the northeastern edge and they pointed out the swirling water just beyond them.
It was a magnificent moment for the two girls from Ohio. The calf appeared first, a babe that could have easily tipped us into its watery playground. The mother hovered closely; when one whiskered snout broke the surface, the other soon appeared just beyond. Another enormous creature slid beneath our boat, making me glad I’d opted to leave my camera in the car, but we stayed safely afloat. We quickly learned to predict their appearance by the tell-tale swirls of water that preceded a surfacing and lingered long enough that we had to do some fast paddling across oyster beds to finish the trail before the storm hit. We were completely captivated by the so-called “mermaids of the sea”…
We were the last kayakers to paddle in that afternoon, accompanied quite fittingly by the soft bluesy wail of Frank’s harmonica. What a great beginning for our “girls’ get-away”!