By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
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We awoke to a beautiful dawn spreading across the sky, mistily lighting up the graceful lines of the Tampa Bay Skyway.
Well, technically, Vlad awoke to the dawn… I arose somewhat later, once the coffee was ready. We sipped it, watched the sunrise, and remarked on the steady progression of birds flying north—for all the world like commuters starting the day!
We agreed that Egmont Key, though an unplanned stop, was a wonderful place to start our real adventure.
While finishing breakfast and strolling along the beach, we encountered a park service employee driving an ATV.
We greeted him with a cheerful “Good morning!” and were puzzled at his response: Stony-faced, he refused to make eye contact or even acknowledge our existence.
Later, we got an inkling as to why—and discovered that this apparent coldness was actually, in its own way, the utmost of friendliness!
Breakfasted and caffeinated, we packed up under the watchful guidance of the crow couple from the day before. As a last gesture, we tossed some apples to them, and received a few “caws” as thanks.
(click on map, or any photo, to enlarge)
We set off across Tampa Bay. Overnight, the wind had shifted and was now mercifully with us. It pushed us along with 3-4 foot waves—just enough to keep the trip across the Bay interesting.
After a few hours, we were on the other side of Tampa Bay in the Intracoastal Waterway, headed south towards Sarasota Bay. Our destination for the day: A county park towards the southern end of Sarasota Bay that we’d identified on Google Maps as a likely camping spot. Even if camping wasn’t technically permitted there, there was a nice sandy beach—indeed, the satellite magic of Google Maps had caught a bunch of kayaks just landed there—and some secluded bays, and we were confident we could find an out-of-the-way spot.
Soon enough, Sarasota Bay spread out around us, the shoreline far in every direction. A dolphin arced beside us… then another…. by the afternoon, we had seen so many dolphins that we’d stopped pointing them out to each other.
But then a brown flutter caught my eye. I leaned over the side of the boat and caught sight of brown, white-spotted “wings” wafting along in the water, occasionally meeting in a clap and and spray of foam. What on earth?
I paddled closer. It looked very much like this ———->
The graceful, frilled creature seemed vaguely familiar… something about the shape of the head and tentacles…
“Vlad, do Aplysia have wings?” I called. Aplysia is the Latin name for a type of sea slug—which happens to be one of the creatures Vlad works with in his neuroscience lab. But none of the photos I’d seen of Aplysia had these spreading “wings”.
“They do, and some even use them to swim,” he said.
I tried to scoop the creature up to show it to him, but couldn’t figure out how to do so without damaging or frightening it, so he had to go by my description (at least then—later he saw one of his own).
Later we looked at photos and determined it was likely Aplysia brasiliana. (The photo above is actually of an Aplysia extraordinaria-–we’re pretty sure it wasn’t that species, as they live in Australia and New Zealand. But that’s what it looked like! A video of swimming Aplysia brasiliana is here.)
Aplysia was far from the last of the friendly creatures we were to encounter that day.
Throughout the day, we saw the usual contingent of birds: Pelicans, herons, egrets, and nesting ospreys. And of course, plenty of gulls and tern-like birds.
But the birds we’ll remember from Sarasota Bay are the cormorants. As we neared the southern end of the bay, we noticed cormorants surfacing in front of our boats. No surprise there: Cormorants often surface nearby, shake their heads groggily, and eventually launch into flight as we paddle close enough to frighten them.
Not this time, though. Instead of flying away, the birds swam closer to us, cocking their heads as though trying to tell us something. A few even flew in and purposely splashed down in the water a few feet away. I asked them what they wanted, and in response, they swam closer still, and opened their beaks as if to speak. But nothing came out, except a sort of heavy breathing.
We obviously failed to respond appropriately, because they began swimming under our boats, thumping them from the bottom, under the water.
Finally we realized what they wanted: The cormorants were begging for fish!
Along with the cormorants, in this part of the bay there were many kayak fishermen. The cormorants had obviously learned that kayakers = fish. But we were failing to play our assigned role, and the birds were becoming frustrated.
We laughed and apologized to the cormorants, and kept paddling. The sun was getting low in the sky by the time we reached our destination, and set up our second campground on a sandy spit of land between a shallow mangrove lagoon and the bay.
We woke up bright and early, breakfasted, and packed up our camping gear. Just minutes after we’d packed it up, a couple of park rangers drove up on ATVs.
Ostentatiously ignoring us, they parked facing the sun rising over the bay. They stretched and settled back on their vehicles. One crossed his arms behind his head. “It doesn’t get much better than this,” he sighed, in a soft Southern accent. They chatted a bit, and I caught wisps of their conversation: “…heard some reports about campers out here…”
Suddenly I got it. The park rangers were ignoring us for a reason: If they didn’t see us, they didn’t have to report us. Indifference, in this case, was the highest form of hospitality.
The sun rose a bit higher. A family came out onto the spit and started fishing, with a variety of rods and nets. A curious heron came over and explored their cooler. We laughed at the bird’s antics—another friendly creature!—but then it was time to go.
The day’s route took us further down the Intracoastal Waterway. As we passed Siesta Key, I saw a marina with a small sandy beach. That gave me an idea: Ice cream!
Sure enough, they had snacks and drinks. Better still, they knew all about the Everglades Challenge—apparently the Siesta Key Marina is a known stop for participants!
Suitably refreshed, we continued on our way, past mansions and mangroves, and the thriving maritime town of Venice.
Then we were in for a change of pace: The canal. A long, narrow manmade waterway, the canal routes the Intracoastal Waterway around the Venice Municipal Airport. It was bordered on one side by an extensive park, where, as the day began to fade, we located a comfortable, if buggy, campsite.
We neglected to protect our food supply, and in the morning we found racoon tracks on the beach. But fortunately, the raccoons had not gone after our stash. They too were friendly creatures!
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Lovely post, Johna and Vladimir! If you keep it up with the cormorants, we’ll have to call you the Cormorant Whisperers.
Reply from Johna—
Thanks Babsje! The cormorants were really amazing…. you could *see* them getting frustrated, thinking, “Stupid humans, where are my FISH?”
The last straw was when they went under the boats and thumped them from below… like, “Hello, fish? Fish? Hello?”
Giggling here. Sarasota cormorants are very highly educated apparently. Next time, you’ll be better prepared and come bearing minnows. Then, the cormorants will see you off on departure day saying “So long, and thanks for the fish.”
It just seems the wrong way round… In some parts of the world humans use cormorants to bring them fish, and we are supposed to do the opposite?! ;-)
Ssshhhh, the cormorants don’t want us humans to know they’re taking over the world!
:-) Well, in this part of the world they’ll have to fight it out with the cockroaches…
Do you mean the Florida “Palmetto Bug” cockroaches? That would be a tough battle.
Well, I was thinking NYC, but yes! And we have that kind of cockroach here in NYC too, having already invaded from Florida, probably—it’s just a short flight away ;-)
Oh man, I’m really sorry to hear that. No place is safe, the cormorants don’t stand a chance of winning against those odds.
The sea slug looks interesting. How big are these creatures?
Pretty sizable. The ones we saw were maybe 8 inches long. But some species (e.g., A. extraordinaria) grow to 18 inches, and there have been reports of sea slugs three feet long… :-)
Wow! Quite large for a creature I did not know existed until today :)
What Vlad said. It takes both hands to hold them (another reason I didn’t want to pick this one up–where to put the paddle?) They are SO beautiful in the water, though….
I know that area pretty well; having paddled all though the ICW.
Beautiful area with great birds dolphins manatees and Aplysia.
The Aplysia we saw were about 10 inches.
:-) Well, we saw birds, dolphins, Aplysia…. as for the manatees, you’ll have to wait to find out! :-)
It is truly lovely, though. One of our favorite spots in the world…
You traveled in one of my most favorite areas in Florida. Beautiful water, soft sand beaches and amazing wildlife. You’ve experienced it in a way I never thought of doing. What a special adventure and journey you had.
Thanks—we did!! And writeups of Days 4-7 of this trip are still to come :-)
This part of the world is all about water… so kayaks seemed like a very natural way to experience it…
Not sure why WP makes me keep signing up to Follow you when I have for so long maybe my OS firefox, chrome, IE I hate computers :)
Happens to us too… and as a result I see that I am following some blogs twice…
Thanks for being such a faithful follower, even though it’s a pain sometimes :-)
Miss Tampa so much as our days become here in NH :( I loved all your gorgeous photos of my other favorite beach area :)
Glad to have brought back pleasant memories! :-)
You two are amazing. Thanks for sharing your travels.
You are most welcome! Days 4-7 still to come…
What a fantastic trip! I envy you…
It was memorable… we are reliving it again in writing about it… :-)
Impressive and impressive captured too… :-)
What a beautiful trip. I really enjoyed reading about it.
Days 4-7 still to come. Thank you!!
Reblogged this on Sykose Extreme Sports News.
Thanks for reblogging!
My pleasure. I follow your blog as you have superb photos !
What a beautiful collection of your trip – really enjoyed the scenery and reading about your adventure! Opening photograph was awesome.
Thanks so much, Mary! :-)
Hi. Loved reading your story about your journey from edgemont key to Venice municipal. I kayak live in SRQ and kayak various parts of these waterways frequently. I met Valerie and Peter earlier this spring.
The cormorants swim near, next to and underneath your kayak because they have miraculously figured out that the fish hide underneath the boats in the shadow of the kayak. I have several photos of the birds catching and eating several fish, hopping up for a rest and drying their wings.
I too also recently came across the flying gigantic snail creature. I snapped a photo so that I could google it.
I look forward to reading more of your fun adventures.
Thanks for the explanation, Bonnie! We’ve only seen them do it in that part of Sarasota Bay—must be a local custom :-)
So glad you like the post, and thanks for following our blog!! Much more, of this trip and others, to come!
Hey, Vlad and Johna! Great post. Seems some of the friendliest creatures you met (well, DIDN’T meet) were those park rangers. See you soon :)
Yes! Everyone, animal, vegetable, and human, was most friendly! :-)
See you in a couple of weeks!
What an adventurous journey!
Thanks! Actually, this one was pretty benign, as it turned out. We didn’t go far each day (just couldn’t get up early enough in the morning!) and we were mostly in the Intracoastal Waterway, so no conditions to speak of…
So interesting about the sea slug…I can imagine it would be startling to see one, and the movement could be very graceful – the cormorants – no surprise! They’re serious fishers. But the heron made me laugh. I was not too far from where you are one winter when I saw one doing almost the same thing, but not going quite THAT far – wow. Those last 2 photos are really sweet…
Oh, those Florida herons are brazen! See here and here :-)
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I still wouldn’t trust those raccoons. They’ve marked you, somehow, for another time.
Yes, we’ve been afraid of that. We’ll be going through there again in March and now they’ll be ready!!
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