By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
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.
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!
(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?
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.
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!