Water World

Kayaking the otherworldly mangrove tunnels off Lido Key.

Excellent kayaking opportunities abound in our area, but for nature lovers looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, paddling the quarter-mile to half-mile-long mangrove tunnels off South Lido Key is—literally—a rite of passage.   

More than a dozen kayak companies offer daily guided tours of the mangrove tunnels that start at the north end of Ted Sperling Park. The four narrow water trails are so named because the abundant vegetation overhead blocks the sunlight and forms a tunnel. It’s easy paddling, suitable for beginners of all ages, but because the mangroves are so dense it’s possible to get lost. That’s why a knowledgeable guide is recommended.

The mangrove tunnels are “almost otherworldly,” says Will Bither, whose Almost Heaven Kayak Adventures offers three daily tours. “We get customers from all over the U.S. and a lot of Europeans and Asians, and they say it’s the wildest thing they’ve ever seen. Once you get into the canopy, the ‘wow’ factor sets in.”

Bither’s kayak trips start with an hour-long loop on the open bay so participants can spot manatee and bottlenose dolphin. “We saw six manatees this morning,” he says. Once inside the tunnels, it’s common to see lots of mangrove tree crabs, which in turn attract wading birds like herons, egrets and ibis. “It’s very quiet, about as peaceful as you’re going to get this close to the city," Bither says.

Depending on the tide, his groups stop at a sandbar to search for critters—sea stars, snails, sea urchins. “We give a lot of info on the wildlife, the history, but we try not to blab the whole time, so they can enjoy the peace and quiet of the nature.”

10 Peaceful Public Nature Preserves

Celery Fields With more than 360 acres of wetlands, shallow pools and canals, this site is a bird watcher’s mecca. The Sarasota Audubon Society staffs a nature center with knowledgeable volunteer guides daily October through May. 6893 Palmer Blvd., Sarasota, (941) 861-5000, sarasotaaudubon.org

Deer Prairie Creek Preserve This preserve has over 70 miles of trails for hiking, along with biking and horseback riding. North Entrance: 7001 Forbes Trail, Venice. South Entrance: 10201 S. Tamiami Trail, Venice. (941) 861-5000, scgov.net/naturallands/pages/deerprairiecreek 

Emerson Point This 365-acre preserve at the mouth of the Manatee River offers plenty of hiking trails, canoeing, fishing and wildlife viewing areas. 5801 17th St. W., Palmetto, (941) 742-5943. 

Knight Trail in Nokomis This park has archery, hiking and camping along with shooting sport ranges and courses. 3445 Rustic Road, Nokomis, (941) 861-5000, scgov.net/parks/Pages/KnightTrail  

Lemon Bay Park This 210-acre nature-based park is along the Lemon Bay Aquatic Preserve. Habitats include a black mangrove forest and scrubby flatwoods. 570 Bay Park Blvd., Englewood, (941) 861-5000, scgov.net/parks/Pages/lemonbay

Myakka River State Park One of the oldest and largest state parks, Myakka offers kayaking, boating, fresh water fishing and hiking across wetlands, prairies, hammocks and pinelands. 13208 S.R. 72, Sarasota, (941) 361-6511, floridastateparks.org/park/myakka-river 

Oscar Scherer Florida state park full of scrubby flatwoods with fishing, swimming, canoeing, hiking, camping and wildlife viewing. 1843 S. Tamiami Trail, Osprey. (941) 483-5956, floridastateparks.org/park/Oscar-Scherer 

Red Bug Slough A piece of natural Florida amid suburban Sarasota, offering hiking trails, picnic shelters and a fishing dock. 5200 Beneva Road, Sarasota, (941) 861-5000, scgov.net/naturallands/pages/redbugslough 

Robinson Preserve This preserve hosts both coastal and wetland habitats, with biking, hiking, fishing, bird watching and more. 1704 99th St., Bradenton, (941) 745-3723, robinsonpreserve.com

T. Mabry Carlton Jr. Reserve More than 80 miles of hiking trails, including a trail that connects to Myakka River State Park. Equestrian trails, too. 1800 Mabry Carlton Parkway, Venice, (941) 861-5000, carltonreserve.org

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