Touring the Bay Aboard the Carefree Learner

A floating classroom on Sarasota Bay.

By Hannah Wallace February 26, 2015

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Setting off.


It’s the ever-present backdrop of our commutes and alfresco lunches, but how often do we really immerse ourselves in the bay? How much do we really know about that body of water in our collective back yard?


I grew up here—a block and a half from Whitfield Avenue’s terminus at the bay, in fact—and while it’s all fairly familiar from childhood days spent mucking in mud and oysters and horseshoe crabs, there were many things I didn’t really know know until I took a ride, courtesy of the Littoral Society, on The Carefree Learner.


The boat was built 35 years ago by Sarasota High School student volunteers, and it’s been fulfilling its educational destiny ever since. Working through the school board, The Carefree Learner provides hands-on lessons to hundreds of local students every year, and it also hosts public tours, often in tandem with the Littoral Society, as well as outings for organizations like the Audubon Society, Sarasota Shell Club and more.


It’s a multifaceted experience, and fun in a lot of ways—water, wildlife, architecture and, not to be overlooked, the people. As we set off on a somewhat cloudy/foggy afternoon, our guide, Judd McKean, warned that the two-hour trip might be cut short if the weather got worse, threatening a small-craft advisory.


Cue a dozen tourists singing the Gilligan’s Island theme.


And then we were off, the instant soothe of putt-putting over the waves, a little bit of spray and a lot of breeze, and gorgeous, 360-degree separation from everything else.


First stop: the middle of the bay, where Judd presented us with planks of freshly harvested sponge from what was surprisingly only five feet of water. (Unless you’re in a dredged channel, Sarasota Bay is pretty shallow throughout.) I overcame my “ack, seaweed!” instinct and joined others in rooting about the squishy branches, as Judd pointed out tiny sponge crabs and brittle starfish.


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The Roberts Bay rookery.

Next we got a lesson in mangroves (and a lovely architecture tour) cruising by the back end of Siesta Key before swinging by the Roberts Bay rookery, swarmed this time of year with blue herons and snowy egrets, pelicans and even roseate spoonbills.


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A cowfish in the boat's tank.

Last, anchored at a spoil island, the kind of hands-on sea life lesson that must absolutely delight the kids, as one by one, Judd pulled spider crabs and pinfish, urchin, cow fish, and even a flounder from the custom on-board tanks. The “star of the show,” as Judd announced, was the burrfish, that obliged its audience by puffing up to several times its normal size.


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Judd McKean

Littoral Society tours aboard the Carefree Learner run Wednesdays through April; $20 for adults and $10 for kids.

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