Night Magic

By John McCarthy Photography by J. B. McCourtney June 30, 2010

Over the years, I’ve paddled through most of the coastal waterways in Sarasota County, spending memorable days exploring their wild splendor and natural history. But last summer, I began a grand new adventure on our bays—kayaking at night. Several times a week, I’d head out around sunset and launch my small wooden canoe, which I built myself and which functions like a kayak, into the warm bay waters. I’d usually stay out until well after dark, discovering a nighttime world of magical sights and sounds.

My boat is not equipped with a light, although I bring along a flashlight. But on most nights, the afterglow from the sunset and then the light of the moon and stars provide plenty of illumination. I’m also careful about safety procedures—I always bring along a floatation device and an emergency paddle, and I check the weather and stay home if a storm is predicted. Although I keep an eye out for other watercraft, I rarely encounter other kayakers or motorboats—except on Friday nights or when the moon is full.

ight or day, I love exploring Lemon Bay and the super-shallow waters of the Jim Neville Preserve in Little Sarasota Bay. But my favorite place to launch for sunset-watching is the mainland side of Blackburn Bay. Named for the Blackburn family who arrived in the 1870s, this is one of the most beautiful bays in the county. If it’s calm, the water is clear enough to reveal the luscious sea grass meadows alive with crabs, mollusks and fish. As the angle of the sun declines, the glare is reduced, and underwater visibility is greatly enhanced. Wading birds of several sizes and colors serve as tidal measuring devices, revealing the depth of every salt flat, sandbar or oyster bed.

These estuaries, where freshwater meets the salt, are the foundation of our marine food chain. Leaves from the salt-tolerant mangrove trees fall to the bay bottom and enrich the verdant sea grass beds. The sea grass and the mangroves work together to nourish the life of the bay. The deteriorating sea grass blades and mangrove leaves are consumed by a host of small marine organisms, which in turn nourish larger crabs and fish.

On most evenings, fish of all sizes dart and jump around me, some of them drumming up against the boat’s hull. Even after dark, I can hear the mullet practicing their airborne leaps and splashing back into the bay. Every now and then a dolphin breaks the surface nearby; sometimes several of them circle around, splashing the water as they hunt for fish.

After the sun drifts below the horizon and the night sky turns to fire and gold, some of my favorite birds come out to play and dine. Night herons creep along the mangrove edge, looking for a fiddler crab or some other seafood treat. A roseate spoonbill perches on a secluded mangrove limb, settling down for the night. A reddish egret “dances up” a meal as it quickly shuffles the shallow flats and shakes its wings to spook the shiners it is hunting. Bright white egrets fishing on the flats glow like lanterns as the day gives way to night.

bay-(3).gifAt night the bay appears more expansive, and as the details are obscured by the distance and the darkness, I begin to feel I’ve traveled back in time. Waterfront homes and docks disappear, and sky, water and wild creatures define my world.

Sometimes I just stop and listen and appreciate that I have left the noise of civilization behind. The sounds that surround me now create an organic rhythm—the rushing of the waves on the nearby Gulf beach, the buzzing whine of cicadas in the mangroves. The waves have a constant slow and steady beat, and the cicadas produce a temperature-determined, variable-pitch melody. These natural rhythms and melodies, accompanied by vocals like the territorial squawk of a blue heron or the insistent call of a whippoorwill, are the music of the bay. I have a new understanding of those old myths about “singing rivers.”

From time to time I hear the whoosh of the wings of ibis as they fly in formation against the darkening sky. Flock after flock flies overhead, sometimes so low that it seems like you can feel the force of the wind from their wings.

As the night darkens, a brilliant array of stars and planets emerges. All summer long, Saturn and Jupiter try to race the moon across the sky. Orion serves as both my compass and my clock. Away from the city’s lights, the sky comes alive with thousands of stars and the now rarely seen Milky Way. The entire bay becomes a mirror of glimmering black onyx, reflecting both the remnants of the sunset and the first emergent stars. Heat lightning often crackles across the vast dome above me, and falling stars shine bright against the deep, dark sky. On some nights I have to remind myself to keep focusing on the waters ahead rather than gazing, starstruck, at the sky above.

The highlight of my summer nighttime trips is spotting the underwater glow of natural bioluminescence. In certain areas of the bay, each paddle stroke ignites a flash of green-toned paddle prints that linger behind in my wake. Fish darting under the boat glow eerily green and leave streaks of light behind them like the tails of comets. If I startle several mullet or snook, I set off a serious light show that reveals just how many fish really surround me.

Any splash or movement in the water causes the microorganisms to flash and glow like tiny aquatic fireflies.

One quiet night last summer, close to midnight, I was paddling along the edge of the Intracoastal Waterway when a six-foot-wide ray erupted from the water just a few yards away. I almost jumped out of the boat as it flew into the air and dove back in, churning up waves all around me. Caught between fear and wonder, I back-pedaled to avoid a collision with this creature, whose wingspan was about half the length of my boat.

I’ve never seen another ray, but sometimes I’ll encounter a snoozing manatee. This usually occurs when I am drifting quietly out in the bay, letting wind and tide set the pace and course. This is the ultimate relaxation—floating lightly on the water and opening up to the natural world around me. Suddenly I’ll hear it—a deep breath, then silence. Then again, a deep breath. I scan the water, looking for the nose of the manatee, which barely breaks the surface. It is as if the manatee is sleeping on the bottom of the bay and simply lifting its nostrils level with the surface of the water to breathe every few moments. I’ll sit as quietly as I can and enjoy sharing the bay with this gentle creature. My motto is to let sleeping manatees lie—startling a drowsy beast weighing several hundred pounds is no way to stay dry and on top of the water!

As I head back home, I often think about what life must have been like for Florida’s native people, who paddled their wooden canoes in the same bays that I now enjoy. They watched the same sun rise above the gentle shoreline. They saw the same flocking birds flying into the sunset. They smelled the salt air and tasted the sweet, cool rain. They also heard the waves drum on the beach and the cicadas hum in the trees and watched the dolphin jump and the manatees graze. They looked up at the stars and planets and may have identified the constellations with names and myths of their own. They must have felt the same solace and awe amid the natural wonderland that was their home. And like me, they paddled back to shore on warm summer evenings, knowing that soon they would return to the water, lured by the beauty and life of Sarasota’s bays.

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