At every bridge connecting the Florida Keys, my eyes drift south out to the steady turquoise of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s day two of Key West Race Week, and large sails notch the western horizon. But sailboat racing is (for once) not why we’re here. My husband Paul and I are about to explore an entirely different coastline.
The Keys divide the Atlantic from the Gulf of Mexico, and the northwest side of the island chain is called the Backcountry. Too shallow for bigger boats and protected as part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the entire area is completely undeveloped. No timeshares, reggae, or cruise ships.
Like most Keys visitors, we might never have explored “out Back” if it weren’t for Captain Bill Keogh. Bill makes his living as a naturalist guide, educator, and photographer. Our daylong nature tour on his no-frills 19’ Carolina Skiff provides a rare chance to see all the local fauna in its natural habitat—including our guide.
After loading cooler, kayak, and dog Scupper, we cruise out through the “thin” water of a winding channel and the boat hops up onto a plane, skimming across the surface. Glassy water stretches in front of us, a shimmer of white on the horizon. As we get closer, I realize I’m looking not at a sea of whitecaps but at an invisible sand spit—covered in birds.
We reduce speed a long way out so as not to spook the flock, and then idle into the shallows. Motor up, Bill poles us aground and we find ourselves almost beak to beak with hundreds of birds. They eye us curiously, apparently more interested in feeding than our quiet invasion.
My avian knowledge is limited at best, so all I see is clusters of white, gray, and tan. Bill points out the identifying marks of roseate spoonbills, great white herons, and white egrets as they bend beaks to the water. He also predicts quite accurately each bird’s departure; when the incoming tide reaches knee level, they’ll go. Their flight path seems as pre-determined as if set by the FAA, and one by one they cross our bow, whooshing off to a different beach for another meal.
"Everything in the Keys has some layer of protection from the sanctuary,” Bill says. “That’s why these birds are so comfortable with people.”
After a quick lunch we head over to what looks like a deserted island. Up close, I see that this “land” does not actually have any ground on which we humans could live; thick-rooted mangroves have grown up from sand that’s out of sight below the surface, forming a dense weave of branches suitable only for lighter weight species.
“Quiet,” Bill whispers. “Nesting cormorants.” He cuts the outboard back to idle, then shuts it off to drift.
Ten feet away a thick flock of the familiar black birds swoops up and away, their cackling and wing flutter apparently intended to draw our attention away from the hidden nests below. When we don’t make any more sudden movements they quickly return, eyes on us, the intruders. A constant chirping is the only sign of hungry babies; their immature gray blends in with the mangrove branches.
We’re close enough to see eye to eye with one bird, who obviously doesn’t trust us. His head pans left to follow our drift, the single visible iris a startling teal.
“Their eyes change color when they’re mating,” Bill explains, as the strengthening current carries us away from the island.
What’s his favorite backcountry creature? I ask.
“The baby sharks,” he replies. “Nobody’s tried to eat them yet, so they’re completely fearless. You can paddle right up to them and see them swimming around, right at home in the shallow water.”
The sun’s too low for shark spotting, so we head over to a mangrove tunnel. Bill and Paul hop into the kayak and paddle out of sight, leaving Scupper and I to enjoy the Keys sunset. It is just as spectacular (and a whole lot quieter) here on the “wrong” side of the islands.
Editor's Note: Photos courtesy of Bill Keogh unless otherwise noted. For more information, visit the Big Pine Kayak Adventures website, or watch the video that Paul put together: http://vimeo.com/user12431078/