By Kris Hundley
All mangrove coves look the same from a distance.
And finding the one that leads to Cayo Costa’s tunnel of love, a narrow channel linking the Intracoastal Waterway to the Gulf, can involve running your dinghy down several dead ends. But when you find the opening, west of Useppa Island, beyond Cabbage Key, it’s magic.
The entrance is barely visible in the mangrove cover at the far side of a shallow brown bay. Through much of Cayo Costa Island's quarter-mile length, you can reach out and touch the snake-like roots rising from the water to the mangrove cover overhead. Denuded by Hurricane Charley in 2004, the tunnel is finally filling back in.
Black crabs the size of quarters scuttle up the tangled roots. We dodge deadheads, sunken tree limbs that threaten to puncture our inflatable. A dense school of mullet turns the water black at a bend in the channel. They scatter instantly as we approach. A popular cruising guide offers directions to the tunnel but warns to watch out for alligators in the brackish water. We see only mullet and slick black cormorants, diving for fish.
Though it is high tide, we pull and row most of the way until the tunnel opens into a pond just across a narrow strip of sand from the Gulf. Dragging the dinghy ashore, we walk through sea oats to a deserted beach and gin-clear water. Someone has tucked seashells into a gnarled a hunk of driftwood.
To the north about three miles is the state park’s campground. But the only signs of Cayo Costa Island's existence are the tracks of the ranger’s ATV in the sand. South toward Captiva, a fishing boat nudges toward shore.
In the Gulf, just beyond the sandbar, a long dark shadow glides through the water. It lifts its head: a manatee. The only sound is the surf.
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