By Diane Daniel 

Brad Tanner has led groups on more than 50 kayak trips around Sarasota Bay, many to the same spots. But every outing, he said, is a new adventure. 

“Even the exact same locations are different each time, depending on the conditions,” said Tanner, who takes out paddlers every couple weeks from December through April as part of the Bay Wise Kayak Tour Program, a free educational and ecotourism outing offered by the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program. The trips last about three to four hours, and participants must bring their own kayaks or rent them. (A list of nearby outfitters is provided).

For our tour, in December, the “adventure” came in the form of high winds, a low tide (made lower by the wind) and a sudden dip in temperatures. Though the trip filled up to its maximum 15 guests ahead of time, only a few hearty folks showed up, and we were rewarded with blue skies and a warming sun.

We put our kayaks in the water just below Neal Preserve, a beautiful 120-acre waterfront preserve opened by Manatee County in 2014, a few miles west of downtown Bradenton and just east of the bridge to Anna Maria Island. The trips start from six or so different spots, and introduce visitors not only to the area’s waterways but also the parks and preserves, said Tanner, who coordinates the school programs at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.

As we headed out, Tanner explained that an estuary is a place where saltwater and freshwater meet.

“Most people are surprised to learn that 80 percent of the world’s fish and shellfish – the seafood you eat – spends at least one part of its life cycle in estuaries,” he said. “It’s the nursery of sea life.”

Sarasota Bay is one of 28 estuaries in the country named an “estuary of national significance” and the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program’s mission is to restore and preserve Sarasota Bay, which has been negatively impacted by development. The program works to improve water quality, increase habitat and enhance the area’s natural resources.

We pointed our kayaks toward Neal Preserve, admiring a large flock of resting white pelicans along the way, but the low tide, high winds and abundance of manatee and turtle grass made passage impossible, so we went further out into the bay.

“Sarasota Bay is only 3 to 4 feet normally, but usually you can get through,” Tanner said.

He explained different types of mangroves, adding that red ones grow closest to the water’s edge, so are what people are most familiar with, and then plucked various living sponges out of the water for us to see before placing them gently back.

We stopped for a break at one of four oyster beds we passed.

“Oysters are an indicator species,” Tanner said. “Natural oyster beds mean the water quality is high.”

While resting atop the wide bed of oyster shells, Tanner pointed out sea lettuce, horseshoe crabs, sea squirts, lightning whelks, and egg sacks for a banded tulip.

After the tour, a few of us toured Neal Preserve, a fascinating place that has extensive remnants of a large Native American settlement, including evidence of two burial sites. Though the sites are no longer there, part of Neal’s preservation efforts involved creating demonstration mounds to show their location. The preserve also features elevated boardwalks through salt marshes, an observation tower overlooking the bay and plants used by Native Americans, including upland cotton.

Tanner said tour locations are scattered along Sarasota Bay, a 56-mile long coastal lagoon comprising several types of bays and four inlets, as well as creeks and streams, as a way to introduce paddlers (many of them seasonal residents) to the different parts of the bay and a variety of natural and cultural resources.

The trip to Leffis Key Preserve, for example, which departs from Coquina Bayside Park in Bradenton Beach, features hidden mangrove channels and a 26-foot-high hill with a panoramic view over Sarasota Bay. The Lido Mangrove Tunnels trip, which starts at South Lido Park in Sarasota, winds its way through a series of numbered mangrove tunnels.  And the Blind Pass outing, taking off from Turtle Beach in Sarasota, takes paddlers through Midnight Pass, a naturally closed inlet (nicknamed Midnight Impasse), now a beach and bird sanctuary and where one can explore the old shark tanks from when Mote Marine Laboratory was located on Siesta Key.

When you go…

Bay Wise Kayak Tour Program