By Diane Daniel
From a distance, with our pink, orange, and green lights bobbing on the water, we might have looked like visitors from outer space, or perhaps a floating disco.
Up close, we were a group of enthusiastic stand-up paddlers, out for a night cruise on the southern end of Lemon Bay and within the borders of Don Pedro Island State Park near Cape Haze in Charlotte County.
Our leader was Paige Bakhaus, a certified stand-up paddleboard instructor and owner of Hooked on SUP in Englewood. We’d been transported by boat from her shop at the Cape Haze Marina to a drop-off point near the park, our plain-looking boards stacked in two piles.
Once we were on the water and Bakhaus flipped on our switches, our boards glowed like neon artwork. With soft lighting underneath us, we had a new perspective -- and the ability to see sea creatures in their natural habitats.
I should clarify that most of us were standing up. As someone new to the SUP world and not yet agile on the board, Bakhaus had assured me I could do this trip kneeling and sometimes even sitting, because the bulk of the tour (and the highlight) was traversing through a winding mangrove tunnel, where it would be impossible to stand. Indeed, this factor makes the tour available to anyone who can swim (just in case) and is comfortable paddling a board.
Hooked on SUP is one of several standup paddling outfitters to offer night rides, but the secluded route through a mangrove tunnel and into a hidden lagoon makes it quite special.
Bakhaus started offering night tours in 2014, after a new system of waterproof LED lights became available from Nocqua Adventure Gear. The lights were developed by Florida native Billy Rossini, a two-time world champion in kneeboarding and hydrofoiling, who sells them for paddleboards and kayaks. The lights come in white or a range of colors that you can even scroll in a timed sequence. I rather fancied the fuchsia, but Bakhaus talked me into white.
“The colors are flashy, but when you’re looking for creatures, white is the best,” she said. “Another advantage of the lights is that fish are attracted to them.”
Just as we entered the tunnel, Bakhaus dipped her hand in the shallow water and scooped up a living sponge, then pointed out the giant sponges scattered over the tunnel floor, their details clearly visible in the light.
Mangrove tunnels, one of Florida’s natural wonders, are formed when branches of trees interlock above water level, creating a canopy that serves as a home to wildlife and shelters animals – and paddlers – from sun, wind and rain. The tunnels are otherworldly during the day. At night, backlit by the low glow of our boards, it felt like we were floating through the woods by moonlight.
As we continued along the easy-to-follow path, I heard a rustling above me and then a loud flapping of wings. I gasped as something I couldn’t see flew just inches above my head.
“It’s just a night heron checking you out,” Bakhaus said with a laugh.
I’d seen plenty of herons in my life, but I’d never been buzzed by one. I later read that the black-crowned night heron is most active at night or at dusk, when it leaves its daytime roost to forage in wetlands.
We passed small fish and more sponges before reaching the lagoon, silent and lovely. Bakhaus spotted a cluster of upside-down jellyfish, or Cassiopea, a species new to me. They’re also called a Florida snowflake for their frilly white mouths, which usually points upward.
“They’re very common in the shallows, but you can’t always see them,” said Bakhaus. “That’s one of the great things about the lights.”
As we headed back into the mangrove tunnel, Bakhaus noticed a cluster of at least a dozen sea stars (also known as starfish) underwater, a thrilling sight. She picked up one to point to the location of its teeny eyes on the tips of its arms, which the creatures use for navigation.
While paddling back to the bay, I heard a now-familiar rustling in nearby branches and lowered my head, just in case. Sure enough, my friend the heron was back. This time it flew to tree branch a few feet ahead of us and proceeded to ignore us as we paddled by a foot away, not even flinching.
By the time we reached the end of the tunnel, nearly two hours had passed and we’d seen hundreds of small fish, a school of circling mullet, many live shells, and several clusters of sea stars, their arms languidly draped over each other. I had seen the bay in a whole new light.
A sampling of Florida outfitters offering nighttime SUP tours:
Hooked on SUP
Walkin’ On Water Paddleboards
Panama City Beach
Tampa Bay SUP
South Florida Paddle
North Palm Beach
Miami Beach Paddleboard
Key West Paddle
For this and other tips on Florida tours, go to VISIT FLORIDA's official tours guide.