On Florida's Santa Rosa Sound, what will swim
underneath your boat?
by Mark O'Brien
It's noon, Saturday, football season. I should be in a sports bar, yelling at players, coaches, referees. It's what I've been doing for years. Instead, I'm in the front seat of a two-person kayak on Santa Rosa Sound, a few hundred feet from Pensacola Beach and the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
I see mullet to the right, red fish to the left. The late October temperatures are in the low 70s, the wind so soft that a butterfly twitters easily overhead. As I revel in the serenity and up-close glimpses of nature, I realize there's not another human in sight.
Except Christian Wagley, who is behind me in the kayak, talking as he paddles. He's an excellent narrator. He has a Masters degree in biology and coastal zone management and he's been exploring the waters of Northwest Florida, personally and professionally, for nearly 20 years. "There's no better way to enjoy the water than in a kayak," says Wagley, a fan of the low-impact vessel. "It never needs repairs because there's nothing to break."
We could have tried the Gulf of Mexico side of Pensacola Beach, but Wagley thought this route would be more enjoyable for a first-timer—and certainly healthier than eating greasy food and yelling at multiple television screens. On the Intracoastal Waterway, the trees on shore are closer and the vegetation more varied, and the smoother water leaves more time for gazing below the surface.Wagley is seeking spots on the bottom where bare sand meets sea grass. There's more diversity of sea life in the overlap, he says, likening the two zones to the increased animal activity in the area where a forest meets a meadow. Striped pinfish dart through sea grass below.
"Fish love sea grass. If you see a lot of sea grass, the bottom is healthy," he says. Sea beds secure the sediment, reduce erosion and provide food for marine life. Sea grass that washes up on shore also is an asset. It's a cafeteria for shore creatures. Like many communities, Pensacola's waterways lost untold acres of sea grass due to industrial and agricultural pollution and development that disturbed land and animals. Preservation efforts have slowly brought the grasses back, but it takes many years for sea grass to regenerate."You can bend the laws of nature, but you can't break them," Wagley says.
Numerous jellyfish slide along under the water. Wagley says there's been a worldwide rise in jellyfish, some of the oldest creatures in the sea. The Gulf Coast sees up to 10 different species of jellyfish, including the menacing Portuguese man o' war. The little guys swimming under our kayak are more graceful than scary.
We stop on shore to stretch our legs. Sure enough, bird tracks cross through the "rack lines" of sea weed, and nearby holes in the sand indicate ghost crabs, nocturnal creatures. Another nice sign: no litter. We see a few motorboats off in the distance and we encounter two other kayakers. But otherwise we see only nature. A large school of fish sends water rippling. A heron walks in shallow water and dips his beak after food. A mullet jumps in the air, flashing his silvery self at us before disappearing under water. Three pelicans bob quietly 200 yards away. And I realize that I can always record the football games, but I need to experience this nature first-hand, live, in-person.
Visit the Footprints in the Sand Eco Trail to learn more about the amazing natural habitats you can encounter on Pensacola Beach, above and below the water. You can also find the perfect place to launch a kayak.