There are no otters on Otter Key, only birds: cormorants swoop too close to our kayaks. My bird-phobic daughter shrieks. The birds dive, emerge, skitter across the water, eyes beady and curious. We name one Kevin. Sleek, with a pattern that reminds me of scalloped leaded glass windows etched on his back, the comorant has an orange stripe around his beak. I want to pat him, but though he flirts with close approach, happy to have our paddles stir up fish below for a snack, he is still wild--he and his bird brothers, diving hungrily in the midst of our bright plastic fleet. Comorants can’t fly when their wings are wet, Ben, our guide, explains. They must perch and spread their wings to dry in the sun. Without the oil ducks possess to fly wet, if comorants try to fly too soon, they drop back, graceless, into the water. Today, they feint and dodge in the Sarasota sun, playful, reappearing, intent on hide and seek.
Looking down from the perch in the front of the boat, the sand seems patterned like shapes revealed in a kaleidoscope--stained glass sans bright hues: sand, olive, brown, tan, khaki, beige, taupe, tortoiseshell—a muted palate shimmering under lapping waves, grasses undulating, small fish swimming undistracted by our passage.
A boy, eleven, stands and rocks his kayak. His mother scolds. He scowls.
We approach another group of kayakers and paddle boarders. They confide in whispers that they have spotted manatees. We pause. Large dark spots shade the blue water. The mama surfaces, her snout ancient against the blue; her baby tucked under a dock, safe from errant paddles. Mama passes, majestic, towards her baby, shimmying under my daughter and husband’s kayak. They are stunned by her immensity; my son and I regret that our boat was not chosen.
We head into mangrove tunnels cut by the WPA but as primeval as any landscape I’ve imagined. Originally dug as ditches to assist in controlling mosquitos, now they are arched and magical paths, shady and mysterious. It’s as if we’ve passed into a jungle; this gorgeous, womb-like passage is quiet but for the flip of oars. A stalky crane crunches on a crab. The narrow path is hard to navigate. Roots feel suddenly malevolent, animated, determined to ensare us. We gaze down at the water, miss the bend. More roots emerge from brackish clarity. Limbs meet overhead, the sky faraway beyond the dappled canopy. Black crabs scuttle up branches. My daughter screams, thinking them spiders. Sharp oysters cluster on branches, deadly if grabbed in haste. Yellow sponges dot roots. We glide over a starfish (sea stars, our guide, Ben, calls them), an enormous horseshoe crab scuttling; several whelk egg husks, curled like a snake’s discarded skin; jellyfish-- upside down like cauliflower with blue tentacles. Grasses and sand. Sea anemones, too, but I don’t see any. Frustration on my son’s part—too much side coaching, too much skill required. He, who is steering from the back, despairs, angry. Finally, Ben, calm guide, tows us, his mellow cheer salving our shame. We bend our heads low under the arched limbs, then squint to the sky, tilting our own heads like our comorant companions from the open water.
We break free of the tunnels finally and paddle by ourselves again, in rhythm now, rested, restored. We know we are almost back to the starting point. My cheeks burn. I taste salt on my lip. It is hot in March. There’s an osprey, her nest perched high in a dead pine. I note how glad I am my son is mine; he does not try to stand up, does not try to paddle ahead or splash others like the other show-off boy ahead. He notes the wonders that we pass, asking questions about predators, curious in spite of himself. Smoothly, we land, disembark, stretch, satisfied with mild adventure, a small challenge met.