As a native Floridian, I have paddled through many miles of mangroves. Most of this has been through mangrove tunnels, pulling myself along by hand. Other than a lot of mangrove crabs and a bird now and then, I never really thought much about what else might be in there with me. Until my paddle with Key West Eco Tours.

We launched at Geiger Key. Paddling along the edge of the mangrove forest, I saw something green looking at me about head high and less than a few feet away. I took a quick photo for proof.

Tortuga Jack said “Oh, you didn’t know they could swim?”

Iguana in mangrove
My first sighting of an iguana perched in a mangrove

Okay, it’s the Florida Keys. Iguanas are everywhere.

Once we were away from shore, Jack talked about how the mangroves were nurseries for many different species of fish. The roots of the red mangrove provide shelter from the currents and predators. I asked him about a skinny little fish about a foot long with a very large eye. I had noticed several and hadn’t ever seen anything like them before.

Key West Ecotours mangrove tunnel
Paddling through another mangrove tunnel

“I bet you have!” said our seasoned guide. “Those are young barracudas.”

They look nothing like the large ones with lots of very sharp teeth that I remember from when I used to go diving.

Paddling Florida Keys
Paddling the shallows of the mangrove forest

As we paddled through the openings between the mangroves, Jack told us to watch for shadows moving through the water. Everyone in our little group had noticed them except me. “Those are nurse sharks,” he said.

Finally, I spotted a moving shadow. When I slowly approached it, it began swimming away quite quickly. I didn’t know how fast a nurse shark could swim, but I was going to find out. Paddling as quickly as I could, I followed its twist and turns until I was within a few feet. Okay, I’m close enough for a photo. But how am I going to take it while I’m paddling so hard?

Just then, the shark made a quick turnaround. I grabbed the camera and took a couple of shots as fast as I could. I wouldn’t know if I had caught it until after our paddle. Thank you little shark: with your help and some dumb luck, I got my picture.

Key West Ecotours shark
Success! A nurse shark up close

After paddling through more mangroves and some very shallow water, we came to another open space. Looking in the water I yelled “conch!” I had never seen one from a kayak before. I had spotted a King Conch, and only a few paddle strokes later, the others in our group had found a couple of Queen Conchs.

Tortuga Jack Key West Eco Tours
Tortuga Jack shows off a conch

It was a good morning on the water near Key West. I’d learned what young barracudas look like, chased down a shark, saw conchs in the clear water, and learned that iguanas could swim.

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