Pine Island Sound
Enjoy A 'Slice of Life' on Pine Island and come along for the ride!
A True Story By Jay Lepore
NOTE: Clicking on any picture in this article will get you a bigger picture!
Itís 9:00 am. Iím sitting on a bench at the docks of the Tropic Star. Tropic Star is one of the Nature Boats in the area that for a fee, take people out to view the natural beauty and considerable wildlife of Pine Island Sounds outer islands first hand. Some of these islands are well known such as the State Park island of Cayo Costa and the boaters local favorite restaurant, bar and Inn located on Cabbage Key island. There are perhaps hundreds of smaller mangrove encrusted islands as well.
I am here today preparing for a kayaking trip of a slightly different color. I want to see the effects of RED TIDE for myself up close and personal. Red Tide is a large expanse of microorganisms that when concentrated in sufficient quantities cause the water to appear a rust color that can cover up to many miles of water and kill (and presumably cripple) many marine organism in the process.
Most mornings I can be found having coffee with a group of guys at Captín Cons restaurant between 8:00 and 9:00am. Captín Cons is at the north tip off Pine Island on a smaller island called Bokeelia. In addition to solving global crisisí we tell jokes, talk about women, politics and of course fishing. Lately some of the fisherman that join me have been speaking of dead fish lining the shores of Cayo Costa including some large sharks. They said it was the result of Red Tide. After about a month of hearing about it I decided I would like to take a look for myself. Iíd have gone earlier but Iím without a boat right now so most of my fishing has been limited to wading the shores of Pine Island. Pine Island itself hasnít experienced the effects of this Red Tide as of yet so hearing about it is as close as Iíve come.
I thought the photographs of these dead sharks and fish would make interesting photography for the web site and a good environmental article as well.
I have packed the least amount of supplies I can get by with for a day on the water in a kayak. My mission today is to shoot wildlife (with a camera) and scenery all around Cayo Costa, Cabbage Key and Pine Island Sound. They'll be a lot of paddling involved since that probably covers around twenty miles of water.
Capt'n Mike at the helm
Captain Mike has been a resident of Pine Island for about five years and is well schooled on the subjects that interest most nature tour customers including the history of the area and it's wildlife. Along for the boat ride are many tourists, some students from Gainsville, Florida and some folks from outside the U.S. and of course us. We're the only one packing a kayak. The others are planning to camp out overnight at the State Park campsite on Cayo Costa.
Well, we've arrived at Cayo Costa. Captain Mike has just finished helping the other campers and us off-load our gear and kayak onto the State Park docks. At this point I placed the kayak in the water at the shoreline and began packing it with our days supplies.
Campers off-loading at the park
My list included:
As we slide the kayak off the beach and back into the water I am struck by how well we blend in with the whole scene. Unlike a noisy motor we only make a visual intrusion to the birds daily routine. The Gulls, Terns and Sandpipers are slow to take flight at our presence. We are at the north end of Cayo Costa traveling southward. At a distance of about forty feet away from the beach we slice the water silently as we travel with the tide. Often we stop paddling and just coast along with the tide. It is a sunny day with large white cottony clouds superimposed upon a bright blue sky. The tempature is a comfortable eighty degrees or so and there is just a slight breeze to keep things fresh. It is in fact a perfect day. We watch the waves lightly lap against the shoreline while the birds chase the waves in and out picking up the tiny hapless morsels contained within. My thoughts shift to how thankful I am to be a part of this scene today, how lucky I am to have the wisdom to appreciate these things. I also think about people who spend their entire lives in the city and have no real idea about this beauty.
Shore bird eating Mullet
There are many shorebirds eating the dead fish. Primarily Gulls and Sandpipers with the gulls dominating the scene. Even the aggressive large Gulls quickly give way though, when black Turkey Vultures with five-foot wingspans swoop down to join in the feast.
Turkey Vulture staking his claim
This pattern repeated itself often as we paddled down the east bank of Cayo Costa. One of my first observations was that the Red Tide was not without it's benefactors. The birds were having a field day with all these dead fish and I could see Raccoon tracks as well. I suspected that there were also many things under the water level benefiting in the same way as for every one fish there was on the shoreline surely there must be ten or more like it on the bottom of this waterway. In fact we can see many such carcasses lying at various states of buoyancy all over the place. Oddly enough though we don't see a single dying fish. These are all older kills.
We're fishing as we paddle but so far haven't received a single bite after an hour or more of paddling and fishing. The fishing is usually quite good all around the island and I feel clearly the fish that did live in the area had moved on because of the red tide.
We're at about the middle of Cayo Costa's east shore now and we're beginning to notice the first signs of a watercolor change. It's a rusty color instead of the red color we expected. We can see in the distance that the color is even rustier and we paddle on towards it. We're leaning over over the side of the kayak now and looking very closely into the water to see if I could see the organisms responsible for this.
We obsere a cloudiness that seems to be made up of long stringy sinewy lines of rusty colored dust particles suspended in the water. There's no smell that we can detect other than the scent of the dead fish. As we paddle onward the Red Tide get's so thick that it even seemed to coat the surface of the water. In the distance we can see what appears to be a fish that breaks the surface every few minutes. I figured it was a Snook busting some baitfish at the surface. As we paddle closer to it we are seeing our first dead Stingrays showing up on the surface. Every one was badly decomposed.
Stingray seen later in the day exhibiting red tide behavior. Notice it's blood red outer edge. This one was swimming half-hazardly from deeper to shallow water.
As we approach the splashing fish activity we can see it is a Sea Trout laying flat on its side. Every now and then it would come to life and splash around a little. It is the first finfish we'd seen that wasn't a Mullet. By now we'd seen a thousand Mullet and no other type of dead fish. It was also the first fresh kill we'd seen today. Up ahead we see another floundering fish and then another. The dying fish are few and far between. Their dying behavior seems to be much the same way. A disorienting vertical circular swim that had them occasionally popping their head out of the water. Their eyes have a blank stare and they have the appearance off not being able to see or control what they are doing. Eventually they stay at the surface lying horizontal and dying.
I know of an elderly lady that lives alone on Cayo Costa. My fiance' and I have visited this woman once before a year ago on Easter Day. She had the key to a rental house on Cayo Costa we wanted to look at. We did not know her but hearing of her age and how she lived we brought along some flowers to brighten her day. On this day though, I thought perhaps she would allow me to do a story on her. She's eighty-five years old and lives alone on the island. Her husband died some yearís back and she's elected to stay on. She's donated the home and land she lives on to the State and in return has been given a lifetime leasehold. Let's take a moment to visit with her.
As we paddle down the small canal that leads to her home we can see the Red Tide effects are at their very worst. The water in this stagnant area is extremely rusty and the smell of dead fish is overwhelming. The water has the appearance of being soupy because of all the Red Tide and dead fish present. I've heard that red tide causes irritation in the eyes and nose but I have not experienced any such sensation and we're as close to this stuff as you can get. Perhaps it is only at the beginning stages of the bloom that people are effected or perhaps it only effects certain people.
Our kayak has come to rest at the end of the canal where it comes to a dead-end. The embankment was lined with dead fish. A mixture of Mullet and Catfish for the most part. These were the first Catfish we'd seen caught up in it. We are now faced with the tricky task of getting ourselves out of the kayak and onto the shore without stepping on squishy decaying fish with our bare feet. We've positioned the kayak parallel to the shoreline and just a few feet away. I'll stick the paddle into the muck by the shore and use it to steady myself and you do the same on your side.
Leaning against the paddles handle I lift myself out of the kayak and get an awkward one foot in the water just off the shore while the other is still in the kayak. As I remove my other foot from the kayak I do a semi pole vault using the paddle to try and avoid the smelly decaying fish carcasses. Unfortunately I am not completely successful and step off balance onto the squishy tail of one of the carcasses and watch the loose smelly skin ooze between my toes. I hate it when that happens. There were just too many to avoid. I'm now pulling the front of the kayak onto solid ground so you don't have to go through a similar fate. After all, you are a guest.
After pulling the kayak up and onto dry land I find a small area of unpolluted shoreline and shake my foot around in that water to rinse the gray matter from between my toes. Let's put our sandals on and head up that wooded path over there to the interior of the island and the ladyís home.
One of many wooded paths through the interior of Cayo Costa
We have arrived and she comes out to the door to greet us. She does not remember me on this day but it is not because of her age only because so much time has passed. I think she's a little suspicious about this camera around my neck. I introduced the two of us and told her we were with Pineisland.Net. I explained that I thought her story was a very interesting and inspiring one and would like to include her on our CayoCosta.Com website. She did not have a clue what the Internet was. This was the first person I had ever met that hadn't even heard of the word Internet. I explained to her in as layperson terms as possible the idea of computers all around the planet being connected. Each one to the other and by cables that run under the oceans to different countries. She was impressed with how big it must be but still had a puzzling look on her face. I asked her if she was familiar with computers. She said she had heard about them many years ago when she worked on Sanibel Island but didnít really know anything about them. I think weíd better just shut up about all this technology stuff at this point. As far as sheís concerned weíre nothing but writers and she was a story. I guess in truth we are just that to her. She thanked us for our interest in her but she said would have no part of it. She went on to tell us a story of a magazine writer who did a story on her and printed something very different from the story he said he was going to run. She said she can no longer completely trusts the press. In her eyes, we are part of the press. In any case she says she also values her privacy. I promised not to print her name or her exact whereabouts on the island. I suspected that her personal safety was an issue and she didnít want everyone knowing where she lives. I asked her if that was the case and she said no, that wasnít it. In fact she said all the people that have ever visited her have been very nice. She then told us another story of the generator that she used for power that had recently broke down. She goes on to tell us of woman she had never met that happened by for a visit one day. After learning of the generator failure this woman arranged to provide a new fifteen hundred dollar generator at no charge and with no notice. She is clearly emotionally moved as she tells us this story. She spoke honestly with me about her finances and made no excuses. She didnít have much and didnít need much. What she needed was with her. She had her cabin, her cat and the beach. I suggested that I might be able to secure donations through the web site to make life a bit more pleasant. She was totally against anything openly charitable and would have absolutely nothing to do with that. I thought she was going to see us off at that point. I had to work to regain my credibility after that blunder. After about a fifteen-minute conversation at her doorstep we thanked her for her time. She responded by telling me I was a very endearing person and she enjoyed the talk. We smiled and waved goodbye as we walked back to the kayak. She and I would thank anyone reading this to please not try and locate her. Her story is here so you may gain from it your own personal insights and perspective.
Back in the kayak and after quite a bit more paddling we are nearing the south end of Cayo Costa. If youíll look up in the distance you can see another flock of White Pelicans. The closer we get the quieter we get. Our paddles just skim the surface as we get within range for picture taking. We then quietly place the paddles across our waists and I reach for the dry box strapped under the bungee cords. I remove the camera and take our first shot. We continue to move closer while I take better shots at each close range opportunity. The birds are starting to get a little antsy. Theyíre waddling off their sandy bar and into the water.
White Pelican leaving Oyster Bar
Rather than scare them off letís do a little back paddling and leave them be. Weíve got our pictures. They sure are beautiful birds.
The Red Tide doesnít appear to be present here. The water is clearer, much like when we started but there were still many dead fish under the water. Look, thereís another Trout floundering on the surface in the distance. Up above, see that Osprey hovering overhead ready to dive on a fish. Normally youíd see Osprey everywhere. Today we only began to see Osprey as the Red Tide seemed to disappear. Ospreys evidently are not scavengers as there were none on the beaches. I suspect they are effected by the Red Tide and know to stay clear of it.
Well my virtual friend itís about 3:00 PM and if we expect to get home by night-fall we better point the kayak northeastward and start heading back. It's been an interesting trip. I had planned to stop at Cabbage Key for a bite to eat but I donít think weíre going to have time to make that stop now.
I'm guessing weíre still about fifteen miles from home and many hours of paddling. Letís have one of those bananas. We peel back a few bananas and wash it down with a guzzle of water from the water bottle. I hope you donít mind my lips touching the bottle. Itís a man thing.
Well, the waterís cleared up completely. Look, you can see to the bottom in eight to ten feet of water where previously we couldn't see the bottom in two feet of water. The lush green undergrowth that usually holds Trout is visible everywhere. If you donít mind, why donít you paddle a little bit while I cast around the boat.
Well, Iíve been casting for about ten minutes and havenít gotten a nibble. So much for that.
We continue to paddle and cast around the many smaller islands, through many miles of clear beautiful water with no luck. We pass by the island of Cabbage Key and Useppa on our way home.
See those hundreds of birds hovering over that island in far off distance. That islandís well known for harboring thousands of nesting birds. Evidently theyíve been coming here for years and prefer to nest in the same areas there parents raised them. Thatís my take on it anyway. I guess there must also be a good supply of food in this area as well. Letís go take a closer look but not too close as to disturb the nesting birds off their roosts.
Frigate Birds in flight around a mangrove island
As you can see the island does not look any different than the hundreds of other small MANGROVE islands in the area. Though there are many varieties of birds here, it is overwhelmingly dominated by Pelicans, Cormorants and Frigate Birds. Isnít it a beautiful sight to see so many large birds just sitting in the trees. If you zero in on some of the activity youíll see some of these paired up Pelicans are clearly emotionally attached to each other. The ones with the white heads are adults. You can also notice the strip of dark brown feathers that lay along the white neck of the adults. This seems to be a much thicker strip on the males.
See those male Pelicans fighting over there. Thereís two males and one female. The female is just standing daintily by while the males try to intimidate each other into leaving. One is perched a little higher than the other so has a clear advantage. The higher male all of a sudden spreads his wings far out to the side and pushes his head forward to show his large bill sac. Evidently he wants to appear as large as possible to intimidate his rival.
Male Pelican adopting agressive posture towards unseen rival (female in foreground) Note the thicker brown strip on the back of the males neck
When that doesnít work he gets physical and begins swinging his bill from side to side hitting the bill of his rival. He always seems to just hit the others bill though. I guess thatís good defense. His rival does not fight back but does not leave either. With his opponent temporarily subdued he begins making unusual displays. Iím not sure if itís to woo the female, a victory dance or if heís trying to further intimidate his rival. The lead male begins to swing his head 180 degrees which ends up with his head looking behind him. Then he swings it the other way 360 degrees till heís looking behind him on the other side. He does this three or four times in a row.
Male Pelican swinging head to very back and then alternating sides
Then he holds his wings far out to the sides and flaps them up and down along with his tail.
Off to our left is an adult Pelican bringing in nesting materials to the island from who knows where.
Adult Pelican bringing in nesting materials
The sounds of the birds totally dominate the scene with there many different calls. Letís just kick back for about ten minutes and soak up the scene before we continue on home.
READER NOTE: We are purposely not giving you the name of this island because we donít want too many people making the birds feel unstable about their nesting site. We hope you understand.
If you ever find this unnamed island, please do not get close enough to cause the birds to take flight. Keep your distance and keep them comfortable so theyíll continue to nest successfully and without tension.
If you ever find this unnamed island, please do not get close enough to cause the birds to take flight. Keep your distance and keep them comfortable so theyíll continue to nest successfully and without tension.
See that rough looking, brownish colored, tree barren island up ahead. Thatís an Oyster Bar. Oyster Bars start with just a single oyster. Then one attaches itself to it and then another and then another. They start having babies and their babies have babies and so on. As they glue themselves to each other they end up actually being exposed above the surface of the water during high tides. Letís go check it out. Weíll have to stay in the kayak though cause I heard itís against the law to stand on the oyster bars in Pine Island Sound.
Oyster Bar being used by White Pelicans for a resting/feeding area
As we kayak up to within a few feet of the bars exposed oysters you can see how the many hundreds of thousands of oysters are clustered up together. It must take may years to form a large oyster bar. You can also see little mud crabs and lotís of other sea life that have made their homes in the many nooks and crannies of the oysters. These oysters have in fact created a unique marine habitat.
Oyster Bars are usually good Redfishing grounds. The Redfish dig around looking for the little purple crabs that feed in the cracks and crevices of the oyster bars. Often times you can see their famous tails (famous if youíre a red-fisherman) protruding from the water as they nose down looking for crabs and other marine food. After about fifteen minutes of casting in and around the oyster bars we had seen nothing and turned up not even a single strike.
Cormorants drying their wings
Unfortunately, my theory didn't hold true. After about ten minutes of casting in and around the pile-ons we came up empty once again. Oh well, I'll just blame our lack of fish on the red tide today. Letís paddle on.
Well, weíve been paddling at a snails pace for a half-hour or more. Look! Right in front of the boat thereís a pod of dolphins. Thatís awesome.
Bottlenose Dolphin swimming around our boat
Theyíre swimming in and around the area of our kayak. Evidently we stumbled on their feeding spot. Letís take a few casts and see if we can catch what theyíre catching.
After a few short casts I got confirmation that there were in fact fish in the area when I boated a small Trout of about ten inches. Hallelujah I finally caught a fish! Throw your line in and see if you can catch anything.
We fished for about another fifteen minutes and I caught one more small Trout before moving on. It seems to be no coincidence that thereís no sign of red tide and weíre finally catching fish.
Letís take a few more casts here before moving on. Iím going to put on a popping cork and a rubber fish/jig combination and pop it as I retrieve it. I easily cast my line about 200 yards (not) off to the left and begin reeling it in slowly while popping the cork periodically. The idea is to attract attention to the lure. I was quickly rewarded with a nice trout of about fifteen inches.
15" Spotted Sea Trout brought alongside
Over the next twenty minutes I caught and released a total of eight nice Trout in about 20 minutes time. Iím sorry but you canít catch anything physical. Youíre a virtual companion so you canít catch fish.
I didnít catch any lunkers but they were respectable sized trout just the same.
Smaller Sea Trout and some of our supplies
We didnít bring along a stringer so I release them all. As we continue to fish the sun begins to head for the horizon. Catching those fish was a perfect ending to a perfect day on the water.
The sun is going to be going down soon. We have a decision to make my virtual friend. Do we paddle our butts off for the last five miles or, do we sit tight to watch this incredible sunset and paddle home in the dark?
A perfect ending to a perfect day
As I watched the last remaining slice of the sun dip below the horizon I smiled a smug smile as we turned the kayak to head home. Even though the sun was gone there was still plenty of dusk light. As we paddled across Burgeous bay I eyeballed a good Redfish hole on the east end that I knew of. Do you mind if we take a few casts for some Redfish over there before we head home? You observe the settling darkness and hesitantly agree. I assure you in my persuasive way that it will only take a few minutes.
I broke out a D.O.A. Shrimp lure and casted to the six-inch deep water that I knew Reds fed around on an outgoing tide. I had gotten one good hit but no Redfish after about fifteen minutes. As day turned into night, like clockwork the Egrets and Ibis began flying in to their roosts in the surrounding mangrove trees. The sounds of night arrived soon afterward in the form of an incredible chorus of crickets and the likes coming out of the mangrove trees. It was as hypnotic as it was beautiful. The water, which early this morning was as calm as glass was now once again like a mirror for as far as we could see. Mullet could now be seen breaking the mirror-like calm all around as they jump out of the water for reasons still unknown to me. The sounds of the Night Herons were the next appearance in this Pine Island symphony. The Baby Blue Herons arriving late now began their zigzag landing patterns as they flew into their roosts. As the blackness of night set in we sat there still hypnotized by it all. Then as if by a hypnotists hand, the trance was broken by the sounds and bites of what seemed like a zillion mosquitoes coming to a buffet.
Do you hear that? Sounds like a boat coming around that corner. Sure enough, itís one of those island ferry boats taking people to the out islands. They wonít be able to see us in these kayaks with no lights on. We better pull off to the side near the mangroves. We pulled away from the main stream and along side of some mangroves. As we wait in the mangroves for the boat and its waves to pass we heard a huge splash right beside the kayak. Without skipping a beat we both dug the paddles in and paddled as fast as we could looking back only long enough to notice that our one gallon bottle of water had fallen off the kayak. As we laughed at ourselves we paddled back and picked it up.
After about another half-hour of paddling fast through the blackness I could see the Jug Creek Marina and our final destination at the docks of the Tropic Star. Soon after we were at the waters edge of the Tropic Star canal. I struggled a little to extricate myself from my tight fitting kayak while keeping from tipping into the water at the same time. Finally, out of the kayak we pulled it up the embankment to Tropic Stars place. It was about 8:30pm and the place was closed. We put the kayak over by the others. I donít know about you but I canít tell you how good it is to be back on dry land again. We are after all a land animal and if I ever needed proof this was it. It was good to be back on dry land and going to a warm dry home. Hereís where we go our separate ways. I hope you enjoyed the trip. I packed my car and drove home.
Red Tide is uncommon and you will likely not have to contend with it. However, for current Red Tide conditions in Southwest Florida including Pine Island visit Marinelab
It doesn't get any better than this!