Thursday, April 8, 2010

Paddle Log #12: Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

On Friday of Spring Break, the boys and I got up at the crack of dawn and headed to the Florida space coast to go kayaking.

It was the first time I had seen the sunrise in seven days.
(Since the last time I went to work the previous Friday.)

Before we went to Florida, I googled kayak rentals and guided tours for Florida and came up with several listings. It's hard to tell if one is better than another, so I started searching other websites like BBB and Yelp for reviews.

I found that this group, A Day Away Kayak Tours, had one positive review on Yelp (not a lot of data, but it's better than nothing), a good rating on BBB, and a good website. I called them once for information and another time to reserve the trip, and both times I was very pleased with how friendly and informative it was speaking with them on the phone.

Their website is well laid out and very informative. I really like how they have basic stats for each trip they offer: length of time, comfort level, difficulty level, recommended gear to bring, etc. The photos of kids on the trip help reinforce that it's doable with small children, too.

My boys (8 and 6 years old) and I went on the Merritt Island Tour / Manatee Tour. Note there are two listings for those tours on their website, but it's the same tour. They just call it the Manatee Tour in the spring and summer when the Manatees are around, but both tours go to the same place in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

I seriously considered taking our kayak with us to Florida. I decided against it because:
  • As a general rule, I don't want to go kayaking alone (just me and the boys) in a new place with which I am not familiar, so we planned to pay for a guided tour anyway.
  • ADAKT said they had a couple of nice kayaks that would fit all three of us.
  • It would've saved us a few bucks to have our own kayak instead of using theirs, but I think we would have made up for that in gas mileage from having the kayak on top of the car for the drive down.
  • Since ADAKT had the kayaks that would fit the three of us, it was a lot less hassle this way. We just showed up and they already had the kayaks on the beach ready for us to hop in and go. Likewise, when we got back, it was easy for us to hop in the car and leave without having to load-up the kayak on our car.
Thumbs-up / Kudos to the ADAKT staff for their advice with regard to directions. They specifically warned me DO NOT FOLLOW YOUR GPS DIRECTIONS, follow the directions they send you in your reservation confirmation email. They were absolutely right. My GPS wanted me to go all sorts of bass-ackwards directions that would've taken me FAR FAR away from where I wanted to be. The directions they provide are simple and easy to follow and get you directly there.

The tour was scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m., and they recommended leaving at least an hour and a half early from Orlando to beat the traffic. Just to be safe, we left our resort near Sea World in Orlando at 7:30 a.m. We got to Titusville way early, but that's okay. I had just thrown the boys in the car in their PJs, so we stopped at McDs in Titusville to change into swim trunks and swim shirts and get some coffee. We also stopped at the Walgreens to burn some time, then got in the car to head on over.

We WOULD have been right on time...

Except there's a draw bridge...

And it was OPEN...

So we had to wait...

And we were a little late.

Even so, the tour guides weren't overly annoyed with us.

When we arrived, the kayaks were all on the beach ready to hop-in and go, and tour guide Elisabeth was giving some basic paddling instruction to the group. She didn't wait for us because she knew we owned our own kayak and this wasn't our first time paddling.

We rode in a nice RTM kayak with two hard plastic seats and a jumpseat-cushion for my youngest son in the middle. Back when we were shopping for our own kayak, I shied away from the kayaks with plastic seats like that thinking they would be hard and uncomfortable. On the contrary, they were very comfortable and we didn't have any problems in the two hours or so of paddling we did.

We had a great time. The boys loved it. We saw several dolphins, one alligator, lots of pelicans and other birds, and Florida striped tulip conch snails.


It's a challenge to get a good photo of the dolphins because they pop up and go back down again so quickly, so you can't really zoom in and capture them in time. Even so, we thought it was really cool seeing so many dolphins so close by.

There were about 12 kayaks or so in our group, most with 2 people in the kayak except for ours with 3 and the three tour guides riding solo. The lead tour guide, Elisabeth, rode at the front. Tour guide Travis rode at the back making sure we didn't leave anyone behind. Tour guide Kristi rode in the middle and was very helpful in pointing things out to my boys.

We paddled in around a boat basin looking for manatees, but we didn't find any. Our tour guide said it had been an unusually cold winter and it was still early in the season for seeing manatees.

We DID see the eyes and snout of one gator close to shore. Our tour guide said there was nothing to worry about, the gator wouldn't come near us and the only time we would encounter an aggressive gator was during nesting season.

(Pregnant pause)

One of our fellow paddlers who also had never been in the same body of water in close proximity to a live alligator asked, "So when's nesting season?"

Our tour guide thought for a moment and answered, "Oh... right about now actually."

Cue Finding Nemo sound bite of Bruce the Shark:

[back-paddle, back-paddle, back-paddle]

No, in all seriousness, I felt completely safe. We did see the gator move a little, so we knew it was alive, but it didn't move toward us at all. I didn't get a very good photo of it, but I wasn't planning on going any closer for a photo.

We paddled underneath that draw bridge that delayed our arrival and out to the end of the canal. Then we got out to stretch our legs and walk around a bit.

YB shuffling his feet to scare away stingrays.

This is becoming a tradition of sorts for our family vacations, except my wife stayed back at the resort to relax, so we're missing her feet in this picture. In case you didn't know, Crocs are great for kayaking. I'm still loving my Keen Newport sandals.

Wait, what's that?

Closer up underwater shot

We saw several of these Florida banded tulip conchs.

It's a type of sea snail. If you pick one of these little shells up, something similar to a cow-tongue comes out of the shell and with the strength of an Arnold Schwarzenegger bicep pushes itself out of your fingers so it falls back in the water. It looked about twice as large as the shell itself and I was amazed how strong it was. It doesn't take long to figure out just how to hold them so the snail can't reach you to push out of your fingers though.

YB didn't want to hold it.

Neither did ES.
(I love his facial expression here.)

I was very pleased with our experience with A Day Away Kayak Tours, and I would recommend them to friends. The boys both said they had a good time, too and even agreed to having their photo taken with me by the ADAKT sign.

Some stats for the paddle log:
  • Date: 2 April 2010
  • Time In: 10:00 a.m. (approx)
  • Time Out: 12:00 p.m. (approx)
  • Elapsed: 2 hours
  • Mileage: 3.0 miles by Buckeye Outdoors route planner
  • Sea State: 0
  • Winds: 0
  • Air Temp: ~85F
  • Water Temp: Bathtub
  • Current: None
  • Kit: RTM rental kayak and simple rental paddle. Flop hat & sunglasses. Forgot gloves. Forgot to put sun screen on arms. Short sleeve swim shirt, swim trunks, Keen Newport water sandals.
  • Configuration: I sat in the back seat, ES in the front, YB in the middle.
  • Route: See Garmin Connect. I forgot to push "start" when we got in the water, but our entry point is the same place as where we got out at the "stop" icon.
  • Other comments (such as wildlife spotted): Several dolphins, one alligator, lots of pelicans and other birds, Florida banded tulip conchs.


On our way back, we stopped at Dixie Crossroads in Titusville for lunch. That place is awesome!

2 Dozen Rock Shrimp & Corn Fritters covered in powdered sugar

I don't want to make this blog post any longer, but if you've got a moment, I recommend reading my Yelp review of Dixie Crossroads. It could be a blog post in and of itself. (I uploaded several photos there, too.)


Tanya said...

Awesome post. Loved, loved, loved that photo of ES...his expression: priceless. My son does the same face...with veggies. I bet it was different to see a dolphin from a kayak than how you're used to seeing them! What great family memories!

Tabor said...

Nice vacation. I think you have one of the species of Florida whelks. I also shuffle for stingrays. I wish I could convince my husband to rent a canoe instead of carrying ours on top. But frequently he is required to canoe within a certain area and he likes to go anywhere he wants!

Hilary said...

Oh that expression is such a classic. What a face. Sure looks like a great vacation. :)