- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2006

CUDJOE KEY, Fla. — Gliding slowly over the glass-clear water, I approached a clump of dark shadows about 20 feet off my bow, where a stir on the surface caught my eye.

Stingrays? Maybe. But the Florida Keys also are known for nurse, blacktip and lemon sharks, barracuda and tarpon, even American crocodiles, among hundreds of other species. Thanks to the variety and visibility, kayaking in the Keys is like floating through an aquarium.

I quickly paddled my kayak toward the gray mass and saw nurse sharks, four of them, lying still on the sandy bottom. Big ones, too — nearly 5 feet long.

I was just a few feet above them on the shimmering surface, within touching distance, when suddenly they scattered, vanishing into a cloud of sand.

A few minutes later, in a mangrove-lined cove tucked into the center of Raccoon Key, I was greeted by a curious spotted eagle ray, which circled my boat until several 4-foot-long blacktip sharks swept into the pool for lunch.

No luck. The ray was quick to camouflage itself by burying its flat, winged body in the sand.

South Florida is a water lovers’ playground, from Everglades National Park with its abundant alligators south to the Florida Keys.

U.S. Route 1 runs from the top of the island chain, near Key Largo, about 100 miles south to Key West, slicing through a tiny spit of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. About 60 miles from Miami, the Keys provide a great, quick getaway from the buzz of the city.

The mostly two-lane highway is within view of water nearly the entire trip, offering numerous stop-off points for a dip, a quick snorkel, kayaking, fishing or just a lazy nap on the beach.

I drove to Cudjoe Key, about 20 miles from the end of the road in Key West, for a paddle to Raccoon Key, a great area for viewing nurse and blacktip sharks, which favor the warm, shallow waters hugging the shoreline. Over the next six hours, I saw eight sharks.

Putting in at the tip of Cudjoe Key, I paddled out past a U.S. government facility surrounded by thick mangroves and satellite dishes. From there, TV Marti, a Miami-based program that opposes Fidel Castro, is broadcast to Cuban airwaves.

It’s about a mile-long open-water paddle to Budd Keys, another two miles to tiny Hurricane Key and on across to my destination, Raccoon Key, an island once used as a breeding colony for rhesus monkeys.

Charles River Laboratories of Boston, the world’s largest provider of laboratory animals, managed the monkeys and the island for decades until the state ordered the animals removed in the late 1990s.

The monkeys were destroying the protected red mangroves and causing other problems in the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge. They “were beginning to escape and swim off the island,” Ranger Jim Bell says.

Even without the monkeys, wildlife abounds, from white herons to sharks to rays and schools of several-foot-long silvery barracuda and tarpons.

My heart skipped a beat when I first saw the sharks, even though the nurse variety, which can grow up to 14 feet long and weigh more than 300 pounds, generally is not aggressive toward humans. They’re nocturnal animals that typically rest on sandy bottoms or in caves or crevices in shallow waters and feed primarily on other fish.

Blacktip sharks, which can grow up to 8 feet long, are fast and more aggressive. They’re known to breach out of the water while feeding, swiftly attacking schools of fish from below.

According to the International Shark Attack File, blacktips are responsible for about 16 percent of attacks that occur in Florida waters, mostly on surfers.

“They’re aggressive if there’s fish in the water. You certainly can get bitten accidentally,” says Jim Colvocoresses, a researcher with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Lemon sharks, also common in the area, can grow up 12 feet long but are of “minimal threat to humans,” according to the International Shark Attack File.

The entire round trip to and around Raccoon Key is about 61/2 miles, including several fairly easy open-water stretches between islands.

Landing spots are scarce, given the mangrove thickets that cover the keys, but the water tends to be just several feet deep, so one can always wade to stretch the legs.

Be sure to wear foot protection, though, because rays bury themselves beneath the sand, and you can be stung if you accidentally step on one. They tend to move out of the way, however, if you shuffle or drag your feet in shallow water rather than taking steps.

If alligators are your thing, there’s no better place to paddle than in Everglades National Park. It’s the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles exist together. Keep your distance: Gators can run up to 30 mph on land.

During a previous paddle on a several-mile loop through Noble Hammock, I saw a half-dozen gators, sometimes uncomfortably close.

My heart raced as I paddled through a narrow several-foot-wide mangrove-covered canal. I had nearly finished the loop when I came face to face with a gator’s head bigger than a fireplace log, his bulbous eyes floating on the water’s murky surface.

I beat the boat with my paddle and slapped the water. Nothing. He just stared at me, then slowly floated toward me. I backpaddled. He kept coming. I swung the boat around, and in a feverish frenzy, paddled furiously back the way I had come. His head slowly sank beneath the water, and I watched a long, brown shadow glide beneath me.

I once got the same thrill paddling with crocodiles and hippos in Africa, but this place is a lot closer. Even with rampant development and hordes of tourists, one still can get truly lost in the wet wilds.

• • •

Florida Keys: www.fla-keys.com or 800/352-5397. The Everglades: www.nps.gov/ever or 305/242-7700.

For the Keys, head south from Florida City on Route 1 to Key West. For the Everglades, take State Road 9336 west from Florida City and follow signs to the park.

Fishing, kayaking, snorkeling, diving and other activities are available. For kayak rentals or guided trips near Cudjoe Key, visit www.oldwoodenbridge.com or call 305/872-2241; or www.keyskayaktours.com and 877/595-2925.

Winter and spring are the perfect seasons to visit the Florida Keys. Summers are hotter and more humid, with more mosquitoes. Check forecasts if planning a trip during peak hurricane season — Aug. 15 to Oct. 15. Water temperature ranges from the low 70s in winter to high 80s in summer. If there are a lot of tourists, it’s never too difficult to find seclusion, especially in a kayak.

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