TAMPA'S WILD AND WONDROUS WATERS
Some things are evocative of childhood. Remember combing the beach looking for pretty shells, sand dollars and tiny crabs while mewling seagulls wheeled overhead? That's what I'm doing today—trolling the shallows off on a little island in Tampa Bay, in the company of a group of eco-tourists led by James, a volunteer marine-life expert from the Florida Aquarium. And just like kids on school field trip, we crowd James' elbow, peering at minuscule fish, thread-like black worms, and translucent shiny crustaceans with bulging eyes. James identifies each one as they crawl across his hands.
As we clamber back on the boat, a light heat haze lies over the Bay, but the waters, a pale aquamarine, are clear and so shallow that I feel almost as though I'm looking through a pane of glass at the ocean floor. Manta rays, like swift dark clouds, glide just under the surface, and stingrays, blending in with the colour of the sand below, lie in wait for their prey. As we throttle up to full speed, the wind, tangy with salt-spray, whips against my face and I hang onto my hat.
We slow down to look at a group of pelicans, dignified as an assembly of university professors. Further along, snowy egrets pick their way daintily along mud-flat beaches, pecking fastidiously at their breakfast of algae, and off to one side, a shoal of porpoises, leap and frolic in the sun-speckled waters. Weedon Island is a 1,000-acre bird sanctuary, and as we head into one of its mangrove-fringed lagoons, thick sea-grasses, brush against the keel. James cuts the motor, jumps off the bow and wades through knee-deep water, dragging the boat behind him. "Take a look there," he says pointing. I raise my binoculars, and zoom in on a family of roseate spoonbills, their feathers bright pink against the foliage. On the opposite bank, a white ibis poses obligingly for my camera, and as I shade my eyes against the sun, a blue heron soars splendidly into flight above the tree line.
Back on land, a shout from James draws the group to the edge of the dock. He is holding up a crab—a beautiful creature, with blue claws and an orangy-brown and blue speckled shell. "Bad-tempered little critters," he says. "You wouldn't want them to take a nip at your fingers...they can do serious damage. Pity we can't have it for lunch. Blue crab is delicious!" He chucks it regretfully back into the water, and the crab beats a hasty retreat.
Which is what I am inclined to do the following morning.
What was I thinking of when I agreed to a canoeing trip down the alligator infested Hillsborough River? I don't swim, and the thought of a frail canoe being the only thing between me and the jaws of a snapping 'gaitor, makes me quail. But it's too late to chicken out now.
Joe Faulk, owner of Canoe Escape Inc., helps me don a life-jacket, and assures me that in all his many years of operation he hasn't had a fatality yet.
As it turns out, it is a tranquil glide through a bottle-green world of swamp cypress forests, with trailing fronds of flowering creepers and marsh grasses, fringing the water's edge. A speckled black and white limpkin settles to feed at the water's edge. "Lucky shot," says Joe as I lower my camera. "They are an endangered species, and rarely seen around here."
He manoeuvres the canoe past half-submerged driftwood, some of them serving as sun decks for families of black turtles. While it is too early in the day for mom and pop alligators to be out in their backyards, their progeny—small and cute (yes cute!) green 'gaitors—lie torpid as logs, twinned by their reflections in the clear water.
The river, sinuous and smooth, smells of wet bark and marsh mud, and we skim past several large bass swimming just below the surface of the water. Normally the colour of tea (stained by tannic acid leached from rotting swamp vegetation) the Hillsborough river through this stretch, is so shallow that even a midget—let alone someone of my generous proportions—would have a hard time drowning in it.
I leave Tampa Bay reluctantly. It has been an all-too short visit—and an all-too fleeting glimpse into the wonders of Tampa's wetlands, its waters, and the creatures that call it home.
IF YOU GO:
Best Time of Year:
Between September and March. During the summer months of April to August, temperatures in Tampa Bay soar to uncomfortable levels. They also experience tropical downpours and spectacular thunderstorms. One restaurant I dropped into called "Thunder Bay" had nothing to do with the Canadian city, but was descriptive of Tampa's tempestuous summer weather when the great god Thor hurls spears of lightning across the Bay. I suggested they change the name of the restaurant to "Bay-side Thor-o-Fare"!
Canoe Escape is located 12 miles from downtown Tampa. Their website at http://www.canoeescape.com provides information on how to get there, details of wildlife viewing along the Hillsborough river, canoe rental rates and timings.
PHOTOS: By Margaret Deefholts (unless otherwise noted)
1. A thread-worm crawls on James' palm.
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