Paddleboarding among the lesser developed mangrove islands 10 miles north of Key West provided a sense of magic that was buried after having lived in the Florida Keys for 20 years. A two-hour adventure among pristine flora and crystal clear waters in a part of the Keys I had not explored before was a highlight of a recent family “staycation”.
After being picked up by a van service at a Key West hotel, I met two women from West Virginia, Chelsea, a medical student, and her friend Diana, who were going to be my partners during Key West EcoTours’ paddleboard excursion. A paddleboarding option departs Geiger Key daily at 11 a.m. as long as two people are pre-registered.
Geiger Key is named after the Key West wrecker, Captain John Huling Geiger, who was a prominent citizen hosting the likes of artist John James Audubon in the 1830s. On the way to Key West EcoTours’ tiki hut, our driver shared information related to Florida Keys history and nature, such as the construction of Henry Flagler’s railroad and the colorful Royal Poinciana which was in bloom. The Geiger tree with a similarly-colored bright orange flower also was in bloom.
Being deposited at Geiger Key Marina and Fish Camp with its palm-covered roof was a glimpse of old-style Keys. We quickly took care of paperwork and launched the paddleboards. We had to immediately cross a fast-flowing channel that gave the new paddlers a bit of a challenge. As I maneuvered my way across, I saw a ray on the ocean floor, and thought that was a good omen for the amount of wildlife we potentially could see.
After a successful crossing, we paused and our guide Jamie Gilrein, who had been a marine biology student at Florida Keys Community College, discussed the importance of the three different kinds of seagrasses. She then led us through an area protected from winds and tides and let us revel in the tranquil scenery and various shades of blue emanating from the sky and water.
Next came a mangrove tunnel, which provided welcome shade and in parts necessitated sitting on our boards to navigate under low-lying branches. In subsequent passages through mangroves, we saw sea stars, and Gilrein told us about the upside-down jellyfish or Cassiopeia that were plentiful. Varying in size and color (white, blue, green and brown), they can excrete stinging cells which can cause skin irritation.
Suddenly, Diana asked about snakes. She had seen a non-venomous mangrove salt marsh snake she described as mottled gray and about 18 inches long.
Spying a houseboat surrounded by buoys prompted Gilrein to launch into a tale about a Keys character who lived aboard the vessel and wore no clothing! We gave the resident wide berth!
After taking a break to drink water, we carried on paddling and soon were rewarded with a mangrove-lined deep swimming hole, with little current. Feeling like movie characters who avail themselves of an alluring private lagoon, we gladly disembarked our boards for a dip in the ocean. Around 84 degrees, the water was luxurious and just what we needed to further refresh our spirits.
Paddling back into open water, we navigated an expanse that approached waterfront homes. Quickly, the current found us and pushed us toward home base. Needing only to paddle for steering purposes, the amazing two-hour trip was coming to an end.
Key West EcoTours, owned by Carla and George Bellenger, has two locations; one in Key West on Williams Street and one next to Geiger Key Marina and Fish Camp, which features an oceanfront, outdoor restaurant serving cool libations, fresh seafood and hamburgers. Paddleboarders, kayakers or anglers can satiate thirst and hunger pains before hitting the road for home.