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Kayaking Sanibel and Captiva: Buck Key kayak trail starts with a crossing Lloyd's Lagoon.
Kayaking Sanibel and Captiva: Buck Key kayak trail starts with crossing Lloyd’s Lagoon.

~Sanibel and Captiva are kayak paradise: Pine Island Sound Aquatic Preserve, which separates the islands from the mainland – is full of fish, dolphins, manatees, ospreys, pelicans, herons and even otters. There are mangrove islands, shallow sea grass beds where graceful wading birds feed and long stretches of shoreline still in a wild state.

If you rent kayaks from one of several outfitters on Sanibel or Captiva islands, as we did recently, you can have a beautiful day on the water with few hassles.

If you want to launch your own kayak, however, it’s not so simple. Sanibel and Captiva have limited waterfront parking facilities and the marinas and outfitters charge a lot to park and launch. Launch fees range from $7 at Tarpon Bay Explorers, the outfitters at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, to $35 at Castaways Marina or Tween Waters Inn. (See details below, along with several alternatives for launching.)

One of the more pleasant dilemmas is deciding what route to take when kayaking the waters of Captiva and Sanibel.

The bayside waters of Pine Island Sound have more wildlife and varied shorelines to explore than the beach-lined Gulf side of the islands.  The Great Calusa Blueway, a marked  190-mile long kayak trail, follows the Sanibel Causeway from the mainland, extends up the bayside of the island and continues north to Cayo Costa Island.

Some of the best kayak alternatives off Captiva and Sanibel wind through the mangroves islands that form its shoreline with Pine Island Sound.

Here are a few choices:

Kayaking around Buck Key off Captiva

Kayaking Captiva: Cormorants on Buck Key kayak trail.

On a sunny Columbus Day weekend, we rented kayaks from Adventure Sea Wildlife Tours at Tween Waters Inn on Captiva. It’s a good jumping off spot to paddle the kayak trail through Buck Key’s thick mangrove tunnels and then to circumnavigate Buck Key.

View of Pine Island Sound
View of Pine Island Sound

Buck Key, home to a few hardy pioneers in the 19th century, is now an uninhabited preserve about two miles long paralleling Captiva Island. The most popular kayak trip out of Tween Waters is to take the narrow kayak trail across Buck Key. The trail crosses a pristine lagoon and continues through deeply shaded mangrove tunnels to the other side of the island and Pine Island Sound.

From there, it’s a one-hour kayak trip if you loop north and return to Tween Waters.

We took the longer, southern route that circles Buck Key to Blind Pass and then follows the Roosevelt Canal between Captiva and Buck Key back to Tween Waters.  This route takes about three hours.

Kayakers who want a longer trip can continue south across Blind Pass and explore the mangrove islands there, including Wulfert Key.

The highlight of our trip was watching a dolphin feeding on a school of fish with explosive splashes in Pine Island Sound. The dolphin swam so close that when he surfaced the rush of air through his blowhole made a loud whooshing sound.

Osprey were constantly overhead and the trees were full of cormorants, anhinga and pelicans. A variety of heron, egrets and ibis waded in the shallows.

We had been told to watch for otters on Buck Key, but weren’t that lucky.

If you take this route and pack a picnic, as we did, be prepared to eat in your kayak or stand in shallow water next to it to stretch your legs  – there is no place to land.

Kayaking Tarpon Bay from  J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Probably the most popular kayak outing on Sanibel puts in at Ding Darling NWR. Either rent kayaks or pay to put in at Tarpon Bay Explorers.

Most kayakers take the two-hour Commodore Creek Trail, a well-marked route through the mangroves where visitors see a variety of birds and the occasional manatee.

There are many other possibilities: Dave of the Dave’s Yak Tales blog paddled Commodore Creek in 35 minutes (and saw otter!) and had a great trip paddling on to the far northern shore.

Exploring Blind Pass area and Wulfert’s Island

There are two ways to access this area, which is the waterway that separates the island of Sanibel from Captiva. There is a small public parking lot for the beach on Captiva on the north side of Blind Pass. If you are lucky enough to get a spot there (and you may have to wait) you can launch a kayak off the beach and then very cautiously paddle through Blind Pass. Be warned: There are strong currents in the pass; this is not for inexperienced kayakers.

Another option is to put in at Castaways, a resort and marina just south of Blind Pass. Castaways rents kayaks at reasonable rates. It also permits you to park and put in your kayak there – for a price. (Between kayak and launch fee, it will be $35. You might get a break on this off season.)

However you launch, you have the opportunity to paddle around several wild islands and pretty bays on the south side of the pass.

Paddling from the Sanibel Causeway area

You can paddle the Great Calusa Blueway Trail by starting from the lovely county park on the causeway itself or launching from the City of Sanibel boat ramp just east of the causeway. Starting from the base of the causeway, it would be two miles along the shore before you reached Tarpon Bay. Once in Tarpon Bay, you could paddle the mangrove islands of Ladyfinger Lake on the bay’s eastern edge.

Kayaking Sanibel: Mangrove tunnels on Buck Key open to Pine Island Sound


Kayak outfitters and launch options on Sanibel and Captiva

If you want a guided tour, you’re in luck. This is the main business of Sanibel’s kayak outfitters. Guides identify wildlife and help visitors appreciate the flora and fauna.

Here are a several outfitters with their prices for rentals, tours and launch fees. (These fees were accurate as of winter 2016.)

Adventure Sea Wildlife Tours, located at Tween Waters Inn, 15951 Captiva Drive. 239-472-5161 ext. 3.

  • Two-hours tours are $40 per adult/ $30 for kids. Tours are at 9 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Kayak rentals are $40 for two hours and $10 for additional hour for doubles; $25 for the two hours and $20 for addition hour for singles.
  • Adventure Sea is well-located for kayaking around Buck Key
  • To launch a kayak at Tween Waters Inn, you have to buy a day pass for $35.

Captiva Kayak Company, located at McCarthy’s Marina, 11401 Andy Rosse Lane, Captiva, 239-395-2925.

  • The first environmental education tours on Captiva, the two-hour kayak tours are $50 for adults; $45 for teens and $40 for children.
  • Kayak rentals are $25 for the first hour for singles; $30 for the first hour for doubles and $10 for each other thereafter. If you want to use the kayak for several hours, there’s a day rate of $75 for singles; $85 for doubles. You cannot take kayaks to the upper islands or into the passes.
  • Captiva Kayaks is also a good spot to start from to kayak Buck Key.
  • No personal kayaks can be launched from here.

Castaways Marina, 6460 Sanibel-Captiva Road, 239-472-1112.

  • Kayak rentals are $20 for singles for two hours with $10 for each additional hour; doubles are $30 for two hours and $15 for additional hours.
  • Castaways is a good place to put in to explore Wulfert Key and the Blind Pass bay areas.
  • To launch your own kayak, you must pay $15 for parking and a $20 launch fee. You may get a break in fees off-season.

Parking at Blind Pass parking lot

  • Parking is $2 an hour and the meters take credit cards. There are about two-dozen spaces so you often see people waiting for an opening.

Tarpon Bay Explorers, located inside Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge,  900 Tarpon Bay Road, Captiva, 239.472.8900.

  • Rental options include kayaks, canoes, stand up paddleboards and pontoon boats.
  • Guided kayak tours of about 90 minutes are $30 per adults; $20 per child.

Boat launch at Sanibel Boat Ramp, east side of the causeway.

  • Parking is $2 an hour and the meters take credit cards.

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