Note: Hurricane Ian devastated Sanibel and Captiva Sept. 28, 2022. The island is not yet ready for visitors. The following story was written before the storm.
Sanibel Island 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, Sanibel Island kayaking can be 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:
Sanibel Island kayaking around Buck Key off Captiva
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.
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 Island 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 otters!) and had a great trip paddling on to the far northern shore.
Exploring Sanibel’s Blind Pass area and Wulfert’s Island
The only starting point for kayaking in this area is 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 $40-$50.)
(In the past, you could park at the Blind Pass lot and launch a kayak on the beach, but this lot is closed because of erosion.)
This launching point gives you the opportunity to paddle around several wild islands and pretty bays on the south side of the pass. This area is especially popular with fishermen.
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.
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:
Adventure Sea Wildlife Tours, located at Tween Waters Inn, 15951 Captiva Drive. 239-472-5161 ext. 3.
- Adventure Sea is well-located for kayaking around Buck Key
- To launch your own kayak at Tween Waters Inn, you have to buy a day pass for the resort.
Captiva Kayak Company, located at McCarthy’s Marina, 11401 Andy Rosse Lane, Captiva, 239-395-2925.
- The first environmental education tours on Captiva.
- 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.
- 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
- As of June 2022, this parking lot has been closed because of erosion.
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.
- There are a variety of guided kayak tours starting at $40 per adults; $35 per child.
Boat launch at Sanibel Boat Ramp, east side of the causeway.
- Parking is $5 an hour and the meters take credit cards.
Things to do in Sanibel Island:
- Tips on how to tour the island by bike.
- What makes Sanibel so special — and nine ways to experience it
- On your way to Sanibel: Six Mile Slough is a wild boardwalk minutes off I-75
More kayak outings in Southwest Florida:
- Lovers Key: Great beach, kayaking, manatees
- Mound Key Archaeological Park
- Imperial River kayak trail through old Bonita Springs
- The Great Calusa Blueway. Useful maps and a smart-phone app of the whole trail system are free.
- Everglades City: Kayak historic city and get a taste of 10,000 islands
- Collier-Seminole State Park: Kayak trail near Naples
- Kayak Gasparilla Sound for dolphins, white pelicans
- Oscar Scherer State Park
- Cayo Costa State Park
Notes from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning visits.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.