Paddling With the Dolphins of Choctawhatchee Bay

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Dolphin checking me out on the standup paddleboard

Dolphin checking me out on the standup paddleboard

One of my favorite things to do after a long day at work is to take the paddleboard out for a couple of hours and paddle around the bayou. On special days like today, I’ll sometimes find myself amongst a pod of dolphin on the hunt. The Choctawhatchee Bay dolphins can frequently be found in the early morning and evening hours scouring the bay and bayous for food. If you’re on a quiet craft like a kayak or paddleboard, they will often come in close to check you out.

Mother dolphin with calf.

Mother dolphin with calf.

On this particular outing I paddled out to the mouth of the bayou to find the pod already in feeding mode. It was a sizeable pod for this area, numbering close to a dozen or so dolphins including a mother and calf. I glided into a good viewing position and settled in to enjoy the show. The first thing I noticed is the the mother and calf paired off to feed a fair distance from the rest of the actively hunting pod. The remaining pod members then broke into groups of two and three.

 

A dolphin dives back under near my SUP

A dolphin dives back under near my SUP

I watched as the working pods would move out and back, out and back, but never straying too far from our location. Occasionally the pods would seem to circle briefly in place as they worked a school of fish. More than once a couple of the more curious dolphins would pop up next to the board as if to say ‘Hi’ and then it was back to business. One of the more notable maneuvers were three dolphins racing forward in formation and then diving with a loud splash.

A dolphin showing some tail

A dolphin showing some tail

 

Mother and calf were having a fun time as well. The calf appeared to be fairly young and mother had her flippers full with teaching it and making sure it stayed well away from my paddleboard. The calf seemed to be more focused on playing and I even watched him jump a couple of times. After about an hour spent with my aquatic friends and with the sun sinking lower on the horizon, I decided that it was time to leave my peaceful friends and paddle back home. They certainly put a big smile on my face and definitely took the stress out of my hectic day.

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Kayaking Adventure on Rocky Creek, Niceville FL

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Dolphin hunting near shore in Rocky Bayou

Dolphin hunting near shore in Rocky Bayou

With the recent heat indexes in Florida we’ve been keeping the adventures fairly close to home so that we can start early and be off of the water before the temperatures really start to broil. Yesterday, we decided to take a paddle up Rocky Creek on Rocky Bayou in Niceville, Fl. Rocky Creek is a great choice for more than just convenience, it also has history, nature and is technically challenging enough to give paddlers a good workout with its swift current and tight turns.

Kayakers traveling up Rocky Creek

Paddlers traveling up Rocky Creek

Despite our best planning, not all of our team members were able to rendezvous at Rocky Bayou State Park on time so we were a bit later than we would’ve liked with launching our vessels. These consisted of two standup paddleboards and two sit-on-top kayaks. After a quick check to make sure that we had our required range passes*, we took to the water and began the half-mile paddle across the bayou to the mouth of the creek. On the way there we managed to spot a couple of dolphins on the morning hunt for food. Rocky Bayou is a designated aquatic preserve and is a haven for aquatic life and a quick meal for a dolphin.

Swamp Lily

Swamp Lily

The tides were in our favor as we approached the mouth of the creek and we were able to glide right in. During low tide you often have to drag your kayak across the sandbar in order to gain access to the creek. Supposedly there is also a fairly large alligator that likes to hang out near the mouth of the creek, but we’ve never seen it. Still, in Florida you can never be too careful so keep an eye out for it.

 

Old plane wreckage in Rocky Creek

Old plane wreckage in Rocky Creek

As usual, the current gave us a bit of a workout as we paddled upstream. Our goal was a picnic spot about 2 miles up the creek that comes complete with a picnic bench built around two Cypress trees situated in the middle of the creek. It’s a great place to hang out after a tiresome upstream battle. Along the way we took a few moments to examine pieces of wreckage from an old airplane crash, presumably civilian, that still litter the creek. It’s a bit of a contrast to the display of colorful blooming aquatic plants that line the creek.

The NWFLOA team stops for lunch in Rocky Creek

The NWFLOA team stops for lunch in Rocky Creek

Perseverance rewarded us and we arrived at our lunch stop. We took time to eat and cool off before deciding to head back. Fortunately for the return trip it’s mainly steering on the quick trip back. Normally we’d also be treated to some wildlife sightings, but on this day the only wildlife we saw were a couple of osprey and dolphins at the beginning of our trip. The other wildlife were probably lying low to beat the heat and I can’t really blame them.

 

Bottleneck on Rocky Creek

Bottleneck on Rocky Creek

On our way out of the creek we encountered a bit of a traffic jam of boats pulled into the mouth of the creek at a picnic spot near the bayou. We threaded our way through and managed to paddle back to the take out and load up our gear before a determined rain shower moved in to try and cool things down. All-in-all it was a good trip and worth doing again.

 

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The Small Wonders of Basin Bayou, Freeport Fla

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Kayaks on Basin Bayou

Kayaks on Basin Bayou

Basin Bayou is a nearly pristine, yet somewhat overlooked area nestled on the north shore of Choctawhatchee Bay and located a short drive west of Freeport, Florida on Highway 20. The northern side of Basin Bayou is surrounded and protected by Eglin, AFB, leaving only a few homes to dot the southern shoreline. A narrow and shallow tidally-influenced inlet allows ingress/egress to the bay to only the most shallow-draft boats. For this reason, I chose this location to paddle on Memorial Day weekend.

Water Lilies on Basin Bayou

Water Lilies in Bloom

On this adventure I brought along a fairly new paddler because I wanted to introduce her to a scenic natural area while remaining relatively safe from speeding motorboats on a crowded holiday weekend. While a creek or river might also have sufficed, I wanted her to gain confidence in her paddling technique before dealing with obstacles like logs or dodging powerboats. Basin Bayou is perfect for this.

We started early since the forecast for the day was slated to get into the low 90s before the afternoon. We parked at the small lot adjacent to Nick’s Seafood Restaurant and launched our kayaks from the beach area behind the restaurant before heading into the narrow pass that leads to the bayou. Almost immediately we spotted waterlilies in bloom on either side of the passage. As we entered the bayou and left the handful of homes behind, we hugged the eastern shoreline and observed moss-draped live oaks, magnolias and a very vocal Osprey guarding a nest in the top of a tall dead pine tree.

Osprey on Basin Bayou

Osprey and Nest on Basin Bayou

Paddling onward, we stayed close to the shoreline and commented on the aquatic grasses gently reaching up from beneath the calm water. It wasn’t long, though, before we observed something completely out of the ordinary disrupting the water’s surface. At first we thought it might be small methane bubbles erupting from beneath the silt and vegetation, but we quickly ruled it out. Nor was it a bait ball. Finally, unable to stand not knowing, I paddled my kayak into the mass of black bubbles and started laughing with glee. It was a large biomass of huge tadpoles!

Tadpoles

Tadpoles

We encountered about 6 more of these large biomasses over the next hour. I even managed to take video of the event and have forwarded it on to Florida Fish and Wildlife for further analysis. After finally taking our leave of the tadpoles, we had reached the end of the bayou, although in truth it is only a mile from the put-in. At the rear of the bayou a small creek, Basin Creek, flows into the bayou. This area is off-limits unless you have a recreation pass obtainable from Eglin’s Natural Resources Branch located in Niceville, FL. Fortunately, we both had one so we decided to enter and explore the tannin-colored creek.

Basin Creek

Basin Creek, Eglin AFB

By now, the temperature should’ve been in the upper 80s but we were lucky enough to have partially overcast skies and a light sprinkle of rain. Upon entering the creek, we were also treated to what I refer to as “cold pockets” where the water and air temperature drop by several degrees. I suspect this is due to unseen underwater springs, which are not uncommon for Florida. The current was slow and easy, and the scenery was splendid as we paddled about a mile and quarter upstream to an access bridge on one of Eglin’s many range roads.

Kayaking Across Basin Bayou

Kayaking Across Basin Bayou

After a short snack break we let the current take us slowly downstream. On this pass we even got to observe a small alligator crossing the creek. We found the experience to be peaceful and relaxing. So many of our natural areas have succumbed to rampant development that it is truly a delight to experience an unspoiled area; to hear the frogs calling from within large clumps of ferns or to catch sight of a red-shouldered hawk. After a short time, the creek delivered us back to the Bay which now had a light chop on it from the winds picking up. We tracked across easily and before long we were back at the take-out area and thoroughly happy with the day’s outcome.

Although Basin Bayou is fairly small in size, it still makes for a great paddling destination. We recommend it and will definitely be taking the kayaks out on it again soon.

    

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Chassahowitzka River Kayaking Part Two

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Mother Manatee and calf on the Chassahowitzka River

Mother Manatee and calf on the Chassahowitzka River

Our adventure continues, read Part One here, with a mother manatee and calf right in front of the boat launch and docks. The fact that these two made it into the No Wake zone is a miracle in itself. So far, from our experiences on the river, we’ve witnessed all sorts of motor boats speeding through the shallow waters of the Chassahowitzka River on their way to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge and Gulf of Mexico beyond, including one boat that flipped a group of kayakers off as they sped by. Rude!

Manatee on the Chassahowitzka River

Manatee on the Chassahowitzka River

We spent a few minutes floating quietly alongside the manatee (known locally as “Rachel” for a distinct circular scar on her head) and her unnamed calf while taking pictures with my waterproof Olympus Tough TG-860. I’ve used a lot of different brands of waterproof cameras and the Olympus is my current favorite. I was able to get quite a few pictures of mother and calf and was simply astounded by the number of scars across both of their backs. I am all in favor of No Wake zones and greater protection for these gentle aquatic giants.

Catch and Release Channel catfish on Salt Creek

Catch and Release Channel catfish on Salt Creek

We slowly headed back downriver to try to find Potter’s Creek and spring, taking lots of time along the way to wet a line. At every turn we spotted Osprey, Kites, Egrets and Herons as well as large schools of Mullet and Snapper. Later, I hooked into a fish and was happily taken on a sleigh ride by what turned out to be a Channel catfish along Salt Creek. Other boats along the way seemed to be having good fortune as well, catching Redfish, Tarpon and Sheepshead. Not surprising considering this is a tidally influenced river bordering an estuary.

Yellow-bellied turtle on Salt Creek

Yellow-bellied turtle on Salt Creek

I split off from my teammate and headed deeper into Salt Creek thinking it must be Potter Creek. Despite the error, I enjoyed spotting Yellow-bellied turtles, Little Blue herons and a Wood duck with chicks. I found a promising spot on the creek and tried my hand at fishing for a little bit before deciding to rejoin my companions.

By the time I met back up with my friends, we’d been on the water for about 5 hours and decided to start heading back to camp, stopping once again at Snapper Hole to get rid of a bit of squid I’d been using for bait.

Speeding boat on the Chassahowitzka River

Speeding boat on the Chassahowitzka River

Along the way we were passed by more speeding boats and I remarked that in terms of sharing the river, this was the rudest bunch of boaters I had ever encountered. Normally, most boaters reduce their speed when encountering kayakers so as not to swamp their boats. Not here, so all we could do was keep to the side of the river opposite the boat channel and keep an ear out for their motors.

We slowly made our way back to the boat launch and the No Wake zone and were rewarded with more quality time with the two manatees we met earlier. After a few minutes, I paddled back up to the Seven Sisters Spring and the solution holes and took some more pictures, including one from inside a solution hole with the help of a young volunteer. I don’t know that I’d be brave enough to swim through the underwater holes connecting the solution holes myself, but perhaps I’ll attempt it on my next trip.

Manatee Rachel

Manatee Rachel

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Kayaking Adventure on the Chassahowitzka River in Homosassa, FL

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Tree canopy on the Chassahowitzka River

Tree canopy at Crab Creek Spring on the Chassahowitzka River

I recently spent a few days camping near and exploring the Chassahowitzka River (pronounced Chaz-wits-kuh), or Chaz as the locals call it, along Florida’s Nature Coast in Homosassa Springs. As a destination, this is an area that certainly lives up to the name of Nature Coast. For this trip, I also selected a time frame where manatees would most likely be in residence before warmer weather encouraged them to head back out to sea.

My friends and I had campsites at Chassahowitzka River Campground on W. Miss Maggie Dr, which conveniently also has the only public boat ramp on the river and is just a short walk from the campground, particularly handy if you’ve invested in wheels for your kayaks. If you have to park a vehicle and launch at the boat ramp, there is a fee or $7 for vehicles with trailers or $5 for vehicle only. Although there is quite a bit of parking available at this location, the area can fill up quickly and become congested on a nice day.

Kayak launching area.

Kayak launching area.

Our group rolled our kayaks down to the sandy beach launching area next to the main boat launch. This is a busy area, so take care to look out for motor boats coming in and out of the ramp area as well as fishing lines being attended to by those fishing from the docks. The Chassahowitzka River Store also rents canoes and kayaks in case you don’t have your own boat.

Solution holes at Seven Sisters Spring on the Chassahowitza River.

Fish in solution holes at Seven Sisters Spring on the Chassahowitza River.

Once our kayaks were launched, we paddled upstream a few dozen yards and made our way into the Seven Sisters Spring to a feature known as the Solution Holes. This natural formation is created by springs eroding their way through the limestone karst over time. They’re breathtakingly beautiful when the sun illuminates them like a sapphire. This location is a favorite with locals and on this trip we even observed a young girl swimming underwater between two joined holes over a distance of about 12′.

House at Crab Creek Spring.

Kayak and house at Crab Creek Spring.

We continued upstream for a short distance taking in the view of the houses and another campground before turning around and heading back downstream. We passed our launch point and veered right to explore Crab Creek Spring. This spring has a strong volume of water pumping from it, but it also has a lot of sand debris and underwater vegetation that makes it hard to see down into the spring. A large house sits on the bank nearby.

Spotted sunfish at Snapper Hole on Chassahowitzka River.

Spotted sunfish at Snapper Hole on Chassahowitzka River.

Venturing farther downstream and taking care not to get swamped by motorboat wakes, we came to a spring known as the Snapper Hole. This is a favorite of local fisherman, and we were not to be excluded. In our short stop here I managed to pull 3 Spotted sunfish out before unhooking and releasing them back to fight another day. My teammate caught and released two small bass.

Next we tackled the entrance to Baird Creek and paddled up to Blue Spring before pushing onward to The Crack. To find The Crack you have to get out of your kayak at the entrance to a small spring run and wade about 100′ to this unique spring fissure. In the fissure you can see fish and the limestone walls of the spring. On this trip a couple of campers had set up a tent on the banks of the spring, but that didn’t deter the newcomers from taking a dip in the spring.

The Crack on Baird Creek

The Crack on Baird Creek

After visiting The Crack we decided to paddle back to the campground for lunch and do some more fishing from the docks. Read part two for the conclusion of our Chassahowitzka River adventure.

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