Kayak in Tampa Bay

By Jessica Vander Velde


As our kayak glides into the dark water of the Hillsborough River, I notice how low the boat sits. Kayaks, as opposed to canoes, make it feel as if you are right on the water. My legs are the same height as the lily pads and the turtles resting on logs. Our paddles dip into the water, left then right. My husband provides the power from the front of our tandem kayak, and I steer from the back.

When it comes to kayaking in Tampa Bay, options abound. There are the glass-like waters of the bay, which are lined intermittently by soft sand and dense tangles of tropical mangroves. Mangroves are unlike any other ecosystem, shrubby forests where saltwater meets freshwater and colorful fish and birds thrive.

Tampa Bay also has lots of lakes, and the crystal clear waters of freshwater springs bubble up nearby. But for this warm February day, we chose an eco-tour of Hillsborough River, which winds its way through Tampa. As we paddle on, the hum of cars grows faint, and a chorus of unusual bird calls makes me feel as if I’ve been transported to prehistoric times.

Where we are, near the boardwalk of Lettuce Lake Park, the river is wide. Tall cypress trees line the shore. They are lanky trees with wide bases that anchor them into the river’s swampy shores. Cypress trees have “knees,” too, which are pointy protrusions of the tree that form above the roots. They poke up out of the water, providing perches for herons. A group of American white ibis—a small, white bird with a long, curved orange beak—pecks for snails in the brush. Overhead, a brilliantly pink roseate spoonbill perches on a tree.

The current is calm today, so we switch between energetic strokes and sitting still, relaxing in the sun and taking in an expansive view only possible by boat. I don’t see any alligators, but I assume they are nearby, resting in the sun. Gators hunt at dawn and dusk, so I know these cold-blooded creatures will be sleepy midday.

We glide toward the edge of the river and spot one, about four-feet long, stretched out on a log, indifferent to our curious gazes. Its eyes don’t seem to blink. Though protective mother alligators can be aggressive, I’ve learned that if you don’t bother the gators, they won’t bother you.

A week earlier, we walked along the Lettuce Lake Park’s boardwalk and spotted tiny yellow orchids in the water between the cypress trees. We also saw a brown hare and heard the hoots of an owl. The park rents kayaks for $25. Nearby, Canoe Escape offers a drop-off and pick-up service, which eliminates the need for paddling upstream.

As we return to the boathouse, we spot a brown hawk above us. From the shore, a landlubbing photographer aims his lens at the bird. With a slow-moving current, our return is easy, though we may have lingered just a bit too long. Next time, I’ll remember the sunscreen!

Find more great ways to explore the outdoors on your Tampa Bay vacation.