Living

Miami meets nature in Eco Adventure tours that bike, hike, kayak and snorkel

Tour guide: Jenny Erickson, right, Crandon Park’s interpretive program leader, demonstrates the proper way to paddle a kayak at Crandon Park beach in Key Biscayne.
Tour guide: Jenny Erickson, right, Crandon Park’s interpretive program leader, demonstrates the proper way to paddle a kayak at Crandon Park beach in Key Biscayne. For the Miami Herald

A dozen people kayak to a sandbar off Key Biscayne’s Bear Cut Preserve on a recent Sunday morning. The textured surroundings and old mangrove reef look like Mars and paradise rolled into one.

The group, on a Sea Kayak Adventure organized by Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces, sees and learns about the colorful fish, the hermit crabs, the porcupine-like urchins and the other types creatures that live and feed along the mangrove roots.

The kayak tour is one of the parks department’s year-round Eco Adventures program, a series of guided tours where participants of all ages can learn about South Florida’s natural habitats and ecological landmarks.

“There’s so much happening off shore,” said John McBride, who paddled on the two-hour kayak tour with his wife and two young sons. “When you’re sitting on the beach, or in your car or on a boat, you don’t realize what’s below the surface.”

After a few minutes of paddling, the seaweedy first 20 yards of water off Crandon Park’s shores yielded to light turquoise and then crystal-clear water. Foot-long, brick-color Bahamian sea stars were visible among swaying strands of seagrass.

The guide-to-participant ratio is about one to six on most Eco Adventures, which include biking and hiking tours in the Everglades, Redland and Key Biscayne; snorkeling and kayaking in Key Biscayne and Matheson Hammock; canoeing in Coral Gables; and the Fossil Reef Snorkel Adventure around Bear Cut Preserve, located on the northern tip of Key Biscayne.

“This fossilized reef is one of only two in the world,” said 23-year-old guide Tim Hunter to the kayak tour’s participants. “The only other one is in Okinawa, Japan.”

He explained that a hurricane in the late 1920s uncovered the sand that had blanketed the Miami reef. The Geological Society of America estimates the reef to be between 1,000 and 2,000 years old, based on radiocarbon dating.

Some of the biggest threats to the reef are poachers, lack of enforcement, people who walk on it and dock their boats near it — tearing up seagrass and damaging the reef — and absence of signs in the water to inform people of what it is. Even though it’s prohibited to commercially sell or harvest conch shells, Bahamian sea stars and other marine life from the preserve, Hunter said poachers and collectors still do it.

The Key Biscayne tour groups meet at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center in Crandon Park, named for the Miami activist who helped protect the Everglades from being dredged for agricultural and commercial gain.

“They should advertise it more,” kayaker Claudia Rodriguez, of Miami, said about the Eco Adventures program.

She found out about it through a relative and thought more locals should take advantage of the tours that are popular with summer camps and corporate groups.

“We’re so lucky to live here,” Rodriguez said. “It’s in our own backyard!”

During the school year, Biscayne Nature Center hosts a variety of field trips for $14 a student, including Fossil Reef Tidal Pool, where guides and students explore the reef and look for sea creatures during low tide. A Sea Turtle Awareness Program offers presentation and outreach centered on conservation, as well as sea turtle releases on the beach.

Kayaks and stand-up paddle boards are available to rent by the hour on Crandon Beach for those not looking to join a tour.

“Through Eco Adventures, we’re able to offer an opportunity to get people outside to experience a variety of diverse programs,” said Jenny Erickson, Crandon Park’s interpretive program leader. “The idea is to have them enjoy and learn about our natural areas.

“Bear Cut is special because it’s full of native plants and has an intact mangrove ecosystem. It’s a great outdoor classroom of what a natural Florida coastline should look like.”

Contact Miami journalist Caitlin Granfield at granfieldc11@yahoo.com.

If you go

What: Miami-Dade Eco Adventures.

Where: Various locations; miamiecoadventures.com or 305-365-3018.

When: Every weekend.

Price: $30-$60.

FYI: Closed-toe shoes required for all water activities.

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