"High tide, hiding behind islands, finding those deeper channels – that's the best way to paddle out there," says Captain Bill Keogh, owner of Big Pine Kayak Adventures, referencing the complexity of paddling the Rubik's Cube-like combination of tides, gusting winds, and nuance-laced shallows of the lower Florida Keys, his home waters for nearly 40 years. The rewards of heeding this advice are the bounty of a tropical marine wilderness accessible by roadside launch to any paddler in North America.
The islands of the Florida Keys stretch southwest off the Florida mainland, connected by a series of bridges courtesy of US Route 1. They are an archipelago of mangrove tidal creeks, vast sand flats, and coral reef, all full of aquatic life. Keogh is well versed in what the watery world of the Keys have to offer, he even wrote the book on it, The Florida Keys Paddling Guide, a volume that provides his intrigue as a natural historian, his work as a photographer, and experience as a kayak outfitter.
"The series, Backcountry Guides, their editors actually seek out people they think would be good to write a particular guidebook in an area, so they contacted me," says Keogh of how the endeavor of writing the regional guide, published in 2004, came to be. "I decided, you know what, if somebody is going to write a kayak book about the Florida Keys it might as well be me, because I've been doing this for a long time."
That time as a paddling outfitter in the Keys has led Keogh to bare witness to some of the most incredible natural phenomena found anywhere, including simultaneous sunset and moonrises, shark mating, and even the bombarding of his business and local community by the wailing winds and battering storm surge of Hurricane Irma in September of 2017.
Canoekayak.com spoke with Captain Bill Keogh of Big Pine Kayak Adventures to learn more about his outfit and the wild side of life on the skinny seas:
Canoekayak.com: How did you end up in the Keys?
Bill Keogh: Three cold, long winters in Maine at Unity College set my goals toward something tropical. I saw a little sign at the photo lab where I worked that said, "spend a winter in the Florida Keys at a marine science camp." So I applied for this photo internship at Seacamp. Got the job, never left the Keys. That was '81.
How did Big Pine Kayak Adventures get started?
I was on the water all the time teaching kids. We had a fleet of canoes, motor boats, and sailboats. I was also doing freelance photography, and working at the marine science camp as their staff photographer. So, I got into a lot of different assignments. One assignment was from the chamber of commerce. They said, "go out and get us some pictures of canoes or kayaks." So I went to Bahia Honda State Park, and there was a brand new kayak concession there and a bunch of these really brightly colored sit-on-top Ocean Kayaks and it made just a really cool series of shots. The concessionaire said, "well listen I want you to do some photos for me, but I don't have any money. Will you trade for a couple kayaks?" That's how I got my first two. Traded the concession guy. And that was it. Once I got two, about six weeks later I had a fleet of 12 and I was doing tours. That's how quick the transition occurred.
Could you tell readers how you put together your guidebook to the Keys?
My goal was to educate people. So the first thing I did was ask what am I going to do the framework on. One was natural history. I'm so good at that from doing slide shows for the public for many years. I would do these travelogue type slideshows through the ecosystems of the Keys. That was part of my job as staff photographer at Seacamp. So I was well versed, and I could knock that one right out of the park. That was easy. I wrote the natural history section in a matter of months. Then I researched all the routes, directions, all that other stuff. that took me another two years. It was an awful lot of typing.
Would you mind sharing with us what the past year has been like following Irma and where things are for Big Pine Kayak Adventures now?
We were at ground zero of a Category Four hurricane. It looked like a bulldozer had swept everything away. Buildings floated away, completely destroyed. Thousands of homes destroyed. A wall of water floated our old office over the road and down two canals. Kayaks were scattered, dented, and severely damaged. It took a while to get it all back together. We repaired and cleaned up enough boats for the Christmas holiday. We were open for tours within three months, December 15th.
Getting back on our feet meant I had to buy a bunch of new kayaks, so that's what we did. We have 100 kayaks now. Was 140 before the storm. On the water the visibility is just incredible. The sea grass is out. There are lots of fish. It doesn't look like the dead of winter on the islands. It did. But it's green and lush again. I biked out on the No Name Key Bridge the other day and looked around and watched the channel. The wildlife is just so rich.
People tend to look at the destruction of a hurricane, but these major events can also create some fascinating changes as well. Have you noticed anything out there?
The big waves of the storm undermined these coral islands. So there are these big chunks of broken mangrove islands scattered all over the place. They are just an oasis for fish life. We were out the other day near one of these chunks of mangrove, and hanging out there we could see what probably was a 250-pound, goliath grouper.
It just makes this awesome underwater habitat. So it has changed in a way that in some cases has enhanced the landscape.
What are some of the different types of tours visitors can enjoy with Big Pine Kayak Adventures?
Our staple daily tour is a three-hour, mangrove creek tour. Three miles at the most. We tool along looking at all the critters in the sponge flats, grass flats, mangrove creeks, and salt ponds of an island that's called No Name Key. They can also rent a kayak and go on their own and explore No Name Key.
Then we also have my mothership assisted day trip, where we put the kayaks in the motorboat then go 10 or 12 miles into those backcountry areas with sandy bottoms, and beautiful wide open vistas. Not too much boat traffic out there. Kind of the least traveled section of the Great White Heron, and Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge Areas. Pretty much have the place to ourselves out there.
Could you share with us some of the most memorable occurrences you've witnessed during your time in the Keys?
Two events come to mind. One is when we are out there when the nurse sharks are up on knee deep water, mating. We get these 10 to 12 foot nurse sharks, big females, that allow males to court them. Basically chase them down into shallow water. Then they get together. The male bites into the pectoral fin of the female. She lets him, and that's how they embrace. Then the back ends twist around one another and they start copulating and its just thrashing in the water and their just crazy. I used to do trips to try and target that particular event every year and try to go out and see it. That's as wild as it gets out there. I've been standing in the water photographing them. Had them actually brush by me. Actually touch me with their pectoral fins. One big female did that one time. She acknowledged I was there.
To go from one extreme to the other. we do a full moon fundraiser for the friends and volunteers of the wildlife refuges. We'll have 60 people out there watching this moonrise over the water with a sunset behind us. There's a lot of people, just all sitting there calmly enjoying the moonrise and sunset, and really just enjoying the beauty of it all.
What would you say is your favorite area to explore in the Keys?
The string of islands that are in the Great White Heron Refuge that border the Gulf of Mexico. They are the outer most islands. There are probably 20 of them. Starting with Upper Harbor Key, to the Content Keys, to the Sawyer Keys, the Barracudas, the Snipes. That whole stretch of backcountry there, that's the stuff. When you fly over it looks like the Bahamas. Big sandy plains. Shallow water. The Gulf is 30 feet deep washing in its tides right out of the Gulf of Mexico twice a day. You can fly over that and see shark, dolphin, barracuda, manatee. You can just see everything from up there. That's the most fascinating area. Always clear water and the scenery is just spectacular. Deep channels running through feeding all the sand plains. It has a palette of colors, from the green islands, to the blue water, and the white sands. Always enchanting. That's my favorite section.
Visit keyskayaktours.com or call (305) 872-7474 to learn more about paddling with Big Pine Kayak Adventures.