Picture of a paddler in a kayak off the coast of Big Pine Key, Florida

A kayaker explores the shallow waters off of Big Pine Key, Florida.

Photograph by Chris Livingston, The New York Times/Redux

By Maryellen Kennedy Duckett

Exploring an island by kayak expands your opportunities for wildlife viewing, nature photography, and outdoor adventure. Not limited by roads or hiking trails, you are free to meander through and around the island on water routes. And you're more likely to see birds, fish, turtles, alligators, otters, and other island critters.

Amelia Island Kayak Excursions, Fernandina Beach

Amelia Island's freshwater creeks, saltwater marshes, and surrounding waterways are ideal avenues to adventure for beginner paddlers. The Bullington family, owner-operators of Amelia Island Kayak Excursions, encourages first-time kayakers to join a guided tour to learn correct technique and see the island from a local's perspective. Says Mark Bullington: "On our Egan's Creek saltwater marsh tour, you can see the oldest existing lighthouse in Florida, skirt the moss-draped live oak boundary of Fort Clinch State Park, and view wading birds such as wood storks, roseate spoonbills, cormorants, and the occasional bald eagle." Since all of the Bullingtons' guides are Amelia Island residents, they're also helpful when making post-paddle plans. According to Bullington, the guides "are knowledgeable about the local environment and area history, but they also love sharing insider information about places to eat and shop."

Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, Big Pine Key

Since it's mainly open marine waters and thickly forested mangrove islands that make up the 200,000-acre Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, a private boat or kayak is the only way to travel to and around the vast expanse. And since much of the remote refuge is open to wind, any kayaking trip here requires strong paddling skills, plus proper gear and supplies for a backcountry adventure. For experienced kayakers, Blue Planet's private Wildlife Refuge Kayak Tour is a bucket list-worthy sojourn through the silent waters of the refuge, the only place in the world set aside to protect the great white heron and hundreds of other native and migratory birds. Whether you book a private tour with Blue Planet owner-operator and environmental scientist Chad Bryant or another kayaking outfitter, pack binoculars or a telephoto lens to get close-up wildlife views. "Do your best to avoid disturbing resting, feeding, or nesting birds," says Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges park ranger Kristie Killam. "If they fly off, you've gotten too close."

Fun Fact: The uplands portion of Great White Heron is on unpopulated islands in an area called the Backcountry, which stretches from north of Marathon (90 miles southwest of Miami) to north of Key West (130 miles southwest of Miami).

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