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Water quality in our area has been much in the news lately. Each day seems to bring new reports of aquatic woes in “water color,” with blue-green algae and red tide killing fish, sickening dogs and humans, and making it impossible to enjoy an outing along the coast, particularly in Lee County to our north.

Well, the waterways near Marco Island are unaffected, doing just fine, and open for business, said Glenn Livesey. He is the owner and operator of Paddle Marco, an outfitter and tour operator who runs kayak tours and rents kayaks and paddle boards on and around Marco.

“Although the algae and red tide is horrible up near Sanibel and Fort Myers, it’s basically nonexistent here on Marco Island, specifically in the mangroves where we kayak,” he said. To demonstrate the validity of his point, he offered to take a journalist along on a paddling tour.

Departing in the morning from the Isles of Capri Paddlecraft Park, at the intersection of Collier Boulevard and State Road 952, the excursion was Paddle Marco’s “Mangrove Tunnels Kayak Tour,” and it lived up to its name. Starting at the launch ramp in McIlvane Bay, after a few minutes of preflight briefing on the conditions and basic paddling instruction for the couple of first-time kayakers, the group headed out onto the open bay – but soon plunged into narrow, twisting trails through the mangroves leading to chains of smaller bays and still more tunnels.

With a dozen paddlers signing up to take the backwater trip on a July morning, and tours sold out for the rest of the week, said Livesey, one could see that not only is the state of the estuary healthy, so is the kayak tour business. Most of the clients were visitors to the area, staying at hotels or renting on the island.

Gary and Kris Bell of Bournemouth, England, are renting a home on Marco with their sons Luke, 17, and Toby, 14. The boys each paddled their own kayak, while Kris and Gary shared a tandem kayak. Kris said they were amazed by the news stories they had seen, with companies able to fill area waters with chemicals.

“It’s so unregulated here. In the UK, you couldn’t dump into the water like that,” she said. The family enjoyed the pristine waters of the mangrove estuary and didn’t complain about having to snake their way through narrow openings to reach the next bit of open water.

“Best thing is to lay the paddle down in the kayak, and kind of Tarzan your way through,” said guide Jake Pappas. “Just pull yourself through with your hands.” He stepped out of his own kayak in one secluded bay and reached down into the shallow water to pick up a clump of oysters.

The oysters, and the mangroves all around us that grow on the foundation the oysters provide, are the basis of the entire ecosystem, which in turn provides spawning grounds for the fish which populate the Gulf of Mexico, and feed the local bird population, he said.

Oysters, said Pappas, can individually filter gallons of water a day as they draw it through their membranes to feed, and in their untold billions keep the habitat for the entire ecosystem clean and healthy – as long as we don’t overload it with fertilizer, pesticides and motor fuel spillage.

Pappas managed to provide a considerable amount of environmental education, historical tidbits on the area, and a running stream of corny jokes, all while paddling backwards keeping ahead of his “pod” (the term for a group of mammals, such as porpoises, on the water).

The local estuary hasn’t been entirely free from red tide, he said. A couple of weeks ago, dead fish dotted McIlvane Bay, as well as the beach on Marco, but this area has largely been spared the worst of the outbreaks.

Pappas also put in a plug for area attractions, such as the Marco Island Historical Museum, and sang the praises of Crystal River for those determined to get a close-up underwater view of a manatee.

Another Paddle Marco staffer, Sertac Demirkol, from Turkey, paddled along with the group. Along with making sure everyone found the openings and stayed together, he shot photos of each kayaker, and the tour as a whole. The photos were posted by that afternoon on the company’s website, where the high-resolution images are offered to the customers at no extra charge.

“That’s just something we offer – people really like it, and I think it has a lot to do with why we are rated number one on Trip Advisor,” said Livesey.

For July in Southwest Florida, the morning was comfortable, with no insects whatsoever, a nice breeze when you weren’t deep in the mangroves, and a cloud cover of about SPF 8 keeping the sun’s rays from baking the kayakers.

If we did get warm, the guides told us, we could just dip our feet over the side of the kayak, and if we should happen to tip, the remedy was simple – just stand up.

More people undoubtedly did the “Jungle Cruise” at Disney World in one hour than will take the Paddle Marco mangrove tunnel tour all year, but which group got to see the real Florida? Hint: it’s not the ones wearing mouse ears.

For more information, to view kayaking photos, or to book a tour, go online to www.paddlemarco.com, or call 239-777-5423.

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