Many visitors to our city would probably expect to see nothing more than the beach, never feeling the need to take their eyes off of the sparkling Atlantic waters nor their feet out of the sand. However, the Ancient City is home to two bodies of water – the ocean, of course, but also the Matanzas River, our little piece of the Intracoastal Waterway. This estuary opens up wide the possibilities for local outdoor exploration. So with the blaze of the summer sun fading fast and the cabin fever that the heat always gives me threatening to bubble over, we followed the beach road down to Marineland. Our guide, Brandon Mellin of Ripple Effect Ecotours, was waiting waterside with some life jackets hanging from the trunk of a palm tree (Brandon having informed us that this was how life jackets grow in the wild). So we climbed in the tandem kayaks and awaited the start of our adventure.
Owner Chris Kelley started Ripple Effect Ecotours back in 2007 with the desire to spread environmental education, so the tours you take aren’t merely for exercise or a way to get outside. The highly-educated and trained guides are there to help you learn a little more about the ecosystem you’re exploring.
As the sun began to droop closer to the horizon and the blue skies of the day gave way to oranges and pinks, our kayak tour began as most do – with a few basic instructions, guidelines, and rules. So with our new kayak knowledge and fighting just a little against the current, our group headed south on the river and soon found out that Brandon’s education and experience weren’t what made him an exceptional guide. It was his enthusiasm, an infectious and palpable excitement for the landscape our boats were moving through. Between clever quips and jokes, he would offer facts and answer questions about the river’s residents – plants and trees, birds and fish. Brandon lets himself be moved by the ebb and flow of the environmental current, so no two tours are ever the same.
We reached a point not far down the river that the guides call “South 1” (“We aren’t super creative at naming stuff,” says Brandon) and turned west to head into the marshes. As our kayaks followed the water alongside oyster beds and in between high grasses and mangrove trees, the distant sounds of cars along the road and construction down the river faded. We docked briefly against a sandbar, and Brandon picked a snail up out of the water to tell us some fun facts (the snail actually turned out to be a small hermit crab, but he told us about snails anyway). As Brandon guided us through the winding marsh, he would call out interesting facts over his shoulder. “The reason the marsh smells at low tide,” he said, “is because the bacteria and microbes in the mud release gas as they break down the organic material. Which is the same thing the bacteria and microbes in our gut do!”
The sun was sinking quite low as we reached our sunset-watching destination. Brandon anchored us near some oyster beds, overlooking the Pellicer Flats. Oysters spitting all around us, we watched as the sky became brilliant shades of orange and purple, red and pink. If there’s one thing that Florida does right, it’s sunsets. “This isn’t even one of our better ones,” said Brandon. “Usually our sunsets on this tour are breathtaking.” Even though it seems we were cheated out of a truly spectacular sunset, this one was hard to take your eyes off of.
But we did eventually have to leave, so – current in our favor now – we made our way back to the starting point. As the quiet darkness of evening enveloped the tour and our kayaks hit the banks once again, Brandon left us with this thought (his own addendum to the famous Jacques Cousteau quote), “We do this tour to tell people about this environment they’re living in. Because people protect what they love. And people can only love what they know.”