Posted by: floridanature | September 10, 2008

Cedar Key: Scuttling with the Mermaids

I’d been skirting the edges of Florida’s “Big Bend” for years, figuring the backwater villages scattered along the geographic armpit of the Panhandle were more than retro enough for my taste. Then I discovered there was a whole new world that existed, one more natural and wild than I ever imagined.

This world is given over to scores of offshore islands protected inside several water-slogged wildlife refuges, a liquid place decidedly apart from anything safe and known. I was hoping they would open a door to a rare and hidden place, maybe even reveal a secret or two, always a good thing.

It’s fitting naturalist John Muir ended his “1000 mile walk to the Gulf” here. Alighting somewhere near the Cedar Keys in 1867, Muir described the “many gems of palmy islets called keys.” Following Muir’s lead, I travel right to the center of the Bend, where many of the keys are now linked by a causeway leading to the modern “Cedar Key”.

At the Mermaid Landing Cottages, all blue and lime green and funk, lots of whimsical mermaid stuff scattered everywhere, I find a sign for “kayak rentals.” My lucky day.

Muir, some say, was whoop-headed from malaria when he got here, and thought he saw a mermaid’s tail nearby; he wrote excitedly of the vision, with “glistening green scales and the flash of golden hair”. I had seen a vision like that late one night in the bar of the nearby Island Hotel, on a stool next to the mural of Neptune. But, well, you know how such visions are going to end up.

I walk into what I think is the kayak office and finding no one there, wander through what turns out to be someone’s house, beyond an empty wine bottle, and a kitty litter box. Outside, I find an affable fellow who is happy to rent me a single for the day. I pack away my jugs of water and snacks and climb into the little boat to get a first-hand look at Muir’s “gems of palmy islets”. The outfitter is bearded, lean, lined from the sun, a bit Muir-esque. I want to ask about the mermaid thing, but I let it go.

My plan is to paddle out into the Gulf and explore as many of the islands I can within the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. Although the refuge surrounds some of the bridged islands and mainland, I am far more intrigued by the 13 cays that are off the grid out in the Gulf—wild patches of sand, mangrove and palms ranging in size from one to 165 acres.

The mermaid wrangler advises me to avoid returning on low tide when the ebb will drain nearly all the water from the launch site, leaving me stranded on the mud flats until the next tidal change. He also suggests I “keep an eye on the sky”. It didn’t take me long to figure he wanted me to pay close attention to the chance for thunderheads, which in the warmer months could quickly rise up from the great billowing cumulus and turn the otherwise placid Gulf into a frothing, wave-rolling E-ticket ride.

An easy 45 minute paddle takes me around the south edge of the island, winding in and out of mangrove-rimmed creeks, past shabby docks where working clam boats are berthed, and beyond at least two half-sunken wrecks. As I emerge from the labyrinth of water and mud flats, the Gulf of Mexico stretches out before me like a great endless sea, luminous and inviting. To my left is the flat Dog Island, and barely a mile ahead, the heavily forested key known as Atsena Otie, the original “Cedar Key.”

I pause at the edge the flats, swig down some water, and then point my bow into a steadily-growing ridge of waves and head for Atsensa. The horizon, under a hot Florida summer sun, quivers and then dissolves entirely, making the other offshore islands—Seahorse, Grassy, Snake, Deadman’s—seem to levitate over the flat green waters.

Overhead, a magnificent frigate soars like an ancient ptreodayctl; brown pelicans dive for fish, and near the shore of Atsena Otie, a yellow crowned night heron patrols the sliver of feral beach.

Birds don’t exist in an ecological vacuum and their presence here means the local waters are still healthy enough to keep them happy. As in reaffirmation of this, a small pod of bottlenose dolphin arch through the water just in front of me, chasing fish. Approaching Atsena Otie, I pass several fishermen who are busy working the shore from the decks of their small boats, drawn here for the same reason as the dolphins. Into the middle of the key I go, following a tight creek that opens into a shallow lagoon.

Once inside, I seem to be in a singular place that exists apart from the rest of time. Giant schools of redfish, tailing over the shoals, scatter in a frenzy of copper colored fins when they hear me. Mullet jump for joy, sunlight reflecting off their silver scales like a disco ball from the seventies. I pull over to a thicket of black mangrove bushes; like the tropical frigates overhead, these stunted wetland trees represent the northernmost limit of their range.

As the tide begins to fall, oysters spit, slamming their shells shut as their whole world ebbs away. The scent of salt and sea and sun-warmed mangroves is palatable. At the top of the tree line, an osprey returns to its giant twig nest with a fish in her talons. I paddle back out, following a sliver of water that turns into a deeper cut, and then spills out at the windward shore of Atsena, steady waves rolling here. As I emerge, a six-foot shark cruises nearby, its dorsal sluicing the surface. I smile, figuring there was a reason the local high school athletic team is called the “Cedar Key Sharks.”

I head north towards Seahorse, passing the low-lying Grassy and the more predominate Snake Key. Seahorse, named for its shape, has been the home to a lighthouse since 1851. As I draw closer, I see the island rises dramatically up from its beach. Seahorse is an ancient sand dune, peaking at 52 feet above sea level. Ashore, I walk up the steep hill to where a squat lighthouse of wood and tin sits, old cistern intact. It looks to be no more than 20 or so feet high, but with the natural lift of the terrain, it would have been visible enough to guide ships through local waters until, finally, its utility was no longer needed.

Walking back, I duck off on a narrow path under the canopied forest of live oak, sabal palm and red bay. Down here, in an understory of wild olive, prickly pear, and saw palmetto, there’s a small cemetery with graves dating to the late 1800’s from island settlers.. The islet was also used as a detention camp for Indians during the Second Seminole War, and I wonder how many unmarked native graves—dating to the earliest paleo-Indians—-might also be here.

On the trail back from the cemetery, I hear a raucous sound coming from the tree tops, and looking up, see scores of juvenile brown pelicans—feathers sprouting like thin weeds from their heads—still on their nest. It’s close back in here, salt marsh mosquitoes bearing down like in the Glades.

Back out in the Gulf, the wind has calmed and the surface has turned into a large, still mirror. The water has cleared so I can look through it, can see the islands I pass are rimmed by halos of shallow seagrass. It’s these flats—teeming with a platter of sea life—that have underpinned the natural wealth of these offshore refuges.

The giant ball of a sun touches the Gulf waters, backliting a low bank of cumulus with its burnt umber glow. I turn from the time-stuck glory of these offshore keys and, with some regret, paddle towards the civilization of roads and bridges and cars, back to the present tense. The tide is so low that beds of oyster shells scrap my hull, scattering schools of baitfish which explode from the water in great splashes. On an exposed white sandbar, fiddler crabs scuttle, forever trying to strum a miniature song from the salty air with their tiny claws.

Certainly, there is music out here on these isolated Gulf keys. I think of it less as a fiddler’s tune than the hallowness of sacred natural hymn. Mermaids or not.



  1. I just found your blog! i have a vacation rental business in Tybee Island GA called mermaid cottages and i’m always looking for other places like mine! Do you have the website for mermaid landing cottages? thank you for sharing! I do a mermaid sightings on my blog, so i’ll look forward to seeing the mermaids you found there!

  2. Great post. Cedar Key is one of my favorite destinations in Florida. When I lived in Gainesville it was just 50 miles to the west. I’ve paddled around many of the keys you’ve described in this post. The city definitely has a small town feel to it.

    You mentioned John Muir in this post. Its funny to me that I first gained an interest in Muir by visiting Cedar Key a few years back. I remember a state park museum that sold a few of his books as paperbacks. I purchased “A 1000 Mile Walk to the Gulf” and I was instantly hooked on his writings. I’ve been out west to many of the areas he explored in his California days. Do you know of any other John Muir writings related to Florida besides the before mentioned?

  3. Glad you enjoyed the post. Cedar Key and all its islands are a lot more complex than it first appears and that’s part of the fun for me ! On Muir: I’ve struggled to find other cites of his visits here, with little success.

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