Sitting out 4 miles off the coast of Islamorada sits the beautiful white Alligator Reef lighthouse. Most people go by boat to get to this beautiful place. This blog is about our journey paddling to the reef. This is not an easy paddle by any means but, it is one that you will say “wow that was worth it”
Our day began at daybreak. We loaded everything we needed for this adventure. We usually “try” to get everything together the night before to save time.
Our packing checklist was composed of the following: pfd, leash, floating dive flag, vhf handheld radio, anchor, lots of hydration (water, etc), snack, phone, camera, reef safe sunscreen, hat, paddles, boards, snorkel, fins and mask.
It seems like a lot but all are necessary if you ever do decide to do this paddle. You can’t just roll out of bed and decide that day I’m going to alligator reef. This paddle takes planning. It also requires a certain level of skill. I would consider this an intermediate to advance paddle. Weather is the most important component when wanting to make this paddle. You want to wait for a nice calm day. I always use a wind forecaster and cross reference with NOAA’s marine forecast. If the reports are not matching I do not go. Safety comes first on this one.
Once we got loaded we made our way to Indian Key fill. It is located just south of Buds and Mary in Islamorada, Florida. There is plenty of parking for you and all of your friends because, this is not a paddle you want to do solo. Be careful when placing boards in water there is an old metal rod right where you launch and if you step on it you may cut your foot. I don’t know about you but I don’t want a tetanus shot.
From there you will make your way through the flats depending on the tide you may have to step very far forward on your board to get the fin out or even step off. The ground is very soft so, don’t be scared if your foot goes straight through into the sand. This is a great place to spot nurse sharks, tarpon, horse shoe crabs, rays and other flats marine life. On this day we did not see much since, the water was super skinny.
Once you pass the flats you will be on your way to the white lighthouse on the horizon. On the day we went it was glassy calm. There was a slight roll to the ocean but, it so calm and clear. Before I leave the flat I always look back and check my landmarks. From Indian Key Fill there is a large telephone tower and a beautiful house with a bright blue roof. The tower is in direct line with the lighthouse and can be seen for your track back.
One of my favorite parts of this trip is the journey there. This is usually when I run into some pretty neat wild life. On this day we ran into a beautiful turtle. He was so big and beautiful. I also got to catch up a lot with my friends. This was a leisure paddle so from time to time we would jump into the water to cool off. That summer heat can really get to you. About 1.5 hours later we got to the white tower in the sky surrounded by crystal clear aqua blue water. If you have ever been in the Bahamas, the waters off the reef makes you feel like you are in a tropical paradise. It makes you feel that way because you are. Once you are close enough you will want to set up. Since, we were all on non-motorized crafts we got as close as we could. Remember to give yourself some room between yourself and the light house. Sometimes people will climb the platform and jump off from there so, you want to maintain some distance. We set our anchor in a sandy area under a rock. A small grapnel anchor works best in these situations. Never ever anchor directly on a reef. Always look for a sandy area.
When you jump in the water you will see a plethora of fans, white sand and thousands of fish. Ranging from snappers, barracudas, nurse sharks and more. The clarity of the water really allows you to enjoy the sea life that surrounds you. The bright beautiful color will jump out at you as you float across the reef. All of this beauty is in less than 6 feet of water and 4 miles offshore. It is completely amazing. This reef is truly stunning. You wouldn’t think to find such shallow crystal clear water so far offshore.
Remember to pace yourself because you will have a 4 mile paddle back. For me this is probably the worst part of the trip. First because the trip is coming to an end and second because I just paddled 4 miles and snorkeled for a good hour. Once we are on our way back I get my bearings and begin heading to the telephone tower.
The trip typically takes up a good portion of the day but, it is totally worth it. I usually wait till the summer when the seas are typically calmer. There are a couple of issues with summer. You have the heat to deal with so make sure to take plenty of water. The second is afternoon thunderstorms. It is best to launch early morning to try to avoid those. You are 4 miles offshore with no where to hide. If we never reached beyond the shore we would never get to see what is out there.
Remember if you do plan to do this trip make sure to follow these tips:
1- know the weather from the wind, seas and chances of storms
2- implement a buddy system
3- make sure you have the checklist items
4- know your limits
5- have fun and enjoy nature
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