Tampa Bay Tours: Big Cat Rescue, Crabbing, Canoeing
Tampa Bay Tours: Canoes, Cats and Crabs
Explore Tampa on a nature tour, including crabbing on the bay, canoeing near alligators and visiting the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary.
From canoes to cats to crabs, there are plenty of things to do in Tampa, all within an easy drive of downtown. Here are three tours worth the time and money:
The Hillsborough River runs through the center of the city, but about 20 minutes northeast of town, there’s a part of the river that feels as though it’s a world away from civilization.
We took the guided tour offered by Canoe Escape, but for those who weren’t in the canoe with the naturalist, it was tough to hear much of what he said about the native flora and fauna. The trip would have been just as enjoyable without the expert commentary, although I was comforted to know he was around as we spotted alligator after alligator, each one bigger than the last, sunning themselves on the shore. And, when we hit a spot in the river clogged by undergrowth and a huge tree felled during a storm the night before, it was the guide who chose the path of least resistance, letting us power through the mess while others remained mired in the muck of the cypress swamp. Also, when we wanted a short break in the middle of the trip, it was the guide who assured us there were no gators where we put ashore.
We paddled for two hours up the scenic river, reveling in the quiet and marveling over the prehistoric feel of the moss-draped trees. The downstream trips range from two hours to all day. Per-paddler prices range from $22.50 for two-person canoes on the two-hour self-guided tours to $140 for single-person kayaks on the longest interpretative guided tours. (Children 12 and under ride free as center passengers.) Or bring your own boat and have them shuttle it for $25 to save you the aggravation of parking a second car at the end of the route. Tel. 813-986-2067, www.canoeescape.com
Big Cat Rescue is one of those places where you can’t go without a tour guide. In a place where you can get within arm’s reach of lions, tigers and other carnivores, why would you want to?
The non-profit educational sanctuary takes in abused, sick or elderly exotic cats, such as Sasha, a lioness that was declawed and defanged by her former owner, who kept her and other big cats chained up in her Gambier, Ohio, backyard and charged people to pet the animals or pose for photos. Without teeth, she has trouble eating, but gets a special soft diet from her new keepers. Not all of the cats have been so seriously abused, but all have lived a life in captivity, as circus performers or the stars of sideshows, or as pets of owners who bought them as cubs only to abandon them once they grew too big or too aggressive.
The 90-minute walking tour is run by two docents: one leads the walkthrough and provides the background information, big cat education and constant warnings to keep arms away from cages; the second brings up the rear to ensure the group stays together and everyone returns in one piece. It’s necessary because in some spots people and cats are separated only by a few feet and some of the smaller ones are no bigger than your average house cat and look just as cuddly—until the guide points out they’re killers.
Tours depart twice daily for those 10 and older; cost is $25 per person. Children under 10 are allowed to tour only at 9 a.m. on Saturdays. Cost for that 60-minute walking tour is $15 for kids under 10 and $25 for those 10 and older. Golf carts are available for those with mobility problems. Tel. 813-920-4130, www.bigcatrescue.org
Crawling for Crabs
Lead by Captain Gus Muench, who has spent 31 years catching crabs on Tampa Bay, Gus’ Crabby Adventure is an expensive but unique experience that demonstrates a fading way of life and ends up with a dinner of the freshest crab you’ll ever eat.
Muench looks a little crabby and a little scary with his rubber waders, wide-brimmed sun hat and lined face. But by the end of the four-hour tour, when he’s serving up the crab in his cozy riverfront home, he feels like a favorite crotchety old uncle.
The tour is billed as an eco-adventure. It includes lessons on pulling crab traps—and Gus’ commentary on the sorry state of crabbing in Tampa Bay these days. You can sit and watch or pitch in and learn to pull and empty the traps. (We found ourselves feeling sorry for the terrified crabs scrambling frantically inside the blue bin—a sight my animal-loving daughter wouldn’t have been able to bear.)
Once the traps are pulled, it’s time for the real highlight of the trip: Gus’ commentary on the Bay. As we motored toward his house where we would learn to clean, cook and then eat the crab feast, he pointed out the natural features of the bay area, the rare birds and flowers; at one point, he shut down the engines so we could watch a family of dolphins frolic in the water just off the bow. It was a much closer, more satisfying look at the sea mammals than we had gotten a day earlier aboard a dolphin-watching tour offered by the Florida Aquarium.
Gus’ Crabby Adventure is $300 for the first two guests and $50 for the next two (limit four per tour). It’s a little expensive for a family, but it combines education, dolphin observation, a yummy meal and that priceless extra: the charm of a salty old sea dog named Gus. Tel. 813-645-6578, www.crabbyadventures.com