Several bottlenose dolphins swam slowly near our kayaks as we maneuvered through the Aransas Inlet, past a leviathan tanker and a barnacle-encrusted, rusty shrimp boat to reach the Gulf of Mexico.  
   It was a bright afternoon in September—the height of the

 hurricane season—and my friend, Ron Duke and I, were on a recreational
 trip between storm systems.  I was anticipating a few days of respite from
 work and other responsibilities.   I have always enjoyed paddling around the
 central Texas barrier islands, mainly for their great variety of wildlife.  The
 region is excellent for bird watching because of its proximity to the central
 North America migratory flyway and its extensive coastal estuarine habitats.
 I often see small pods of coastal bottlenose dolphins in the Aransas Inlet and
 Cavallo Pass.  Besides the wildlife, the open coast provides interesting rough
 water conditions and good surfing.  In these islands I can enjoy solitude and
 wilderness paddling in areas with few people.
    As I pulled my paddle through the water, my strokes were occasionally
 interrupted by clumps of cabbage-head jellyfish several feet across that had
 been trapped in he inlet by the previous week's storm.  Large white trans-
 lucent bells and hundreds of short, root-like tentacles sprouted from each
 ball-shaped jellyfish.  Although the tentacles looked threatening, I knew their
 weak stinging cells are harmless to humans.

    We were paddling southeast from Port Aransas , a central Texas inlet. Granite jetties extending more than a kilometer into the Gulf flanked us on either side.  Their 6- to 10-ton rectangular quarry blocks stabilize the constantly shifting sands.  Several fishermen were casting from the breakwater in hopes of hooking a large redfish or speckled sea trout.  Beneath the surface of the water, a patchwork of dark red and green algae carpeted the subtropical intertidal zone.  As we turned north out of the inlet, around the edge of San Jose Island, we could see miles of uninhabited island beaches and sand dunes fading off into the distance.  Offshore was the faint silhouette of an oil rig.  



  After a few miles of paddling, we surfed shoreward on four-foot breakers, landing on southern San Jose Island.  The fine sand beach was backed by small dunes.  I climbed to the top of one of the sand dunes to take in the view.  Rolling dune fields were interwoven with a mixture of wheat-colored grasses and low-lying vines.   In May and June these dunes are sprinkled with the brilliant oranges, yellows and blues of tiny flowers, but on this fall day, everything had taken on a golden or dull green hue.  Beyond the dunes were grassy flats extending to sandy beaches and mud flats on the other side of the island.  On the beach below me were the effects of of the latest storm:  Clumps of tea-colored Sargassum littered the beach with carcasses of crabs and fish tangled in it.  The surging waves had eroded the foredunes into vertical faces, exposing the roots of purple-flowered morning glories, long-stemmed sea oats and the grassy tufts of bitter panicum.

  Hundreds of birds foraged along the shoreline.  Dowitchers, an American Avocet, ruddy turnstones, and black-bellied plovers raced along the water with a stilted, Charlie Chaplin-like walk.  Black-hooded laughing gulls were squabbling over invertebrates picked from the decomposing Sargassum.  Farther down the beach, legions of black-and-white royal and caspian terns and a few black skimmers stood quietly, facing the ocean.  A lone black skimmer flew low over the water, dangling its burnt-orange, dagger-shaped bill into the water in an attempt to catch dinner.



  We staked out our tent high on the beach in front of the foredunes and away from the Sargassum to avoid insects.  Since the powdery sand had been firmly packed down by the previous week's storm surge, the tent was easy to anchor.  After setting up camp, we sat down to dinner and discussed plans for the following day while listening to the gentle roar of the surf, the wind in our faces.  I had planned to circumnavigate San Jose Island, but Ron convinced me that we should take a more leisurely route and enjoy the wildlife along the way.  As darkness closed in, I lit a small lantern and we walked down to the beach.
  Crouching near a sandy tide pool, I waved my hand through the water.   Greenish sparks of fluorescent light flashed--the telltale sign of millions of tiny bioluminescent plankton.  Walking farther down the beach, we came across dozens of ghost crabs feeding on Sargassum, their long-stalked eyes mounted on fist-sized carapaces.  Tangled, shiny brown algae strewn about the beach by the storm held corrugated shells of sea pens, white, disk-shaped sand dollars and sharp-spined blue crabs.
  The next morning, we awoke to a bright sunshine and scattered clouds with a gentle breeze.  After loading the boats, we paddled out through four-foot surf and headed back toward the Aransas Inlet.  As we rounded the north jetty again, we encountered a pod of ten to 20 bottlenose dolphins.  Their gray dorsal fins broke the surface, and we could hear their sharp breathing sounds.  Paddling closer, I could see that several had scarred or partially missing dorsal fins, probably from scuffles with fishermen or boat traffic  At the back of the inlet, we turned north along the Lydia Ann ship channel and stopped for lunch on a long narrow beach on the leeward side of San Jose Island.  The squawking cacophony of of birds echoed across the landscape.  Farther up the beach, hundreds of cormorants were dwarfed by dozens of brown and white pelicans  A few willets, curlews, and black-necked stilts ran up and down the beach nervously on thin legs, stopping occasionally to probe the sand with their long beaks.  Nearby, a brilliantly white great egret with a yellow bill and black legs stood on a marshy bank, patiently fishing in a tidal stream.
  Dark storm clouds began moving across the islands as we contined down the channel to the Lydia Ann Lighthouse.  Next
to the red brick lighthouse, a huddle of small weathered wooden buildings with wide verandas rose above the surrounding marsh.  The lighthouse was built in 1857.  A fierce storm in 1917 had nearly destroyed the the facility, and the present buildings were built at that time.  The lighthouse was closed in 1954 because of high maintenance costs.  In 1970, the lighthouse and surrounding buildings were severely damaged by Hurricane Celia.  Prominent Texan Charles Butt bought and restored the facility, refitting the light with an antique fresnel lens.  In July 1988, the light was recommissioned.  Today, its fixed white light is visible for about 10 miles.  The old buildings around the light are now private residences and off-limits to the public.
  Gusty winds and tall columns of dark, ominous clouds moved in from the southeast and pelted us with a brief rain squall.  Surf and weather conditions can change rapidly in this area.  The rain and wind helped cool us down as we paddled north into Aransas Bay.  We stopped on a beach on San Jose Island, adjacent to Mud Island.  The upper part of the narrow, fine sand beach was littered with a six-inch layer of crushed scallop and oyster shells.  In the marsh behind the beach several pairs of black-headed American oystercatchers squabbled noisily as they wandered along the tidal flats.  The flats were covered by the low-lying pale-green leaves of saltwort and glasswort.  In the distance, large blue herons and great egrets stood motionless by shallow ponds on the flats.  Within minutes of our landing, the clouds gave way to hot afternoon sun.
  After our break, we continued into Aransas Bay.  Paddling across a shallow cove, I was startled when several silvery striped mullet leaped from the water in front of my bow and landed several yards away.  There must have been a larger predatory fish chasing them.


  The afternoon wind coming out of the southeast at 10 to 15 miles per hour made the emerald bay waters choppy.  We scanned the horizon, looking for an island to camp on.  When we turned around, we could see an island with large white beaches glinting in the sun to the southwest.  We turned into the waves in the direction of the largest beach.  By evening, we reached a large sand-and-shell beach that formed a broad, flat bar.  Behind the beach we could see a large pond with several small tidal creeks trailing off into the distance.  I paddled along the shoreline to survey the island.  The sand-and-shell beach quickly gave way to muddy shore about two yards wide, bordered by large bushy vegetation.  Hundreds of striped hermit crabs in knobby variegated whelks and oyster drill shells scuttled along the shoreline.
  Ron and I setup camp on the sand-and-shell beach.  As darkness fell, we were eating dinner when several large barges passed, their large flood lights scanning the area for navigational hazards.  Shining a flashlight into the water adjacent to shore, I noticed a foot-long jellyfish--sea nettles--drifting by.  Catching one of them in a clear plastic jug, I used a flashlight to illuminate it.  Its pulsating bell and long tentacles looked like a fine glass sculpture glowing brightly against the darkness of the night.



San Jose and Matagorda Island, 23 miles and 38 miles in length, respectively, extend north from Aransas Inlet to Cavallo Pass.  They are separated by a third smaller inlet called Cedar Bayou, which flows in and out of Mesquite Bay.   West of the barrier islands are shallow primary bays with scattered oyster reefs and sea grass meadows, as well as smaller mud and sand islands.  Secondary bays have fewer beaches and more mud, and they are more estuarine.  Aransas Bay, behind San Jose Island, is an example of a primary bay.  Much of Aransas Bay and many of its smaller islands to the south are lined with small sand-and-shell beaches that are exposed to the open bay and larger, wind-generated waves.
   The central Texas coast is rich in marine life.  Kayaks provide


the ideal platform for fishing in the shallow bays.  The area is renowned for sport fishing.  Many fishermen use shallow draft boats to access shallow, sandy areas in the primary bays.  They anchor their boats and wade into shallow water, fishing primarily for redfish and sea trout.  Offshore currents often bring tropical fish inshore from mid-summer to early fall.  For brief periods in the early and late summer on calm days, underwater visibility can be good enough for snorkeling.
  These islands and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge are the habitat for a number of mammals, including deer, rabbits, coyotes, javalina and feral pigs.  Although paddlers cannot land in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, while paddling past it's shore you may be able to spot alligators or endangered whooping cranes.  Alligators are also present in some of the secondary bays.  Although paddlers should keep a safe distance from these animals, they do not pose a significant threat.
  Campers and hikers should be wary of snakes on the islands and along bayshores.  The most common poisonous snakes are the western diamondback rattlesnake and the muddy-colored western cottonmouth or "water moccasin".  Some authorities mention reports of the red, black and yellow--striped Texas coral snake, but these snakes are very uncommon.
  Nearshore waters in the Gulf of Mexico are shallow, and Texas beaches have a very gradual slope.  This creates surf that is very different from the West Coast and the Northeast.  One advantage to such gradual sloping beaches is that rip currents can be more easily identified, and they can often be used to the paddler's advantage to avoid large surf when launching and landing.  When there is two- to three-foot surf, the surf zone is narrow and conditions could be considered safe for all but absolute beginners.  When the surf reaches four to six feet, the breaker zone can expand to more than a quarter of a mile offshore.  These conditions can be negotiated by intermediate and advanced paddlers with surf experience.  Surf above seven feet should be reserved for advanced paddlers with rough-water experience on Texas beaches.
   Shallow offshore bars frequently develop during spring and late fall storm activity.  Capsizing in such shallow water can cause neck injuries.  Also, visitors should beware of wave refraction that causes confused seas around the Aransas Inlet jetties.



  Weather along the northwestern Gulf of Mexico is often unpredictable and can change in minutes, although scattered showers and thunderstorms often pass quickly.  From late summer to winter, hurricanes are common in the Gulf of Mexico.  Lightning is also a significant hazard, year-round, so it's important to check local weather forecasts before paddling.  If a lighning storm starts while you're on the water, you should get off the water as quickly as possible.
  If the weather changes and the open coast is no longer safe to paddle, there are alternative routes.  On southern San Jose Island, a short portage south allows launching from the jetty on the protected Aransas Inlet.  At Matagorda Island State Park, state park personnel can portage paddlers three miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the more protected bay shores of Espiritu Santo Bay.  From there kayakers can paddle back to Port O'Connor or catch the small state park ferry to Port O'Connor, if they have made arrangements in advance.
  Winter storms often bring strong winds from the north, but winds in the area are primarily out of the east or southeast for much of the year.  Longshore currents typically move from south to north.  Navigation in Aransas Bay and adjacent areas can be difficult because of poor visibility on foggy or hazy days.  This, in combination with low elevations, can make distances deceiving and islands indiscernible, so it's essential to have compass skills and a good map.
  Temperatures are warm to hot for much of the year and sun protection is mandatory.  Water temperatures range from 50F to 85F.  During extremely low tides, paddlers can become stranded on sandbars in the shallow bays, so it's best during these times to stick to deeper waters.
   The area's tides fluctuate about one meter in the passes, a little less in the bays.  Tidal currents in the Aransas Inlet and Cavallo Pass can be strong, especially with maximum tidal fluctuation during June and December.  However, low tides during this time also allow for excellent tide-pooling opportunities along the Aransas Inlet jetties.  Water currents generated by wind have more influence on bay circulation patterns than tidal fluctuation or river discharge, and they can alter predicted tidal levels by as much as half a meter.  This may not seem like much, but the maximum depth in Aransas Bay is only 3.1 meters, and in much of the central Texas bay system it averages considerably less.


  Mosquitoes and biting flies are a problem in  the bay area, but there are few of them along beaches on the windward side of the barrier islands.  Be sure to pack insect repellent and protective clothing.  

  A wide variety of jellyfish are abundant in the bays.  The sea wasp, the sea nettle and the lion's mane jellyfish pose a hazard to swimmers and paddlers.

  Along the open coast, the Portuguese man-o-war's stinging tentacles can extend several meters below its small lavender float.  These jellyfish often wash ashore after storm activity.  If stung by a jellyfish, immediately rub the affected area with sand or any other item available (towel, clothing, etc.), to dislodge as many stinging cells possible, since prolonged contact further aggravates the skin and causes larger welts.  The Atlantic and southern stingrays are common year-round along the open Gulf Coast.  They pose a threat to paddlers wading into or out of the sandy shallows.  Tap the bottom of the seabed with your paddle before exiting your kayak and shuffle your feet when wading into or out of the water.

  The next morning, after loading our boats in the bright morning sun, we pushed off the gleaming-white oyster shell beach and paddled south, past the Lydia Ann Lighthouse one more time.  On a sandy beach behind the Aransas Inlet, we paused to watch several dolphins diving and splashing in the shallows less than 20 feet from shore.  In just a few days, we had managed to find a slower pace of life, marked not by meetings and phone calls, but by the rhythmic flowing of the tides, punctuated by the calls of the birds.  


Dr. John Whorff:  Quitman, Texas
Ron Duke:  Mountain Sports - Hunt, Texas

Sea Kayaker Magazine - Dec. 99        additional images

Tx.Parks & Wildlife Dept. Lighthouse Lakes Trails  -  Texas Coast Maps




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