Night Wading in the Florida Grass Flats

I didn’t expect to push my comfort zone at 10 p.m. at night, but that’s just what happened last weekend. We were camping in Fort De Soto Park on the Gulf coast of Florida, thirty minutes outside of Tampa. The campsites faced a shallow grass flat, full of speckled trout, red drum, herons, egrets, and so much more. Though I was familiar with the wildlife above the surface, I didn’t realize how little I knew about the subsurface species.

As the sun set the tide went out, leaving only a foot of water covering the aquatic plants. My fiance Brian retrieved a head lamp from the car and held it out to me, “Ready?” Ready for what? That’s right, ready for some night wading.

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Getting ready to wade. Photo by Erika Zambello.

My first thought came instantly: no way. I may be an outdoorsy individual, but I’ve always had a fear of wading in water where I can’t see the bottom beneath my feet. I think it stems from my childhood in Maine, where I was always taught to avoid the dark, murky waters that leeches inhabited. Even though I knew logically that there were no leaches in the marsh grass, I couldn’t help feeling squeamish.

Still, I didn’t want to be a wimp. Slipping off my flip flops, I gingerly stepped into the warm salt water and followed Brian to the edge of the underwater grass, his younger brother trailing behind us. Through the shallow water we could see so much aquatic life! Fish darted ahead of our steps, including the long-nosed needle fish that quickly became my favorite. A large heron fished in the dark, and huge spider crabs lurked in the mud looking for food. Dozens of smaller crabs bustled across the marsh floor. We spotted shrimp by the glow of their eyes. When we scooped ahead of us in a medium-sized net, we came up with minnows of all species, including a tiny and flat flounder. It was a whole new, shadowy world for me down there.

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Tiny crabs on the sandy banks of the grass flats. Photo by Erika Zambello.

While I had become more comfortable wading along the mud bottom, I froze in front of the grass beds. Try as I might to motivate  myself, I couldn’t step into the dark recesses between the plants, completely unable to make out what I might be stepping on. Paralyzed, I thought I was going to have to turn back when an act of human kindness allowed me to continue my night-time adventure. Brian’s younger brother was still with us, and offered me his own water shoes! Though they were too large for me, I felt instantly better as I slid them on, and was finally able to continue walking into the weeds.

And I’m so glad I did. We continued to wade into the grasses for a few yards until Brian stopped. Turning off the his headlamp, it was instantly dark. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I looked across the flats at the other campers who were wading as well, shining their flashlights and headlamps into the water searching for shrimp and other critters. Glancing back down at my own feet, I took a step forward. The moment I moved hundreds of tiny orbs of light shot out in front of us, like so many underwater fireflies. I was seeing bioluminescence for the first time, and I couldn’t get over it. Each time we moved the bioluminescent creatures undulated out in front of us. It was like a tiny, starry sky.

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A spider crab and its dinner. Photo by Erika Zambello.

Though we eventually turned the light back on to look for more wildlife, I can still close my eyes and picture the specks of light spreading out ahead of my legs. If I had been too scared to wander through the flats, if I had refused to challenge myself, even in a small way, I would have missed this amazing feat of nature. It’s settled, it’s time to buy myself some water shoes for future underwater explorations!