I was grabbing my rental life vest off the rack when I noticed my two friends and a National Park Service employee standing at the edge of the water, staring into the shallows. I walked down the stone-and-pavers boat ramp—past a sign asking divers and anglers to report sightings of smalltooth sawfish, a critically endangered, shark-like ray—to see what had gotten their attention.
There, just a few feet offshore, were a pair of those very same sawfish. Though juveniles, they were already big, probably 4 feet from the tip of their chainsaw-like noses to their tails. Oblivious to overfishing, pollutants, and climate change, they floated, fanning their fins back and forth. I don’t know if fish have a sense of humor, but it was a pretty good joke either way.
This was our welcoming committee to the Ten Thousand Islands, the strip of coastline where the dense wilderness of the Everglades meets the Gulf of Mexico. In this tangle of mangroves, tidal flats, and sandy keys, wildlife thrives: colonies of chattering seabirds, turtles, even large predators like bobcats and Florida panthers. This morning, we’d be temporarily joining them.
The plan was to paddle the Sandfly Island Loop, a 5-mile sampler that circles around…