Florida Keys Business
Sunday, March 2, 2014
Paddle through a new view of paradise
Nighttime tours explore the underwater world

Key West changes every evening when that fiery, orange orb slips effortlessly beneath the horizon.

The sunburned frenzy hangs damp beach towels over porch railings and prepares to enter the nighttime world that fills Duval Street with the sounds of live music and frozen-drink blenders, the scent of garlic-infused entrees and the glare of neon lights.

Just as the street scenes change dramatically after sunset, so too does the underwater world that surrounds the island city. The fish that become familiar sights during afternoon snorkel trips -- sergeant majors, yellowtail snapper and barracuda -- retreat to an unknown sanctuary, and relinquish the waters to creatures of the night.

Spiny lobsters depart their rocky hiding spots and traverse the ocean floor in search of food; octopus make their shadowy presence known only under the cover of night; and docile sting rays relax in the darkened shallows.

These nocturnal nuances go largely unnoticed by the topside world -- but they're revealed in stunning clarity during a guided nighttime kayak or paddle board tour that departs every evening from Ibis Bay Paddle Sports.

For the nighttime tours, the paddle boards and glass-bottom kayaks are equipped with waterproof, LED lighting that illuminate the water and introduce people to a whole different world, said Pawel (pronounced pa-vel) Pluciennik, who owns Ibis Bay Paddle Sports, the water sports concession business at Ibis Bay Resort.

"So often people go kayaking or paddle boarding on their own, and they really don't know where to look, or they don't know what they're seeing in the water," he said. "But during our 90-minute tours, the guides are constantly getting into the water, picking things up and showing people sealife they would never normally see."

The tours, both daytime and nighttime, blend stand-up paddle boards with glass-bottomed kayaks, so if people aren't comfortable on a board, they can still join their friends or relatives side by side in a single or tandem kayak.

"We cater to all skill levels, and offer instruction for newcomers," said Pluciennik, "and we stay in water that's only knee- or waist-deep in areas with no boat traffic."

The nighttime tours depart from the canal in front of the resort 15 minutes after sunset.

"The things you see at night are so different," Pluciennik said. "We see octopus at night; lobsters are out walking around; stingrays hang out on the bottom, and nurse sharks and bonnet head sharks are active. A lot of locals have actually been taking out nighttime tours because they've never done anything like it before."

The resort also offers guided waverunner tours, daytime kayak and paddle board tours and rentals. It recently added a 24-foot Starcraft deck boat to its fleet, said resort owner Tony Osborn, who four years ago bought and breathed new life into the formerly dilapidated Blue Lagoon Motel.

The deck boat is available for charters of up to six people. A licensed captain takes the group to a private island, where they can enjoy paddle boarding, fun fishing, snorkeling and swimming.

"And there's a grill on the boat, so the captain will grill up anything legal that they catch," Pluciennik said. "They'll go out to Snipes Point, Marvin Key or the Mud Keys for a great day on the water." Osborn emphasized that the water sport activities are available to everyone, not just resort guests.

"Anyone who takes a water tour has access to the resort's pool and amenities," said Osborn, whose transformation of the resort last year earned him a Key West Chamber of Commerce Business for Beauty Award. Similarly, Pluciennik received a Venture Award from the chamber for his initiative in starting a new business.

"We're trying to develop a package business," Osborn said. "There's so much to do that if someone went out on the afternoon waverunner tour, they may come back for a nighttime kayak/paddle board tour, and then the next day go out on the deck boat with a bunch of friends and a case of beer. You can really do anything water-related right from the resort."

The giant pool at Ibis Bay is available for locals to use, provided they sign a free membership agreement that "basically says they'll act responsibly and not cause any problems on the property," Osborn said, taking pride in the shifted attitudes toward the North Roosevelt Boulevard resort. "This place used to be a community outcast, but now it's part of the community. We host a lot of charity events here, and the locals come to our Stoned Crab restaurant for food and happy hour. It's really done a complete turnaround."

All 79 rooms have been renovated to include a tropical theme. A beach in the back of the property offers hammocks and shoreline massages.

"Most people don't even know this is back here," Osborn said while Pluciennik's staff signed up guests for the next day's kayak tour.

"It's really a perfect place for families, groups of friends, couples, everyone," Pluciennik said of the resort, which remains one of the most affordable properties on the island. "Ibis Bay offers everything tourists -- and locals -- need and want. People just need to check it out and see for themselves."

mmiles@keysnews.com

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