Iowa Alumni Magazine | August 2009 | People

Guide to Paradise

By Shelbi Thomas
Barbara Renneke and her partner, Greg LeBlanc, captivate kayakers with the beauty of Captiva and Sanibel Islands.

On any given day, Barbara Renneke might glide beneath a canopy of mangroves, eavesdrop on a manatee, or watch the sun set over tranquil waters. Every morning brings a new adventure for the Des Moines native, who now shows visitors the natural beauty of Florida's Captiva and Sanibel Islands.

As owners of Captiva Kayak Company & Wildside Adventures, Renneke, 80BF A, and her partner, Greg LeBlanc, offer small-group guided kayak tours of these protected habitats. On ecologically focused excursions around the national wildlife refuges and aquatic preserves, kayakers become immersed in a diverse ecosystem that nurtures everything from starfish and seahorses to otters and dolphins.

Renneke's captivation with Captiva has only grown since she first experienced the island as a preteen on family vacations. After graduating from Iowa with an arts degree, she returned to the sun-drenched paradise. She met LeBlanc in the 1980s, and since then the two have provided kayak rentals, sales, and instruction, as well as morning and twilight bay tours.

A Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation member, Renneke encourages kayakers to respect the region's habitat. "Micro worlds are hidden under the water," she says. "They're camouflaged, so you have to stop and look."

Sharp-eyed guests have witnessed a dolphin show off her calf, a bald eagle dive-bomb another bird in a fight over a fish, and an octopus wash up on shore. Manatees remain the showstoppers, though. Drawn to the bay because of its shallow waters, these aquatic mammals nurse their calves and feed on sea grasses. Renneke has captured months of manatee exploits on video, and she records their communications on an underwater microphone.

After 26 years on the islands, Renneke knows where to listen for a dolphin's exhale during a high tide or to look for eagles overhead. Still, the habitat never ceases to surprise her. "You just never know what you'll see," she says. "The bay is an incredible classroom."