Canoeing or kayaking to observe nature

I’m getting a canoe this weekend (woohoo!). I’m fairly new to any sort of boating, just done a little kayaking in small lakes. I’m hoping to use this canoe to get to observe wildlife in new ways but…I’ve never done that before. Has anyone used kayaks or canoes to help in observing wildlife? Any tips on it? How do I keep my camera dry, how do I paddle without scaring stuff, what should I be aware of ? This is terra incognita for me :)

I’m kind of hoping to use it in a few particular areas where there’s a lot of emergent vegetation and stands of reeds to observe stuff from the water in that vegetation–should be good for natricine snakes and a variety of birds (Cleburne State Park in particular is one such area, if anyone’s familiar with it, Caddo Lake is another I’m interested in trying).

Just…any advice on this sort of thing?


Just went kayaking on a local river (Yellow River) for iNatting for the first time a couple days ago. It was pretty nice, but it was quite difficult at times to get close enough to the plants on the shore to take pictures of anything. I wouldn’t advise bringing a camera, but I’ve found that binoculars and a phone work just fine.

In the end I was only able to get 30 obs but found a few nice things


Find a friend or partner who likes paddling so you can take pictures while they steer :)


Been kayaking in the sea a few times, and managed to reach some secluded shorelines which had lots of marine critters to check out.


I would advise leaving the camera behind on your first outing, until you get a feel for the risk. I’d get a good dry bag for your phone – there are cheap ones on Amazon. And, just like on land, I’d try to move slow and look lots. Alternate between bursts of movement and gliding/drifting/observing. The good news: I find some animals that are wary of me on land ignore me in a kayak, and vice versa. Finally, when in a stream, I recommend going upriver first.


I used to go kayaking pretty frequently.

My main advice is to either get a waterproof camera or a waterproof case for your camera (a hard case, not one of those plastic bags).

You will take a dip in the water at some point, and when you do your camera will go in the drink with you.

Even before you and your camera go for a swim it’ll be getting splashed and the like, which isn’t good for it.

I’ve also done a lot of trips via balsa raft and dugout canoe in the Amazon with my old manual camera. I didn’t have a case for it at the time, but every time I wasn’t actively using it I’d put it back into a tightly sealed dry-bag.

No matter what, if you’re using a case or a dry bag, or using the camera near water you’ll need to make sure that it’s fully dehumidified when you put it away.


I have a small drybag that’s just big enough for my camera and phone. When I’m crossing open water or the weather gets bad, the camera goes in the bag. When I get to a quiet spot to take photos I take it out again. My SLR is also water resistant so it can survive splashes and a brief dunk in the water.

Learn some of the sculling strokes where the paddle doesn’t leave the water. They’re used for moving slowly and steadily without making a lot of noise. Also, invest in a paddle leash in case you drop the paddle when you reach for your camera.


Be sure to wear a life vest.


My SLR is weatherproof but yeah, I don’t really fancy letting it take a dunk in a swamp :) REI has some dry bags and boxes (pelican brand) that I’m assuming are ok but I’m still researching

I’m probably going to tie the box to the canoe somehow to keep it from sinking if we do overturn.


REI used to offer both Kayaking and nature photography classes. Sigh… probably not happening during the pandemic, but fun to consider for the future.


Attach everything either to yourself or to your boat. Lanyards and tiedowns are your friends. And if you have something valuable and heavy, that can’t be tied down or permanently attached, get a float to attach to it. Think floaters for keychains. Of course, waterproof items or waterproof containers are useful, but you really don’t want to bail and lose all that waterproof stuff, either.


I prefer a canoe paddle over a kayak paddle if I’m trying approach wildlife. The blade of a canoe paddle can be kept underwater while paddling so there is much less noise and no flashing light from the wet blade. Just turn the blade so it is parallel to the length of the canoe, and move the paddle forward. Turn the blade back to the usual position to paddle ahead normally.
Get something to use as an anchor. Yo don’t need a boat anchor. A 1 qt plastic milk bottle filled with sand is good. Lets you stop and in the wind and or current.


Welcome dougpaul and this is good information to share!

Welcome to the forum. i like your good tip about the anchor!

I have done a fair bit of canoeing including a backcountry canoeing circuit that is 116 km that can take 4 to 9 days depending on weather and aspiration - we have done this 16 times. I have not been on too many of those trips though with iNaturalist in mind and therefore my photography and iNat obs is a little thin considering how much I have done - I have had a chance to see a lot over the years. The thing with these trips is that for the most part one is trying to travel so fishing and naturalizing to a satisfying level are compromised - hence I don’t fish on these trips but there is occasionally time to pull out the lens when needed.

I now use a DSLR with a long lens (150-600 zoom) - it is a big rig. I take this in my canoe in its own small dry bag which is clipped to a thwart when I am not using it. I have the camera clipped to me via a harness when I am in comfortable waters - and I am wearing a life jacket On rivers, the camera is extra secured to counter any knocking around. I do have a pelican box from the past but my camera has outgrown it. I bought a dry bag in Kuala Lumpur for a primate outing in Sumatra that ended with an inner tube raft through some white water back to our stay - my camera kept dry.

You will need to shoot at a higher speed because of the canoe’s motion - consider cropping rather than being zoomed right in as that will allow you to compensate for an off-centred image without loosing part of the subject because you were too close in visually and the horizon moved - if you can take a burst of shots as well because focusing can be a slight challenge when you are the thing in motion.

Canoes can be very stealthy on lakes and waterways and yes learn to scull. Give yourself an exit if you are approaching large game. You can skirt very close to shore in a canoe. Keep away from deadheads and sweepers if you are on moving water and focus on safety over nature - sort of like bird watching and driving.

Canoes are like having the trunk of a car with you - they were designed to haul big game (I don’t hunt or fish) - so bring along some comfort and sometimes you will want to be on shore. - small light lawn chairs, food, cushion for sitting on rocks if there is no room for chairs, small stove and coffee fixings - tailor this to portages etc. Because of where we go we are always prepared for it to be rainy 100% of the time - most times it is better. I might think of more later.


Canoes and kayaks are an excellent way to see nature up close and get good photos even with an iphone.I use one of those waterproof dry box’s you can purchase in the camping section at Walmart.My iphone,wallet and keys store here while doing the paddling and a short 3’ cord to clip to my belt loop.Don’t overlook the rivers and creeks.Many times you can access creeks from a lake.You can use google maps to find where the creeks come into the lakes.I commonly can approach wild hogs and deer much easier in the kayak.Also the canoe can get you up into shallow coves where it would be difficult by boat.Lake Hawkins is a good place to see alligators up close.The Sabine river from around Mineola and points eastward is nice when the water level is high enough.You can also see plants like rose mallow and cardinal plants along the rivers.The river level has been to low here recently and clogged with log jams…


Example of the smoothness of sculling here on the video

2nd time I took my soon to be wife out in a canoe, we were in a quite inlet on the west coast of Vancouver Island when we had two grey whales approach us and go under our canoe. Twice. Fortunately they were very aware of us and the canoe barely rocked as it rose on the water passing between the whale and our canoe. I remember saying a few choice words as I stared at one of them in the eye three feet away. Sort of like gazing into a cow’s eye.

We have watched bear (black and grizzly) and moose swim across lakes. My wife has seen lynx and caribou swim - I unfortunately was in another canoe and missed it. We have seen mink, river otter, fisher, and countless squirrel. Fish, seals, sea lions, tons of invertebrates especially at low tide, birds galore and because you can get so close to shore in a canoe a huge variety of seaweeds, mosses, fungi and lichen, dicots, monocots, conifers, and ferns.


I have a cell phone drybag on a cord around my neck. It’s transparent, and to my surprise, I can take perfectly good pictures through the bag. Remember to orient the phone with the “top” hanging down so you can pick it up facing you.

Only other advice is, go slow. You’ll see more and last longer.


Not what you asked for, but Texas has some paddling trails:

Two other small lakes great for canoeing include:

Tucker Lake at the new, but not-yet-open state park: (the lake is open and access is free–go NOW before they close for construction!)

Unless you’re very clumsy or very large in size compared to the canoe, it’s really hard to flip one as long as you’re sitting down. Put camera in waterproof bag until you’re settled in and need it.