Sure, Florida’s known for its world-class beaches and mind-boggling theme parks, but you can see another side of the state, the Wild Florida, without travelling very far from your hotel room.
You need not be a Crocodile Hunter or Survivorman to catch a glimpse of these critters in their natural habitat. You can head out on your own, hop aboard a chartered vessel or join an organized nature tour. Prices range from free to around $50. The rules are simple; look but don’t touch. And of course, have fun.
If you’re not feeling particularly adventurous, head to the nearest movie theater and see your share of bottlenose dolphin on the silver screen. While Winter, the most famous cetacean since Flipper, hails from the Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s East Coast, your best bet to see dolphins at play is on the state’s Southwest Coast.
These playful marine mammals love to jump boat wakes and surf bow waves. The protected waters of the Gulf of Mexico, with its myriad of sheltered bays and lagoons, provides ideal dolphin habitat. You’ll find them showing off year round from Key West to Pensacola.
Inherently friendly creatures, bottlenose dolphin often come right up the boat. But remember – don’t feed wild dolphins, for the same reason you don’t feed alligators or bears. An animal that associates people with food will lose its natural fear of humans.
In the case of bottlenose dolphins, that usually means interaction with fishermen and the chance of getting hooked or entangled in fishing line. Winter, the star of “Dolphin Tale,” lost its fluke to a rope that was attached to a crab trap.
If you want to watch dolphins in the wild, the best way is to just let them do their thing. Curious by nature, most dolphin will usually swim over to a boat just to have a look. The state’s best tour operators, those that have earned a “dolphin smart” label, know how to safely keep their distance.
Play nine holes on any Florida golf course and you’re bound to see at least two or three of the state’s more than one million alligators. Any body of water – pond, lake or river – is a potential home to these large reptiles. But the American alligator, a.k.a., Alligator mississippiensis, does not deserve its fearsome reputation. Most run when confronted by humans.
Still, there’s a certain degree of comfort and safety to be had when viewing alligators from a car or boat. To see big gators, head south to Everglades National Park. Book a seat on the Shark Valley tram tour and you’ll come across dozens of gators in the canals along both sides of the road.
If you’re in a rush, swing by the Big Cypress National Preserve’s Oasis Visitors Center off the Tamiami Trail in Ochopee. There’s usually a few dozen big gators lounging around the pond out front. This unincorporated community in Collier County is also known for its tiny post office and a large population of skunk apes, but good luck getting a glimpse of the later.
Sarasota’s Myakka River State Park is another notorious gator hangout. There’s a narrow, two-lane bridge about a mile from the ranger station that crosses the Myakka River. Swing by around lunch time and you’ll see some of the fattest, laziest gators in the Sunshine State. But remember – don’t toss last night’s marshmallows. Feeding alligators is against the law.
Meet the manatee
There are two ways to view manatees: the wet way and the dry way. The wet way is a little complicated, so let’s start with the dry way.
The easiest way to get a guaranteed glimpse of a manatee in the wild is to stop by a designated viewing area, which are usually located near springs or power plants. Manatees flock to these warm-water refuges during the winter months to escape the cold.
The Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach, a few miles south of downtown Tampa, has great viewing area and interpretive center. Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, northeast of Orlando, is another popular spot. On Florida’s East Coast, the Manatee Observation & Education Center in Fort Pierce is an ideal place to take kids.
But if you want to get up close and personal, come face to face with one of these gentle giants, then grab your mask and fins and head to Crystal River. Each year, when the Gulf of Mexico turns chilly, hundreds of manatees seek shelter in this warm-water sanctuary. Most congregate in Kings Bay, where the water stays 72 degrees year-round.
Despite their mammoth appearance, these slow-moving marine mammals are the gentlest members of the animal kingdom. And after decades of human contact, the harmless vegetarians have grown quite accustomed to people. They spend most of their time eating, sleeping and moving from one patch of weeds to the next.
Manatees, like people, have personalities. Some like humans, others don't. Be aware of this in the water. If a manatee swims away, don't chase it. If possible, wear a wet suit. You'll be more comfortable, hence more patient. You are more likely to have a pleasant encounter with a manatee if you don't rush it.
Give the manatee some space. If one does approach and you feel the urge to pet it, do so with an open hand. Don't grab it or hold it. Don't separate a calf from its mother, or an individual from the herd. And don't feed the manatees. There is plenty of hydrilla and other vegetation to satisfy their hunger.
There are more than a dozen dive shops in the Crystal River area that offer organized manatee viewing trips. You can swim with the manatees on your own, but a guide is helpful if you’re new to the area or uncomfortable in the water.
Birds, bears butterflies
Florida is a birder’s paradise. Look for bald eagles in the Everglades or the rare, crested caracara as it soars over the Kissimmee Prairie.
If your timing is right you might even catch the annual monarch butterfly migration at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park.
But black bears are not the only large mammal prowling the pinewoods and cypress swamps. Visitors have spotted the elusive Florida panther down in Big Cypress, which happens to be the favorite haunt of another large animal. Can you say Swamp Ape?