A Zoo Without Bars

Alligators and panthers and manatees . . . oh my! VISIT FLORIDA's former Outdoors Expert will tell you that wildlife sightings in Florida range from the rare to the sublime.

Our bodies freeze like Labrador retrievers on a quail scent. Standing near a dirt road by a patch of dense underbrush in the Ocala National Forest, my son, Michael, and I can’t see what’s snapping twigs and moving branches as it plows toward us.

It sounds like a tank is about to emerge from the brush. Could the military be on a maneuver?

My heart beats double-time and I watch Michael’s eyes widen as the sounds get closer and louder. Then we see it, only 30 feet from us: a black bear, probably 400 pounds and more than six feet from nose to rump. Not a tank, but it looks big to us just the same.

The bear stops, nose in the air, massive head swinging left to right. It knows something is awry.

When it finally focuses on us, the bear’s flight instinct kicks in, and it immediately takes off down the road, massive paws tearing up the dirt, a cloud of dust settling in its wake. Michael and I look at each other and laugh, exhilarated by our close encounter but also relieved that what we’ve read is true – bears don’t consider humans suitable for lunch. I can still remember clearly the rich black and sable shimmer of the bear’s pitch black fur in the sunlight, and how healthy it looked.

Wildlife sightings come often to those who clamber about the Florida outdoors. With an efficient management system and plenty of park lands and preserves, Florida boasts a huge variety of flora and fauna in its diverse habitats, from seashores to wetlands to hardwood hammocks.

I’ve been lucky enough to have encounters with many Florida wildlife species. One of my favorites was with an animal considerably larger than that bear.

It happened last year while I was snorkeling near Egmont Key State Park off St. Petersburg in about 25 feet of water. A large, dark shape moved slowly toward me near the shoreline. The shape grew larger still as it swam closer.

Slow and somewhat amorphous at first, it moved closer until I could see the unmistakable shape of a manatee, almost 10 feet long and weighing perhaps 1,000 pounds. The manatee flipped its tail gracefully out of the water and swam by, unimpressed by this similarly slow-moving and bulky human with mask, snorkel and fins.

I’ve had luck sighting wildlife on inland waters as well. On one trip to the Everglades, I decided to take a ride with Buffalo Tiger’s Airboat Tours. The airboat blasted at 20 m.p.h. down a watery path west of the Miccosukee Reservation, and in a few minutes, we arrived at a remote village where alligators and raccoons congregated around its small dock.

Later, on our way back to the launch location, the airboat sped toward a sliver of land surrounded by water lilies. When we arrived, we saw a huge alligator, perhaps 13 feet, half out of the water and half in.

We laughed when our guide warned everyone to keep extremities inside the airboat. We weren’t taking any chances as the boat maneuvered within about 30 feet of the creature; all of us stayed seated safely behind the handrails, at no risk of tumbling overboard. When I took out my camera to lean closer for a picture, the ‘gator obliged by opening its mouth to show me its set of 80 or so sharp teeth.

My favorite Florida wildlife sighting, however, lasted less than a minute. Early one morning in June 1999, I was backing a boat trailer into the water along the northeast shore of Lake Okeechobee, getting ready to do some bass fishing with my buddy, Mo Mickelvazinacampherfenella (yes, that’s his last name). I glanced back to see an instantly familiar form walking on top of the levee nearby. Quickly, I grabbed Mo by the arm and spun him around. His face immediately lit up. “I don’t believe it – it’s a panther,” he whispered. Fifteen silent seconds crept by while the panther sized us up from about 100 yards away. Suddenly, it bounded off and disappeared in some brush.

Panther sightings don’t happen often, as there are only 100 or so remaining in the wild in Florida, with the highest concentration in the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp in south Florida. If you do want to see one of the big cats, many of Florida’s zoos have them, as does Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue. The 26,400-acre Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge near Naples has a walking trail where you might spot one in the wild.

Your chances of spotting other Florida wildlife -- everything from deer to turkeys to ‘gators, bobcats and birds -- are favorable. As you set out, let someone know where you’re headed, and bring water, binoculars, a camera . . . and a little bit of childlike awe.

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