A friend once asked me to introduce her to some “real Florida beach natives.” She wanted to go home to San Francisco armed with stories of watching folks cast a fishing line where gentle, Gulf waters lap at sandy, sugar-like shores. Afterward, she wished to swap fish tales with the old salts at a timeworn beach bar, colorful bursts inspired by the sun dipping into the horizon as the backdrop. Can you say Kodak moment?
I did introduce her to some locals, but not the two-legged variety she envisioned. Meet Florida’s real natives: sea turtles... dolphins... manatees... pelicans and seagulls... horseshoe crabs... colorful coral reefs... As planned, my friend took oodles of photos. But tucked away in her suitcase was also a special cache of shells and a sand dollar she found to remind her to book now for her next Florida sojourn!
Florida's coral reefs came into existence 5,000 to 7,000 years ago when sea levels rose following the Wisconsin Ice Age. Reef growth is slow; estimates range from one to 16 feet every 1,000 years. These living, flower-like animals form thousands of tiny colonies and are vital to the ecosystem, providing “home sweet home” to several thousand plants, animals and algaes. When old colonies die, new ones spring up on top of the skeletons.
In the continental U.S., Florida boasts the most extensive shallow coral reef formations. Florida is home to the world’s third-largest reef system, called the Florida Keys Reef Tract. It’s approximately 221 miles long and is characterized by a mix of patch reefs and a well-developed spur-and-groove bank-reef system at the reef’s edge.
Do they use MapQuest? Female sea turtles baffle scientists because they usually return to the same beach where they hatched eggs before and where they themselves were born. And when those eggs hatch, the babies weigh just a few ounces and measure a few inches. In time, they’ll tip the scales at about 300 pounds. There are different species, with Florida boasting the largest loggerhead turtle nesting population in the Western Hemisphere.
During the March to October nesting season, remember that while we dominate the beaches during the day, we must use care at night. Walk at the waterline. If you see an adult sea turtle coming out of the water, don’t approach her; she might return to the water without nesting. Lights disrupt or disorient nesting turtles, as well as emerging hatchlings. Many beach communities even have a “lights out” policy after dark for beachfront properties so as not to distract baby sea turtle hatchlings trying to get back to the water. Please remember to never disturb sea turtles or their nests; it’s punishable by law.
You would think that being a vegetarian wouldn’t pack on the pounds, but that certainly isn’t the case with manatees, which average 1,200 or more pounds and nine to 12 feet in length. These gentle giants head for warm waters during the winter and gobble up seagrasses and freshwater plants. They seem to love putting on shows as they flip and flop their huge tails in rivers, inlets, boat basins and springs. They’re not going to win any beauty contests (I think the starfish have that category locked up), but they are adorable in all their pudgy glory and folks love to see them.
“Let a smile be your umbrella” might be the mantra of these warm-blooded, air-breathing mammals that just love to “talk.” Sailing along in the Gulf, you’re apt to spot the gray Atlantic bottlenose dolphins (Flipper was a bottlenose) as they frolic alongside. You can frolic with them yourself in aquariums and research centers at numerous spots around the state. Your new best friend just might happen to weigh between 330 - 1,400, measure 8.3 - 14 feet long and respond to sign-language hand cues.
Out in the Gulf, in the Keys and in the Atlantic waters, it truly is a sight when a bevy of these beauties tag along on your vacation. They love Florida and can be spotted year ‘round.
Along Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic coasts live an array of shark species, such as nurse sharks, bull sharks, blacktips, sandbar sharks and the great hammerhead shark. Shark attacks get plenty of press, but chances are extremely rare that you’ll be attacked. According to the International Shark Attack File, humans are 30 times more likely to be struck by lightning in Florida than to be bitten by a shark.
Nonetheless, there are some precautions to take: Never swim at night or at dusk, which is feeding time; don’t go into the water with a bleeding wound; always swim in groups; and avoid excess splashing and wearing shiny jewelry or bright clothing. Remember that sandbars are likely hangouts for sharks and that Florida’s unofficial shark “season” runs from April to October.
Florida has long been home to sharks. About a mile off the main Venice beach is an ancient riverbed that served as shark central more than 400 million years ago. Venice Beach is a hot spot for collecting sharks teeth because of the extensive sedimentary rock formations in this area. The gently sloping beaches are perfectly designed to receive washed up fossils that have been eroded from the nearshore rock deposits.
You could say that Florida shorelines and inland waterways are going to the birds. Cormorants, snowy egrets and laughing gulls will all keep you transfixed. Gulls are gregarious birds that love to roost together.
Sandpipers seem to play to an audience as they form small flocks in shallow shoreline waters and run back and forth in the surf as they forage with their bills.
Pelicans definitely aren’t dainty eaters and their throat pouches can hold about three times more than their stomachs can. Certain species (such as American white pelicans) flock here during the winter months while brown pelicans can take the heat and are here year ‘round.
COQUINAS AND OTHER SHELLS
Florida easily equates with seashell heaven, especially on Sanibel and Captiva Islands where the “Sanibel Stoop” and “Captiva Crouch” are the most popular ways of getting around. But remember an important rule: You may not collect live shells on Sanibel and Captiva because they are refuge islands (coquinas excepted). It’s also a good idea to take only a few special shells home so that many remain for everyone to enjoy.
Throughout Florida, seashell seekers will find several varieties. Conch shells offer impressive hues of pale pinks and salmon, while junonia shells are considered a real find. You might get your photo in the local newspaper if you snag one of these beauties, whose milky-colored chamber is dotted with brown spots on the outside.
Cockleshells are more common in their array of earthy tones. Coquinas are dapper dressers in colorful stripes, solids and even plaids. They hang out at the water’s edge, burrow in, and when exposed they wriggle back into the damp sand.
It’s “money” in the memory bank as you scour the shorelines for sand dollars, which are like sea urchins. With no arms or legs, they use tiny spines on their bodies to move and can be found buried under a layer of sand. If you find some “unoccupied” shells, bleach them and they’ll reveal a beautiful white textured pattern.
Recently, I went “hunting” for scallops at a local seafood shop. I found the succulent morsels, but can anything really beat the taste of scallops that you’ve harvested yourself? Open harvest season for bay scallops along Florida’s upper Gulf coast typically runs from July 1 to Sept. 10 (subject to change yearly). The shells conceal the “prize” inside, a round, dime- to nickel-sized muscle that’s about 3/4-inches long. Keaton Beach, Hagen’s Cove and Steinhatchee are several great scalloping spots. If you have a boat, steer into the grass flats where scallops like to congregate. If boating isn’t your thing, Hagen’s Cove will suit you just fine as you wade in the shallow waters in search of what will certainly make a fine supper that night!
Sea stars rank in the upper echelon of Florida’s shoreline beauties. These five- to nine-pointed creatures make “tide pooling” a popular pastime, especially among the younger crowd whose eagle eyes scan the waters. It seems a certain type of camaraderie breaks out when searching, with strangers inquiring, “Have you seen any sea stars?” Sea stars may well be the most unusual but well-known creature, and their “get up and go” style is truly unique. They have no front or back and can move in any direction without turning.
Fiddler crabs (who earned their moniker from the motion males make when courting females, much like someone moving a bow across a fiddle) are apt to put on a show at low tide, so grab a “ticket” and head to the nearest beach. If, by chance, while sunning yourself you hear a bubbling sound, that could be a ghost crab. These little creatures might be small in stature but their gill chambers sure can get your attention.
THE STINGRAY SHUFFLE
It’s called the “Stingray Shuffle” and it’s all the rage for those about to dip their tootsies into the Gulf. Just shuffle along as you wade into the water. The Atlantic stingray isn’t aggressive and buries itself in shallow waters near the shore for protection from things like predators and big, human feet. Striking with its tail is simply the ray’s involuntary reflex called into action when it is disturbed. Using the “Stingray Shuffle” gives rays notice to flee when beachgoers get close to them.
Florida has several species of rays, including Southern stingrays, roughtail and blunt-nose stingrays, in various sizes and colors. They inhabit southern coastal waters throughout Florida and are bottom dwellers. Some species have a wingspan of over seven feet.