Anyone who has survived a Massachusetts winter understands why I moved to Florida. Besides escaping bitter northern temperatures, animal sightings here are frequent and easy and served up in a warm climate. While the entire state is rife with wildlife, perhaps no region offers a more abundant array than the Fort Myers/Sanibel area. From the West Indian manatee to loggerhead sea turtles to a seemingly infinite variety of birds, this place houses as many creatures as Eden. To spot them, take organized tours, plan a hike or simply plop yourself in a county park and keep your eyes peeled.
I took a trip to Fort Myers' Manatee Park to a glimpse of these large sea animals. The manatee is drawn to this 17-acre swathe when it gets cold out because its canal contains the warm-water discharge of a nearby power plant. Optimum viewing times are between the months of November and March due to the cooler Gulf temperatures.
Manatees - large animals, with a bulbous, ursine look that has led to the nickname "sea cow" - are mammals. They typically rise for air every five minutes, but their trips to the water's surface are markedly brief. Blink and you miss it.
Remembering this, I keep my eyes peeled as I meander down the park's centerpiece boardwalk. I come to a viewing station overlooking a man-made cove. Pay dirt - manatees in water shallow enough to see their entire bodies. At first, I spot two manatees, then a second, third, fourth - a juvenile. The animals flip over under the water, then one rises before me, almond-eyed, full-faced, his expression bovine and curious, and, to totally anthropomorphize it, friendly/wise. If I were a photographer, this would be my money shot.
Other places to spot manatees in the Fort Myers/Sanibel area include Lovers Key State Park: Manatees can sometimes be spotted in this 1,616-acre park's canals, and from its beach. Usually, spottings happen in the wintertime when ocean waters are colder. The beach is also good for dolphin spotting.
Birds of Paradise
Rated the nation's top bird-watching destination by USA Today, The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel make bird spotting easy. You can probably start at Southwest Florida International Airport, or the parking lot of your hotel. Pulling into the town of Fort Myers Beach, I find gray pelicans standing on the pilings of the Getaway Marina, and an egret strolling in the parking. Signs in my hotel - the family-friendly Gulf-front Outrigger Beach Resort - discourage guests from feeding the innumerable seagulls, pelicans and sandpipers that flock here. But if you're really into birding, you might want to travel about 45 minutes northwest, to Sanibel Island's J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
Named for a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist who later went on to head the U.S. Biological Survey (forerunner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the park is nirvana for bird watchers. Travelers can view the refuge via kayak, foot, bike or car. I opt for a tram tour, offered by Tarpon Bay Explorers.
The entrance to the refuge, all sabal palms and strangler figs, looks decidedly primeval. Visitors travel through the refuge via a four-mile dike, constructed in the 1960s. From this branch boardwalks, overlooks and hiking trails. Together, they serve up sweeping vistas and hidden coves, periscopes on estuaries, mud flats and mangrove forests. Within minutes, my group has spotted roseate spoonbills; pelicans brown and white; egrets great, red, and snowy; white ibises; double-crested cormorants; and osprey.
Visiting close to low tide, we see these creatures flocking to the mud flat, enjoying its strong mineral smell, and feasting on oysters and fiddler crabs. An anhinga (a water bird that spears its prey via a pointed beak) calls, his voice a rusty, rhythmic quack. When he stops, the sound of absolute quiet penetrates the mangroves. The highlight of this trip - although not one for the squeamish - is seeing a red-shouldered hawk catch and eat a black snake.
Loggerhead Sea Turtles
I've arrived here too early for the annual migration of the loggerhead sea turtle. Each year between May and October these creatures instinctively return to the beaches on which they were born to lay their eggs. While adults can reach weights of 350 pounds, turtle hatchlings are tiny and fragile.
You can do much to ensure the safety of these babies. Observe the nests and nesting turtles from a distance, and be sure to follow the lights-out policy in effect on area beaches. Since the lighter seaward horizon guides the hatchlings to the water, artificial lights can distract and confuse the baby sea turtles. This may cause them to become disoriented and wander inland, lost, and in danger of death. Therefore, beach residents, including guests staying in beachfront hotels and condominiums, must turn off or shield all lights that can be seen from the beach during the hours of 9 p.m. - 7 a.m. from May 1 through October 31. This includes closing blinds or shades and turning off balcony lights. Litter, especially the plastic rings that enclose six packs of soda or beer, can entangle and kill turtles, so please pick up your trash.
Day of the Dolphin
Dolphin sighting is the Holy Grail of animal watching in Florida. Everyone wants a chance to spot these bottle-nosed wonders in the wild. It's a regional must-do, right along with the perfect picture of a boat sailing in front of a golden sunset.
I've booked a dolphin cruise leaving out of Captiva (try Captiva Cruises). Sailing away, we travel toward the setting sun, past an archipelago of mangrove islands. The wind blows the water black as we enter the Intracoastal Waterway. This body serves as a natural nursery for female dolphins and their young.
Soon enough, we spy a pod, first one dorsal fin, eventually, four. The dolphins leap out of the water, first their rubbery backs visible, then their trademark grins. Unafraid, they seem to enjoy swimming along the Lady Chadwick, for a while. I wonder if they appreciate the merry shouts and pointed fingers of our party. As the weather cools into night and I pull my sweater around me, I can't help feeling awed.