Florida doesn't spring to mind as a haven for wildlife, but look beyond the theme parks and you'd be surprised. We send TV presenter Patrick Aryee to uncover the region's little-known wildlife gems...
If I asked you to write down your top three wildlife destinations, right now, Florida probably wouldn’t make the list. For many of us, the golden savannahs of South Africa, or even the untamed jungles of India would first come to mind. But after a brief stay in Fort Myers this summer, I quickly discovered that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to exploring the wild side of this beach region.
Drawn in by its natural beauty, visitors from around the state, country and across the world come to find that the picturesque scenery of sugary-sand beaches and tangled mangroves is also packed with fauna as well.
Travelling to more traditional wildlife locations is normally the toughest part of any wild adventure. The beauty of The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel, though, is its easy-to-reach location – earning its nickname as the ‘gateway to southwestern Florida’.
Getting there from continental Europe is pretty straightforward; fly into Southwestern Florida International Airport (RSW) and downtown Fort Myers is just a 25-minutes taxi ride away. It’s only about a two-hour drive from the popular city break destinations of Tampa Bay and Miami Beach, so you can easily make a day trip of it from either city. However, I’d definitely recommend staying longer to enjoy a view even the east coast can’t beat — the sunset over the Mexican Gulf.
The marine life in Florida is extremely diverse and this, in part, is thanks to the 1,350 mile of coastline and over 30,000 lakes that are dotted throughout the state.
Fort Myers in particular is a water world. The combination of the Gulf of Mexico, freshwater streams, brackish wetlands and the steady waters between the main barrier islands allow for a range of aquamarine species to thrive here.
This, of course, includes two of the world’s most charismatic animals: manatees and dolphins. There’s nothing quite like an encounter with marine mammals in their natural habitat. The opportunity to see both bottlenose dolphins and West Indian manatees with relative ease – whether it’s paddling through mangroves on the Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail or sailing out in Pine Island Sound – is a major attraction for eco-tourists, making it a dream destination for many.
When you finally make it to the beach (and there are plenty to choose from) you’ll immediately understand why the region is famous for its shells. The surrounding barrier islands are part of a large plateau in the Gulf of Mexico. A deep swell pushes shells towards this natural 'shelf' and onto the beaches in their millions, still largely intact – scattering the shore like pebbles.
Tread carefully though. Fort Myers has over 40 miles of nesting habitat for another marine favourite: sea turtles. Although nesting activity happens at night, keep your eyes to the ground for ‘bubbling sand’ during the daytime, the tell-tale sign of hatchlings that are a little late to the party.
Although the megafauna is a big draw, you’ll soon find yourself attracted to the miniature marine life too. Sand dollars, jelly-fish, sea cucumbers and sea urchin can all be seen whilst snorkelling in the shallows. Don your scuba gear and the wonders of the reef await, including octopus, pufferfish, smalltooth sawfish, rays and sharks.
Florida is located smack bang in the middle of the Atlantic Flyway – a ‘north-south’ waterfowl migration route that stretches for over 3,000-miles, down from Greenland’s arctic tundra to the tropical seas of the Caribbean and South America.
As such, in addition to its numerous native residents – some of which include the great egret, osprey, anhinga, and the double-crested cormorant – in the winter, Fort Myers becomes home to something akin to a bird super-festival. In peak season, there are over 270 species of bird in Lee County. They’re all here because of the productive ecosystems that support these variety of birds in such large numbers.
J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is one of 10 notable locations along the flyway and a popular hotspot for those looking to immerse themselves. Whether you’re an avid birdwatcher or a friendly admirer of mother nature, there’s something for everyone.
Cycle the trails, take a tram ride or stroll along the boardwalks. Download the smartphone app ‘Discover Ding’ for more information and to help you explore the refuge. If you’re looking for some expert insider knowledge, get yourself onto a guided kayak tour and find out more about the natural riches hidden among the tangled branches.
It’s not only in the mangroves that you can find an abundance of wildlife: out in Pine Island Sound Aquatic Preserve are 16 colonial rookery islands, including the three largest rookeries: Broken Islands, Hemp Key and Useppa Oyster Bar.
These islands account for 13 species of wading and diving birds, and together harbour over 5,000 nests. Report all of your bird sightings on eBird and Florida Nature Trackers to add to the valuable data of these citizen science programs. For more information on where else in the state you can go to see bird life, the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail has a network of 510 prime wildlife viewing sites.
The Everglades has become synonymous with the national park of its namesake, but it is in fact a much larger natural region of tropical wetlands in southern Florida – unique in that the ecosystem is found nowhere else on earth. The system begins further north than the park, near Orlando, and flows down along the Kissimmee River, where the drainage basin opens up to the lower third of the state, via Lake Okeechobee.
Big Cypress National Preserve, Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area and Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve all form significant portions of the ecosystem. Like them, the Everglades National Park is easily accessible from Fort Myers – a 90-min drive will have you arrive at the parks Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City.
Weather conditions are generally pleasant during the dry winter season. With animals congregating at central water locations, this is the best time to view wildlife.
The Florida Keys is also another place of significant natural beauty. Fort Myers is located perfectly on the coast, so take the Key West Express ferry for an easy ride over to Key West.
The islands lie cradled within the Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico – described as a teal and emerald necklace of coral-and-mangrove. If it was good enough for Hemmingway, it’s certainly good enough for us.
As a wildlife destination, Fort Myers is a welcome alternative for those looking for exciting wildlife alongside convenience. It offers travellers the unique opportunity to paddleboard through mangroves in the morning, go island hopping in the afternoon and enjoy spectacular sunset walks along the beach before nightfall.
You’ll no doubt want to head to a downtown bar to reflect on your wild experiences with a cocktail in hand. Fort Myers is a place where you can settle into the slower pace of island life, with the luxury of having plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities right on your doorstep.
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