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Florida’s outdoor scene is full of diversity and surprises for wildlife enthusiasts, offering a wealth of opportunities to observe animals in their natural habitat. While bright pink flamingos and powerful alligators serve as the state’s icons, dig a little deeper and you’ll discover a colorful world of animal species. From remote islands to national parks and wildlife refuges, here are the best places for wildlife watching in Florida.
Considered a quintessential Florida wildlife viewing spot, a visit to the Everglades National Park means you’ll be able to observe fiercest alligators roaming in their natural habitat. The 2,500 square mile swampland is a natural oasis, where airboat tours journey through the Anhinga Trail to see alligators popping up to the surface to wading birds such as blue herons and egrets. Cruise through Shark Alley on a bike to explore an untamed subtropical wilderness.
Located in Crystal River on Florida’s west coast, Three Sisters Springs is a natural inlet on the eastside of Kings Bay. With five natural springs, this 57-acre oasis is known for being a prime manatee viewing area. Manatees can be seen from land or boat, with an on-site trolley tour where manatee viewing is abundant. To swim with these gentle creatures, visitors must schedule a tour or watercraft rental with independent vendors.
The Loggerhead Marine Life Center is a non-profit organization that is committed to the conservation of ocean ecosystems. Done through public education, research and rehabilitation, the Center focuses on threatened and endangered sea turtles. Visit here to see marine-themed, interactive exhibits and an on-site campus hospital, along with tropical fish, shells, and artifacts and get a personal look at some of the sea turtles being rehabilitated from illnesses and injuries.
Nestled in Titusville near Cape Canaveral, the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is home to 500 species in its 220 square miles. This area is a hotspot for manatees, sea turtles and over 330 migratory birds. For a day of spotting bald eagles, bobcats, and even alligators, drive along the 7-mile Black Point Wildlife Drive, stroll the scenic footpaths or take a kayak out on the water.
Located on Sanibel Island, J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is a 6,300-acre refuge that covers almost half of the island. While you might spot a crocodile or alligator, most visitors come here to see the variety of colorful birds, from herons to cuckoos, ospreys, and Roseate Spoonbills. Hiking and biking through the trails are a popular activity, in addition to a drive or open-air tram along Wildlife Drive.
An archipelago of seven reef islands, Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most remote islands in the United States. Here the shallow waters are crystal clear with exotic and tropical fish, coral, and marine life are right at your fingertips. Nearly 99 percent of this 100-acre park is completely submerged underwater, which makes it popular for snorkeling, diving, kayaking, and birdwatching.
Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge is considered by biologists to be one of the most significant nesting areas for loggerhead sea turtles in the Western Hemisphere. Located in Melbourne Beach, this refuge stretches more than 20 miles along an undeveloped patch of the coastline. Go on a guided turtle watch and see endangered green turtles and rare leatherback turtles, in addition to as many as 1,000 nests per mile.
The Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge in Naples is a maze of coastal mangrove islets where manatees, dolphins, alligators and birdlife reside. Take a canoe or kayak tour of the area to see if you can spot endangered species such as the peregrine falcon, wood stork and green, Atlantic loggerhead turtles in this 35,000 acres of important mangrove habitats.
If you want to see dolphins in their natural habitat instead of artificial aquarium settings, head to Shell Island. Accessed by visiting St. Andrews State Park, you can take a boat out to Shell Island, an undeveloped island between the Gulf of Mexico and St. Andrews Bay. Resident bottlenose dolphins regularly interact with snorkelers here, where you can watch local pods cruising its waters.
The Ocala National Forest is a wildlife lovers dream with its 360,000 acres of scenic hiking trails home to alligators, white-tailed deer, wild boar and gopher tortoise. Dotted with pine forests, gum swamps and cypress trees, explore 100 miles of natural habitats through the world’s largest scrub forest. If you need to cool off, the trails reveal an array of natural springs, including Juniper Springs, Alexander Springs and Silver Glen Springs.
Paynes Prairie Preserve in Micanopy is home to large expanses of untouched wilderness where you can spot wild horses and bison roaming the beautiful vistas. Boasting an array of diverse habitats and wildlife, the Florida National Natural Landmark boasts over 20,000 acres of ecosystems to explore. Wildlife watchers will delight in a day of hiking, biking or horseback riding along its forest trails, scenic lake areas and picturesque wetlands.
Myakka River State Park is home to 58 square miles of wilderness preserve where visitors regularly spot deer, bobcat, red-shouldered hawks, and cottontail rabbits in their natural habitat. Adventure through lush wetlands, prairies, hammocks, and pinelands and cross the popular boardwalk over the Upper Myakka Lake. Visit the “Deep Hole”, a 200 foot wide and 130-foot deep sinkhole where an impressive amount of Florida alligators mysteriously like to congregate.
Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge is a coastal refuge, home to 40 species of animals listed as either threatened, endangered, or of special concern. It is bisected by the Indian River Lagoon and boasts 1,091 acres. It is one of the most productive sea turtle nesting habitats in the United States. Explore the scenic area and partake in fishing, wildlife viewing, and environmental education.