Florida is a hot spot for animals and those who like to observe them in the wild.
When we consider the US – a land that’s perhaps most famous for its steely metropolises, fast-food chains and colossal cars – we can sometimes lose sight of the fact that it is home to some of the most vast and breathtaking wildernesses on Earth.
While the diverse and seemingly endless terrain of North America may have been tamed by generations of Native Americans and European pioneers, it was by no means conquered, and wildlife fans could spend a lifetime exploring everything that the USA has to offer.
With an extraordinary 4,392 square miles of National Parks to its name, this is particularly evident in the state of Florida. The landscape of the Sunshine State encompasses everything from glorious coral reefs and enchanted forests to rich subtropical wetlands, and hidden within these habitats is a fascinating array of animals.
So if you spent your childhood knee-deep in ponds just to get a close look at a frog, are a keen Attenborough fan or simply fancy doing something a little different, our guide will show you how to enjoy the ultimate Floridian wildlife experience.
Before we get into the best destinations to immerse yourself in the natural wonders of Florida, here are a few of the iconic animals you’ll want to keep your eyes peeled for on your travels.
- Alligators and Crocodiles: Unless you have Steve Irwin levels of know-how, you won’t want to get too close to these scaly individuals, but they are a truly impressive sight.
- Florida panthers: With Disney World adding Marvel-inspired attractions to its expanding pantheon, you may think that the only panthers you’ll see in this state are of the superhero variety. However, if you are extremely lucky, you might be able to catch a glimpse of the real Florida panther – a subspecies of cougar that is one of the most rare and endangered mammals in the world.
- Armadillos: The word armadillo means “little armoured one” in Spanish, and these odd little creatures are as cute as they are physiologically improbable.
- Key Deer: Only a little bigger than the average Chihuahua, these rare and diminutive deer primarily reside on the island Big Pine Key, and are protected by the dedicated efforts of local conservationists.
- Great Blue Herons: These large wading birds have a wingspan of six feet and beautiful blue plumage – and the eggs they lay are blue too.
- Manatees: At ten feet long and around 1,000 pounds in weight, these gentle sea mammals were mistaken for (presumably enormous) mermaids when first spotted by sailors, and share a common ancestor with elephants.
- Sea Turtles: Sea turtles nest on Florida’s shores between May and October, and public turtle walks give you the chance to see them without disturbing their nesting sites. Catch the right moment, and you may witness the magical time when all the baby turtles emerge and scurry down to the sea.
In order to see these wonderful animals for yourself (and help to protect them for future generations) here are a few of the places you can visit and support during your Florida stay.
Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, Melbourne Beach
Tragically, sea turtles are threatened with extinction throughout the globe, but the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge offers them a safe haven. Considered by biologists to be one of the most significant nesting areas for loggerhead sea turtles in the world (rivaling the beaches of Masirah Island at the Sultanate of Oman), loggerheads annually produce between 8,000 to 20,000 nests along this twenty-mile stretch of undeveloped coastline.
Green sea turtles also lay a third of their eggs here, and scattered amongst these are up to eighty yearly nests created by the rare leatherback turtle. With a reservation, you can go on a guided tour of this refuge between June and July, marvelling at this amazing natural phenomenon and the vast human efforts going into protecting it.
Florida Aquarium, Tampa
The stated mission of the Florida Aquarium is to “entertain, educate and inspire stewardship of the natural environment”, and it would be hard to argue that this not-for-profit organisation hasn’t consistently achieved these goals. Ranked as one of the best aquariums in the USA, the Florida Aquarium receives more than 800,000 guests each year, and is home to over 20,000 plant and animal species.
A recent scientific breakthrough at the Florida Aquarium saw coral reproduce in a lab setting for the first time – a breakthrough which has promising implications for the threatened American coral reef that’s found just off the Florida Keys. With such dedicated conservation and research efforts to their name, a visit to this beautiful aquarium means you can not only explore aquatic ecosystems – you can help save them too.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Merritt Island
Only an hour outside of Orlando, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is the perfect place to relax in nature if the thrills and spills of various theme parks have got a little overwhelming. Originally purchased by NASA in 1962 during the development of the Space Program, the organisation realised these 140 acres of land, water and marshes weren’t required for building, and in 1963 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed an agreement to establish the refuge.
Situated over the Atlantic flyway, 330 species of migratory birds stop over here (perfect for any keen twitchers), while manatees peacefully graze and bobcats stalk their prey.
Everglades National Park, Everglades City
The Everglades National Park is many things – including a World Heritage Site, a Biosphere Reserve, a Wetland of International Significance, and the largest designated wilderness in the eastern US – but it is also a truly unmissable place to visit. Here are a few facts to pique your interest:
- The Everglades is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles coexist.
- Surprisingly, the Everglades is actually a huge river that is sixty miles wide and a hundred miles long, with water moving slowly from north to south.
- This National Park encompasses nine habitats providing a home to 16 endangered or threatened species.
- Despite its size, surrounding construction and drainage have dramatically reduced the scope of these wetlands, with National Park status vital to protect the remaining wilderness.
- It is the home of the rare Florida Panther – Florida’s state animal and an astonishing sight, should you happen to glimpse it.
- While in the Everglades you can hike, canoe, bike, camp, fish and much more, with a vast variety of other activities on offer.
The National Key Deer Refuge, The Keys
Established in the 1950s in order to protect the Key Deer and other wildlife, this 9,200 acre refuge is home to home to 23 endangered or threatened plant and animal species. Here you can learn about The Key’s unique wildlife and support the refuge’s ongoing efforts to protect it from a multitude of threats, including environmental pressures, the potential (and politically-motivated) declassification of animals from the endangered list and over-development.
While still vulnerable, the tireless work of activists, experts and volunteers has already seen the population of Key Deer rise from just a few dozen to hundreds of individuals – and this work has a positive knock-on effect for all other wildlife in the area.
This post was written by Top Villas, who help people plan holidays through their vacation homes in locations across Europe, the Carribean and the USA, including Encore Resort at Reunion in Orlando.
Previous post: Important Tips for Solo Travelers