ECOTOURISM: Un­cover na­ture’s beauty

Travel Guide to Florida - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - BY SALLY WHITE

Known for glis­ten­ing sugar sand beaches and sparkling turquoise wa­ters, Florida draws vis­i­tors from around the world. With more than 80 dif­fer­ent ecosys­tems and a vast ar­ray of nat­u­ral re­sources, this sun-kissed state, known for balmy win­ters and sul­try sum­mers, of­fers some­thing for ev­ery­one.

The glit­ter­ing depths of Wil­lis­ton’s sub­ter­ranean un­der­wa­ter cav­erns of Devil’s Den and the saltier ex­plo­rations around the ship­wrecks from Pen­sacola to Port St. Joe serv­ing as artificial reefs to the lo­cal marine life on the Florida Pan­han­dle Ship­wreck Trail beckon avid scuba divers. Hik­ing en­thu­si­asts find them­selves drawn to the chal­lenges of the 1,400-mile Florida Trail, the Na­tional Scenic Trail stretch­ing from the Ever­glades to Pen­sacola Beach, while oth­ers pre­fer to drink in the vista views from the canopy walk­way of Myakka River State Park or climb the lime­stone bluffs above the whitewater rapids at Big Shoals State Park.

Eleven thou­sand miles of wa­ter­ways, the warm wa­ters of the Gulf of Mex­ico and the cooler At­lantic en­tice pad­dlers to in­ves­ti­gate the wilds and an­glers to cast their lines in hopes of snag­ging a bass or prize-win­ning co­bia.

With an ex­ten­sive va­ri­ety of nat­u­ral re­sources avail­able, it can be dif­fi­cult for trav­el­ers to choose how to spend their time. These top 10 Florida eco­tours not only aid the state’s ecotourism through pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion, but also give back to their com­mu­nity to help main­tain these di­verse na­tive as­sets for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to en­joy while al­low­ing vis­i­tors unique op­por­tu­ni­ties to ex­pe­ri­ence wild Florida.

1 SNORKEL LIV­ING REEFS AT DRY TOR­TU­GAS NA­TIONAL PARK IN THE FLORIDA KEYS.

Vi­brant trop­i­cal fish dart past, duck­ing to hide in the depths of the color­ful liv­ing co­ral and sponges at the Dry Tor­tu­gas Na­tional Park sit­u­ated within the Ever­glades & Dry Tor­tu­gas

Bio­sphere Re­serve. This 100-square-mile re­serve en­com­passes seven is­lands and the tail end of a reef that stretches from Mi­ami to this na­tional park 70 miles from Key West. The re­mote lo­ca­tion has min­i­mized hu­man im­pact on the reef, mak­ing it one of the best un­der­wa­ter snor­kel­ing and div­ing lo­ca­tions in Amer­ica. The Dry Tor­tu­gas Na­tional Park pro­vides a home to abun­dant fish life, sea stars, queen conchs, anemones, sea tur­tles and 30 species of co­ral. The Dry Tor­tu­gas can be reached via daily ferry from Key West. The ISO-cer­ti­fied Yan­kee Free­dom III is the of­fi­cial na­tional park ferry, pro­vid­ing nearly five hours of ex­plo­ration time and com­pli­men­tary snor­kel­ing gear to use while vis­it­ing Amer­ica’s south­ern­most na­tional park. Tickets can be pur­chased on­line or at 240 Mar­garet Street, Key West, Florida 33040. The ferry de­parts from 100 Grin­nell Street, Key West, Florida 33040. 1-800-634-0939. dry­tor­tu­gas.com

2 WALK THROUGH A WILDLIFE HAVEN AT AUDUBON CORKSCREW SWAMP SANC­TU­ARY IN NAPLES.

An 800-year-old wilder­ness greets vis­i­tors at this 13,000-acre swamp, home to the largest nest­ing colony of en­dan­gered wood storks, the ghost or­chid and the largest old-growth bald cy­press for­est in North Amer­ica. A 2.25mile board­walk me­an­ders through wet prairie, marsh­lands and pine flat­woods where more than 200 species of birds such as the snowy egret, barred owl, limp­kin and sand­hill crane re­side. Vis­i­tors can choose a 1.5-hour guided tour on the board­walk or go at their own pace to en­joy this an­cient nat­u­ral haven. 375 Sanc­tu­ary Road, Naples, Florida 34120. 1-239-348-9151. corkscrew.audubon.org

3 EX­PE­RI­ENCE BIOLUMINESCENCE IN A KAYAK AT IN­DIAN RIVER LA­GOON.

In the dark­ness of the night, kayaks glide across the In­dian River La­goon and Mos­quito La­goon in Mer­ritt Is­land Na­tional Wildlife Refuge. Ev­ery swish of the pad­dle and move­ment in the wa­ter spawns swirls of glow­ing elec­tric green color through the wa­ter. This glow-in-the-dark phe­nom­e­non, caused by a com­bi­na­tion of sin­gle-celled micro­organ­isms called di­noflag­el­late, warm tem­per­a­tures and wa­ter salin­ity lev­els, oc­curs June through early Oc­to­ber. Come midOc­to­ber through March, bi­o­lu­mi­nes­cent jelly combs, a crea­ture sim­i­lar to a jelly fish, but with­out the st­ing, con­gre­gate in the wa­ters of the In­dian River La­goon to il­lu­mi­nate the cooler nights. A Day Away Kayak Tours of­fers 90-minute bioluminescence guided tours and full-moon pad­dle tours from Mer­ritt Is­land Wildlife Refuge year-round. Tours can be pur­chased through their web­site. Tour launch point is at Haulover Canal at Mer­ritt Is­land Na­tional Wildlife Refuge, Florida 32782. 1-321-268-2655. aday­awaykayak­tours.com

4SWIM WITH THE MAN­A­TEES ON THE NA­TURE COAST.

Crys­tal River, a win­ter play­ground to the West In­dian mana­tee, at­tracts thousands of these gen­tle giant sea cows when wa­ter tem­per­a­tures in the Gulf of Mex­ico be­gin to drop. In 2016, over 500 man­a­tees gath­ered in the Crys­tal River area at one time. Man­a­tees like to frolic in the warmer wa­ters of the spring sys­tems around Kings Bay and are of­ten spot­ted in the Three Sis­ters Springs at the Crys­tal River Na­tional Wildlife Refuge. Though no longer on the en­dan­gered list, they re­main a “threat­ened” species. River Ven­tures has been tak­ing guests to swim and snorkel with the

BELOW: Tub­ing on the Ichetuck­nee River. CEN­TER: Zip line across lime­stone canyons. BOT­TOM: Kayak­ing at the Guana Tolo­mato Matan­zas Na­tional Es­tu­ar­ine Re­search Re­serve near St. Augustine. OP­PO­SITE TOP LEFT: In­side a cav­ern at Florida Cav­erns State Park. OP­PO­SITE TOP RIGHT: Kayak­ing through the marshes and wa­ter­ways near Jack­sonville. OP­PO­SITE CEN­TER: A sea tur­tle hatch­ling. OP­PO­SITE BOT­TOM: Ex­plor­ing the di­verse ecosys­tems and en­vi­ron­men­tal habi­tats of Es­cam­bia County. man­a­tees since 2010. Prices for their three­hour mana­tee en­coun­ters in­clude the boat trip, snorkels, wet­suits and even swim noo­dles. Other more ex­clu­sive trips are avail­able as well. Mana­tee sea­son is from Novem­ber to March, but they can be spot­ted around Crys­tal River year-round. Tours leave from 498 SE Kings Bay Drive, Crys­tal River, Florida 34429. 1-877-581-8401. river­ven­tures.com

5 SOAR ACROSS LIME­STONE CANYONS WITH CANYONS ZIP LINE & CANOPY TOURS IN OCALA.

The whirr of metal on metal takes guests fly­ing through the air across the open land­scape of nat­u­ral Cen­tral Florida. The ground drops away to re­veal the steep cliff walls and gap­ing lime­stone pits of a by­gone era. Lo­cated on 100 acres of pri­vate prop­erty with ex­pan­sive canyons, lakes and is­lands, Canyons Zip Line & Canopy Tours of­fers vis­i­tors a unique look at Florida’s ge­ol­ogy. The Uni­ver­sity of Florida dis­cov­ered ev­i­dence of a pre­his­toric mana­tee and crus­tacean fos­sils in the lime­stone caves and walls and now vis­i­tors can ex­plore this pre­served en­vi­ron­ment from above, with nine zip lines, two rope bridges and a rap­pel across this area of wild Cen­tral Florida. The 1,600-foot “Su­per Zip” af­fords a bird’s-eye view of the deep­est canyon, while the thrilling 1,100-foot “Speed Trap” takes guests from an ob­ser­va­tion tower and over the cliffs to cross a wa­ter-filled canyon. 8045 NW Gainesville Rd, Ocala, Florida 34474. 1-352-351-9477. zipthecanyons.com

6GLIDE THROUGH TIMU­CUAN HIS­TORY AND MAR­ITIME FORESTS WITH KAYAK AMELIA SEGWAY TOURS NEAR JACK­SONVILLE.

The hum of the Segway pro­pels vis­i­tors past sand dunes and Na­tive Amer­i­can Timu­cuan shell mounds on Fort Ge­orge Is­land in Jack­sonville’s North­side. A Florida nat­u­ral­ist leads this 1.25-hour guided off-trail tour through the mar­itime for­est aboard crosster­rain fat-tire Seg­ways that en­sure sta­bil­ity with zero emis­sions. Guests are given in­struc­tions on rid­ing be­fore set­ting off to ex­plore the salt marshes, oak canopies and clear wa­ters along the Timu­cuan Pre­serve. Pad­dlers un­able to resist the call of the un­usual beaches and rock for­ma­tions around the Tal­bot Is­lands have the op­por­tu­nity to try one of Kayak Amelia’s pad­dle tours to ex­plore the tidal streams and sand bars. 13030 Heckscher Drive, Jack­sonville, Florida 32226. 1-904-251-0016. KayakAmelia.com

7PADDLE WITH SCHOL­ARS IN A NA­TIONAL ES­TU­AR­INE RE­SEARCH RE­SERVE IN ST. AUGUSTINE.

Pad­dle the coastal back­wa­ters of the 77,000acre Guana Tolo­mato Matan­zas Na­tional Es­tu­ar­ine Re­search Re­serve with cer­ti­fied Florida Mas­ter Nat­u­ral­ist In­struc­tors through twist­ing and wind­ing tidal cor­ri­dors on a “guided by na­ture” two-hour kayak tour. Fresh wa­ter drains into the wa­ter­shed, cre­at­ing a habi­tat abun­dant with di­verse aquatic plant and wildlife. Over 300 birds, 40 rep­tiles and 20 am­phib­ians and 500 dif­fer­ent plant species re­side in this unique eco­log­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment. Rip­ple Ef­fects Ad­ven­ture Out­fit­ters, lo­cated in the town of Marineland just South of St. Augustine, also of­fers tours aboard the only veg­etable-oil pow­ered eco­tour boat in North­east Florida and catch-and-re­lease fish­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for angling en­thu­si­asts. 101 Tol­stoy Lane, St. Augustine, Florida 32080. 1-904-347-1565. rip­ple­ef­fecte­co­tours.com

8 TUBE THE CRYS­TAL CLEAR WA­TERS OF THE ICHETUCK­NEE RIVER IN FORT WHITE.

Float the pris­tine sap­phire wa­ters of the Ichetuck­nee River, the clean­est spring-fed river in Florida, de­clared a Na­tional Nat­u­ral Land­mark in 1972. Vis­i­tors can choose be­tween the 1.5-hour or 3.5-hour tube float within Ichetuck­nee Springs State Park on this lazy six-mile river with op­por­tu­ni­ties to see nat­u­ral Florida springs, ot­ters, beavers and even man­a­tees. Ichetuck­nee State Park only just be­gan rent­ing tubes within the park. Kayak and ca­noe rentals are also avail­able, and only non-mo­tor­ized ves­sels are al­lowed on the river. 12087 SW U.S. High­way 27, Fort White, Florida 32038. 1-386-497-1113. flori­das­tateparks.org/park/Ichetuck­nee-Springs

9DESCEND INTO THE LABYRINTHINE UN­DER­GROUND AT FLORIDA CAV­ERNS IN MARIANNA.

The only dry-air cave tour in a Florida state park can be found at Florida Cav­erns State Park in North Florida. Vis­i­tors take a 45minute guided tour with a park ranger wind­ing their way through nar­row pas­sages and around unique lime­stone for­ma­tions like drip­ping sta­lac­tites, mound­ing sta­lag­mites, flow­stones and draperies. Blind cray­fish, bats and cave sala­man­ders can also be found in this un­usual 65 F year-round Florida habi­tat. 3345 Cav­erns Road, Marianna, Florida 32446. 1-850-482-1228. flori­das­tateparks.org/park/Florida-Cav­erns

10HUNT FOR TREA­SURE ALONG THE EN­VI­RON­MEN­TAL GEOCACHE TOUR OF ES­CAM­BIA COUNTY.

Ten geocache sites take trea­sure hunters through di­verse ecosys­tems and unique en­vi­ron­men­tal habi­tats of Es­cam­bia County. Us­ing GPS co­or­di­nates, vis­i­tors hunt down the hid­den caches, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing bayou board­walks; a glimpse of the car­niv­o­rous white top pitcher plant of Tarkin Bayou Pre­serve State Park; oys­ter reefs; salt marsh and sea grass habi­tat of Project Green­shores; and the rolling sand dunes of Per­dido Key among the high­lights on their geo­caching ad­ven­ture tour. The Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion (DEP) and the City of Pen­sacola part­nered to cre­ate this re­mark­able eco­tour. Vis­i­tors who lo­cate eight out of 10 caches can take their log-in sheet to the DEP in Pen­sacola to re­ceive a coin com­mem­o­rat­ing the 450th birth­day of Pen­sacola. Par­tic­i­pants should log their finds on geo­caching.com. Log sheets and co­or­di­nates are found at myescam­bia.com/our-ser­vices/nat­u­ral-re­sources-man­age­ment/nat­u­ral-re­sourcescon­ser­va­tion/es­cam­bia-county-geo­caching-tour Com­mem­o­ra­tive coins may be picked up upon tour com­ple­tion at the DEP, 160 West Govern­ment Street, Pen­sacola, Florida 32502. 1-850-595-8300.

OP­PO­SITE TOP: Beach camp­ing on the Gulf of Mex­ico in South­west Florida. OP­PO­SITE BOT­TOM: Aerial view of Dry Tor­tu­gas Na­tional Park and Fort Jef­fer­son. BELOW: Board­walk at Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanc­tu­ary in Naples. CEN­TER: A glow-in-the-dark bioluminescence phe­nomenom at In­dian River La­goon. BOT­TOM: Swim with man­a­tees in Crys­tal River.

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