ECOTOURISM: Uncover nature’s beauty
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.