5 MEET SPECIAL FLORIDA CRITTERS
1 SEE SEA TURTLES NESTING AND IN REHABILITATION
Between March and October, Florida’s beaches host 90 per cent of the USA’s sea turtle nests. On a night-time guided sea turtle walk, you may spy on a mama turtle as she emerges from the water, crawls up the beach, digs a hole in the sand and lays eggs that look like pingpong balls. After backfilling the nest, she returns to the sea. About 100,000 turtles perform this slow and laborious ritual every year. Discover more at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach (www.marinelife.org). Near Melbourne, 100 miles farther north, join walks at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, the world’s secondlargest loggerhead nesting area (http:// turtles.ewareness.com). But, all year long, you can see these critters at the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, in the Keys. Some were injured by boat propellers, others swallowed plastic or fishing hooks. But thanks to care and rehabilitation, about 1,500 healthy turtles have been returned to the ocean (www.turtlehospital.org).
2 DISCOVER AMERICA’S SMALLEST DEER
The Key deer is North America’s smallest white-tailed Bambi – standing only 3ft high. Fewer than 1,000 remain of this sub-species, which is unique to 20 islands in the lower Keys, near Key West. Learn more at the National Key Deer Refuge visitor centre on Big Pine Key. Early morning or at dusk are the best viewing times. But avoid the temptation to feed this cute, but endangered animal (www.fws.gov/refuge/National_Key_ Deer_Refuge).
3 SWIM WITH THE GROUPERS
Swimming with a fish twice your size, now that is an adventure! Goliath groupers weigh in at several hundred pounds! From late-August throughout September, they gather to spawn in the Atlantic waters off Jupiter. Certified scuba divers start with a classroom session to learn about these gentle giants, then Jupiter Dive Center guides take you to see as many as 60 along the Jupiter Wreck Trek
4 FEED A TARPON
You don’t have to go out on the ocean to interact with one of the world’s favourite sport fish. At Robbie’s, a restaurant and water sports centre on Islamorada in the Keys, you can hand-feed these athletes of the deep. Buy a bucket of baitfish; lie on the dock and dangle the temptation. From nowhere, tarpon, often up to 6ft long, surge out of the water and snatch their prey – but not your fingers (www.robbies.
5 SPOT AN ELUSIVE FLORIDA PANTHER
Few have seen Florida’s version of a puma in the wild. Elusive and solitary, they number only about 200 now, and they hide deep in the wilderness, mainly around Lake Okeechobee and in the Everglades. These tawny ‘cats’ are impressive, weighing up to 160 pounds and measuring about 7ft long. Keep your eyes peeled! (www.myfwc.com/ wildlifehabitats/managed/panther).