Florida’s known for its big beach resorts and even bigger theme parks. But did you know the Sunshine State’s also home to 161 state parks, four national parks and two national seashores?
Here, we take a look at Florida’s green side. So come with us as we tour Florida’s ecotourism hotspots, where you can see Mother Nature at her best and support her efforts…
You can’t talk about Florida ecotourism and not mention the Everglades – Florida’s most visited ecological attraction. It is the biggest subtropical wilderness in North America, after all. The Everglades sprawls out over 1.5 million acres on Florida’s southern tip. Plus, it’s day tripping distance from both the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, so you can visit whether you’re staying in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, or Naples.
The park’s got a big claim to fame – it’s the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles live side by side. Once you arrive, you can head on a guided walk, or cycle along the marked trails. But the best way to explore the wet grassland is on water. This way, you can get up close to all the aquatic life. And if it is wildlife you’re here for, we’ve got a tip for you – you’re most likely to spot animals during dry season, from December to May, when the waters are lower. There are also less mozzies around at this time of year, so it’s a win-win.
This string of islands uncurl from Florida’s tip, like a thin tail. You’ll probably have seen photos of the serene-looking sands here. But, beyond the beach, you’ve got the world’s third-biggest barrier reef. It’s also North America’s only coral barrier reef, so – fittingly – it’s protected by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
The sanctuary’s home to more than 6,000 plant and animal species, including five types of turtles and the endangered Florida manatee. You can book diving or snorkelling trips to catch a glimpse of them. Or, sign up for a dolphin-watching tour – bottlenose dolphins glide and leap through the see-through waters here. Just make sure to book with a Dolphin SMART tour operator, so you can see these beautiful mammals without disturbing them.
How does watching a rocket launch from an untouched beach sound? Well, that’s exactly what you can do on a visit to the Canaveral National Seashore. Rolling on for 24 miles, it’s the longest stretch of undeveloped Atlantic coastline in the whole state. But the 58,000-acre barrier island sits on Florida’s Space Coast, around an hour’s drive from the hustle and bustle of Orlando.
Our top tip for space enthusiasts is to grab a spot on Playalinda Beach – the closest to the launches at nearby Kennedy Space Center
. You’ll want to arrive a couple of hours early, too, as NASA restricts traffic prior to a launch. But allowing extra time means you can make the most of the pristine beaches, hiking trails and sand dunes. The beaches here are au naturel, so you won’t find a hotel or café in sight. And that’s the charm. The shores are home to plenty of wildlife, like manatees, right whales and bald eagles. Plus, endangered loggerhead sea turtles nest on the sands.
Kayak by bioluminescent plankton in Titusville
Disney’s fireworks aren’t the only things lighting up the night sky in Florida. If you head to the Space Coast – less than an hour’s drive away – you can set off on a night-time kayaking tour, with a twist. As the sky darkens, you’ll paddle out onto a shallow lagoon for a look at the bioluminescent plankton.
The tiny marine organisms glow in the dark, turning the water a bright electric shade of blue. The best time to see them is June to October. But bioluminescent comb jellies come out to play in the colder months – don’t worry, these ones aren’t stingers. The tours launch from a couple of spots along the coast, usually either the Indian River Lagoon or Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge. There’s no light pollution here, so it’s prime conditions for plankton-spotting. And, if you don’t fancy a kayak, there are family-friendly raft tours, too.
Sanibel Island started life as a sandbar on the Gulf Coast. Now, it’s a barrier island dotted with shell-filled beaches and mangroves. It’s got a huge variety of animals and migratory birds. So it’s no surprise then that the island’s home to not one, but two spots dedicated to protecting their local ecosystems. First, you’ve got the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SSCF). You can explore the four miles of nature trails on a guided tour, or under your own steam. Gopher tortoises, bobcats, otters and alligators are all local residents.
And we bet little ones will love the Nature Center, which showcases touch tanks, an alligator’s jawbone and educational exhibits. There’s also the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which was set up to protect endangered and threatened species. The refuge is famous for its migratory bird populations – with more than 245 different species available to spot. Just like SSCF, it’s equipped with walking trails, canoe launches and a Wildlife Drive.
Crystal River was first set up as a sanctuary for Florida’s favourite marine animal, the manatee. It’s fed by nearly 50 freshwater springs, with hundreds of manatees flocking here from November to March to bask in the warm waters. There are so many, in fact, it’s been dubbed the Manatee Capital of the World. You can take guided tours out to meet these gentle giants. Or, explore some of the area’s other more historical highlights, like the pre-Columbian Native American mounds at the Crystal River Archeological State Park. Take your family on an eco adventure in Florida. We’ve got a range of holidays to suit.