Another day finds me out on the water again, this time on a “Sea Life Encounter” cruise from the Mote Aquarium, a quasi-educational outing with Stephanie, a marine biologist.
We see dolphins within a few minutes after leaving the dock, but it’s Stephanie who spots the tiny fin of a baby dolphin. The little children love that there’s a baby swimming next to us, and there is much oohing and aahing every time the baby surfaces.
“I love dolphins,” one little boy pronounces. “I love dolphins, too,” another boy adds fiercely, as if only a limited number of people can love dolphins and he’s competing to be one of them.
Our boat circles rookeries in the bay, densely populated with about 900 pairs of nesting birds — roseate spoonbills, brown pelicans, cormorants, egrets and more. The islands are natural but have been diminished by erosion, so now they are protected by rock breakwaters. There is no connection to land, keeping the birds safe from predators like raccoons that would raid the nests.
On our way back in, Stephanie throws out a fish net that drags the bottom of the bay, then dumps its contents into an aquarium for our last lesson of the day. She puts some of the tiny creatures she caught — brittle starfish, sea anemone, conch, tiny silvery fish — in water in plastic containers and we pass them around, looking for the features that she told us about, gently touching the ones she told us we could. At the end, she throws everything back into the bay.
The view of nature is completely different at Myakka River State Park, which has North America’s first public treetop trail, a walkway suspended 25 feet above the ground. Only a few other people are on the Boylston Nature Trail, which leads to the canopy walk, and I walk long stretches without encountering anyone.
Sometimes it is as if no one else is in the park, and at every rustle of leaves, every snap of a twig, I wonder who or what is keeping me company. The park has more than two dozen varieties of snakes, as well as animals I’d rather not meet alone in the woods: coyotes; feral pigs; bobcats. There have even been recent Florida panther sightings. But I see nothing other than lizards and squirrels.
The wooden walkway is a sturdy hanging bridge that crosses through the trees to a 74-foot-tall tower. Visitors who climb to the top of the tower get a panoramic view of the park. From this spot high above the treetops, a mass of a thousand shades of green, gray and brown, I can see across the hammock and beyond. I know the trees are full of birds, but I can’t distinguish them through the foliage.
Instead, I am introduced to the park’s population of birds on the Myakka Maiden, an airboat that tours the park’s larger lake. Birds are everywhere. In addition to the usual herons, egrets, cormorants, ibises, anhingas, wood storks, hawks and more, we see rare sandhill cranes as we motor along the lake’s far shore.
We also meet the park’s alligators. At first, the gators are hard to spot, but before long before we realize that they are everywhere around us — dozens of them, floating motionlessly, swimming, sunning themselves on the shore. They are watching us, too.
That evening, I drive into Sarasota’s old downtown for dinner. Every space on the street is taken. The place is hopping, diners spread among restaurants featuring Peruvian, Greek, Vietnamese, Thai, Spanish and Mexican food, plus seafood, sushi and American cuisine.