As we sail away from the Marco Island marina on a sticky morning in search of dolphins, James Livaccari, biologist on board the Dolphin Explorer, points out a bald eagle chasing an osprey, a great white egret catching fish on the point of the Isle of Capri. We see terns, a flock of brown pelicans and giant frigatebirds.
Then we see dolphins. And a baby dolphin — a newborn, in fact, its skin still wrinkled from being folded in its mother’s womb. The mother is teaching the baby how to swim. The paying passengers, children and adults, are excited, but Livaccari is the most excited of all. He recognizes the mother and can’t wait to get back to his logs to see who Mom was spotted hanging out with at this time last year. That will almost certainly be the father, he says.
Marco Island is a drive of about 105 miles straight west from downtown Miami, mostly along Tamiami Trail. It is the largest and northernmost of the Ten Thousand Islands, and a fine spot for an overnight getaway — or even a long day trip.
Some people come here for the beaches, a sweet crescent of sand on the Gulf fronted by hotels and condos. Some come for the shelling — there are islands and sandbars aplenty — or the backcountry fishing and paddling. Some like to go to the shops and restaurants in Naples, 15 miles to the north, then retreat to Marco Island’s casual ambience.
I like it for its wildlife spotting. Both the setting and the wildlife are different from what we see on Florida’s east coast.
Marco Island — and the drive there — offer plenty of wildlife-related opportunities, both guided and unguided: Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve have entrances along the Tamiami Trail; Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park and Collier-Seminole State Park are nearby; and there’s paddling in kayak or canoe through the Ten Thousand Islands.
For me, the ideal one-night staycation on Marco Island would include a cruise on the Dolphin Explorer, sunset cocktails and dinner at one of the area’s casual waterfront restaurants, and on the way home, a detour to Chokoloskee for a taste of local history. Add another day, and I’d throw in a kayak tour or a swamp walk at Fakahatchee and a stop at the new Marco Island Historical Museum.
ON THE WATER
Like many of Florida’s coastal cities and towns, Marco Island and Naples have recreational cruises, an hour or two aboard a boat, maybe to celebrate the sunset or look for dolphins with cocktail in hand.
The Dolphin Explorer is something different, though — it’s a three-hour boat ride with an educational component that has been recognized by the National Geographic book, 100 Places That Can Change Your Child’s Life. The Explorer crew has cataloged more than 200 local dolphins, identifying them by notches in their dorsal fins, naming and photographing them.
On its twice-daily tours, the crew and passengers of the Dolphin Explorer watch for dolphins, identify them from the book of photographs on board, then log the sightings, the animals’ behavior and who they were with. There’s also a stop on a barrier island for shelling, sunbathing or a walk on the white sand.
The boat tours run year round but may slow in summer, when fewer people sign up. September, dolphins’ birthing season, is the slowest time of all due to the weather, but could be the most exciting time for passengers, who might see newborns like we did on our venture late last summer. Summer is also when the chances of spotting a manatee are best.
DETOUR ON THE WAY HOME
About 25 miles east of Marco Island and a few miles south of Tamiami Trail is Everglades City, a town of about 400 people that is often called the Gateway to the Ten Thousand Islands, where many fishing and paddling trips are launched.
Everglades City has a number of restaurants known for their seafood, including Triad Seafood Market & Café, City Seafood Restaurant and Camellia Street Grill. The town’s specialty is stone crabs, but with the season ending May 15, you’ll need to pick something else — there are still plenty of seafood options. Caution: Some restaurants curtail their hours over the summer, so check whether they’re open before you go.
Our destination is the ghost town of Chokoloskee, a small island a few miles south of Everglades City connected by causeway to the mainland. White settlers came here in the late 1800s and hunted wildlife for plumes, hides and fur; some established farms, where they grew sugarcane and vegetables. One of them, Ted Smallwood, opened a trading post and post office on his farm in 1906.
Everything changed for the little community soon after that. Into their midst moved Edgar J. Watson, a farmer and businessman who was violent, bullying, sometimes psychopathic. He frightened his neighbors, until one day in 1910 they confronted him at Smallwood’s store and shot and killed him. Peter Matthiessen turned the real-life story into a novel, Killing Mr. Watson, capturing for popular culture a Chokoloskee that is long gone.
Smallwood built a new, larger trading post in 1917. It stands there today, not far from the original, on stilts above the high tides and surges of Chokoloskee Bay. Its shelves are stocked with goods from the early and mid-20th century, but now it’s a private museum, still owned by the Smallwood family and a nonproft organization they formed.
You can learn about Edgar Watson here, as well as about the hunters and farmers who made a living on the island. On display are pelts, Indian handicrafts, old machinery, classic soda pop bottles, old glassware, canoes, the post office window and much more that is reminiscent of the first half of the 20th century.
If you want to continue the wildlife theme of this staycation, you can arrange a boat tour through the Smallwood store and customize it — mangrove exploration, birds, history. It’s a fitting end to a trip through a unique corner of the world.