Spotting wild animals can be a thrilling experience, as anyone who’s been on an African safari can testify. But without a guide who knows the animals’ habits and habitats, spotting them isn’t so easy, and in Florida, it is certainly not as organized.
Successful viewing depends on a little luck and a lot of preparation, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Florida is so built-up these days that animals stay pretty much in their natural habitats, which often aren’t easily accessible for visitors. However, the commission provides a provides an excellent and comprehensive guide to how, where and when to view Florida wildlife at www.myfwc.com/wildlife.
Spotting wildlife also can depend on dumb luck.
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No more than 180 Florida panthers in the wild survive today, but I happened to see one of these rare felines by chance some years ago near the Florida Power & Light nuclear plant south of Miami.
For an animal that was on the brink of extinction just 20 years ago, when only 20 to 30 Florida panthers existed, the current number represents a comeback. Most of the cats live in Collier and Hendry counties in Southwest Florida, part of their historic range, but sightings are rare.
Obviously, it is not wise to approach panthers or certain other animals, nor to venture into wilderness areas where one could easily come upon a dangerous animal. Black bears can be quite dangerous, as are snakes, alligators and crocodiles. Raccoons and foxes may be rabid.
Also, people interested only in viewing wildlife should avoid certain areas during hunting seasons, said Mike Anderson of the Fish and Wildlife Commission. Hunting seasons are listed at www.myfwc.com.
Of course, it’s safe to see animals in zoos as well as wildlife refuges, some state parks and commercial animal attractions like Lion Country Safari, Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom and Busch Gardens’ Serengeti Plain.
What can you see and where?
White-tailed deer are found throughout the state, as are opossums, raccoons, armadillos, rabbits and alligators, but crocodiles are quite rare. Wild pigs (boars) have been spotted in most counties. Bobcats and skunks also are found in most regions of the state, but they are mostly active at night. Otters prefer fresh water, so you are more likely to see them in rivers, ponds and lakes. Beavers and coyotes are more often seen in North Florida.
Florida has between 2,500 and 3,000 black bears; 504 bear sightings were reported in the past year. Most black bears in the southern part of the state live in Big Cypress National Preserve and Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park.
Here is a sampling of where and when to see some Florida animals safely.
In late fall and winter, these gentle creatures migrate to the warmer waters of Florida springs, which remain at a constant 70-72 degrees. Hundreds make their way to Blue Springs State Park, about 45 miles north of Orlando on the St. Johns River, where so many people come to see them that the park sometimes has to turn visitors away. Manatees can be seen at Blue Springs from November to March.
Manatees also can be seen in a number of other locales, including Manatee, Fanning and Homosassa Springs state parks. Homosassa’s manatees can be seen year round in the park’s underwater observatory. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge bans visitors to its Manatee Sanctuary from Nov. 15 to March 31, but the manatees can be seen outside the sanctuary from tour boats operating out of the town of Crystal River. Another wildlife refuge, Merritt Island, has a manatee viewing area at the Haulover Canal bridge in Titusville.
Manatees like warm water, so they also head for the outflow canals of electric power plants. Tampa Electric Co.’s Apollo Beach plant has a Manatee Viewing Center, and Lee County Manatee Park in Fort Myers has a platform for viewing the mammals, which gather at the adjacent discharge canals of a power plant.
Websites: www.floridastateparks.org/bluespring; www.fws.gov/crystalriver/; www.tampaelectric.com/company/mvc/; www.leeparks.org/pdf/Manatee_park_trifold.pdf; www.fws.gov/merrittisland/; www.myfwc.com/education/wildlife/manatee/where-to-see and www.savethemanatee.org/places.htm.
These miniature deer, only two to three feet tall, are found only on a few islands of the Florida Keys. The best place to see them is at the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key. The tiny deer, which are relatively tame, are often seen on Key Deer Boulevard. I have even seen them on Big Pine grazing placidly on someone’s front lawn. They are also seen on No Name Key, reached by bridge from Big Pine.
It is illegal to feed them, and the refuge requests that visitors view them from a distance. No deer are kept at the refuge headquarters, but it does have exhibits; www.floridawildlifeviewing.com. Refuge information: 305-872-2239, www.fws.gov/nationalkeydeer.
Seeing these playful creatures in the wild is an activity most visitors find exhilarating. Where are you most likely to spot them? “Almost anywhere in Florida,” on both the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, says Vanessa Collins of the Dolphin Research Center in Marathon.
One of the best ways to see them is from a dolphin boat tour. Such cruises are offered from a number of marinas, including Naples/Marco Island, Fort Myers Beach, Captiva, St. Petersburg Beach, Clearwater and Tampa on the west coast; Panama City Beach, Destin and Pensacola in the Panhandle; Key West and Islamorada in the Keys; and Fort Pierce, Melbourne and St. Augustine on the Atlantic coast.
Typically, dolphins may swim alongside tour boats, leaping in and out of the water. They’re fun to watch, but that’s all you can do — it’s against the law to interact with them.
One of the most rewarding tours is on the Dolphin Explorer on Marco Island because that cruise has biologists on board who provide commentary on dolphins and can identify individual dolphins.
There are many place to see dolphins in captivity, among them the Dolphin Research Center in Marathon, Theater of the Seas in Islamorada, the Miami Seaquarium and Discovery Cove in Orlando. Some attractions allow visitors to swim with dolphins.
Hundreds of sea turtles come ashore at night on Florida’s beaches every year to dig a nest and lay their eggs in the sand above the high-water mark. The turtles, which can weigh several hundred pounds, lay their eggs in late spring and summer.
While laying their eggs, the turtles are unmoving, so visitors are able to watch the process. But as the turtles only lay eggs on dark beaches, flashlights are not allowed. It is illegal to take their eggs or disturb the creatures.
On Florida’s Atlantic coast, public watches are conducted in Vero Beach, Titusville, Canaveral National Seashore, Melbourne, Melbourne Beach, Jensen Beach, Stuart, Boca Raton, Hobe Sound, North Palm Beach, Dania /Beach, Juno Beach and Fort Lauderdale. On the state’s west coast: Naples, Sarasota and Fort Myers.
For a list of turtle watches, visit www.myfwc.com/education/wildlife/sea-turtle/where-to-view.
Several state parks are home to a large variety of animals, animals that are easy to spot or unusual species. Here are a few:
▪ Silver Springs, Ocala: This park’s 5,000 acres shelter a variety of wildlife, which visitors may see from kayaks or canoes on the 51/2-mile-long Silver River, or from the 20 miles of hiking trails winding through several ecosystems.
Among the more frequently seen animals are armadillos, turkey, white-tailed deer and gopher tortoises. Less often spotted are coyotes, bobcats and black bears. The endangered Sherman fox squirrel is seen mainly in the park’s sandhills area. On glass-bottom boat tours, visitors usually will see alligators and turtles. www.floridastateparks.org/silversprings.
▪ Homosassa Springs, Homosassa: At this state park, about 70 miles north of Tampa, you can see a variety of animals from a wheelchair-accessible one-mile trail, including a Florida panther, wolf, black bear, bobcat, white-tailed deer, river otter, hippopotamus, alligator and crocodile. Each animal lives in a large fenced habitat of its own. www.floridastateparks.org/homosassasprings.
▪ Paynes Prairie, Gainesville: They aren’t native to Florida, but a herd of bison roams this state park. To keep the bison population manageable, the park has removed all the males. Also on the grounds are descendants of the horses the Spanish conquistadors brought to America hundreds of years ago. www.floridastateparks.org/paynesprairie.