From swimming sea turtles and playful dolphins to gentle manatees, here are five aquatic animals you can see on a nature tour of Florida’s coastal waters and mangroves.
1. Sea Turtles
Florida has five species of sea turtles that nest along its coast. The most common is the loggerhead, with an umber-colored heart-shaped shell and block-shaped head. The largest hard-shelled turtle, it uses its strong jaws to crush conches, clams and horseshoes crabs. Travelers on a Florida nature tour will have opportunities to see these endangered sea turtles at J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. They will also visit a vital nesting beach on remote Keewaydin Island, a barrier island made of shell deposits such as horse conch, Florida’s state shell, and Juno’s volute, rare spiral shells named after the Roman queen of the gods.
As travelers’ kayak through the Ten Thousand Islands, they may also see endangered green sea turtles and the rarest species of sea turtle, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. Green sea turtles have finely serrated jaws that allow them to eat large amounts of seagrasses and algae, so much so that it causes their fat to turn green. Kemp’s ridley sea turtles have powerful jaws well adapted for crushing and grinding, ideal for their diet of shellfish such as crabs and lobster. They are the smallest sea turtle and the only species that nests during the day.
Also found in Florida’s coastal waters are critically endangered leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles. Leatherbacks are the only sea turtle without a hard shell and can dive up to 4,000 feet to feed on jellyfish, their mouths functioning like scissors to grasp and swallow their prey. Hawksbill sea turtles are found near coral reefs, where they feed primarily on sponges with their bird-like beak. Unfortunately, the tortoiseshell pattern on their shell has been sought after for use in jewelry and décor, leading to a drastic population decline.
Sea turtles face many threats, including shrimp trawling, marine pollutants, climate change and human development of their nesting beaches. The Turtle Hospital in Marathon Key rescues and rehabilitates turtles that have become entangled in nets, ingested plastic or had their shells damaged by boat propellers. Nat Hab travelers have the opportunity to tour this facility and learn about the research being done to protect the marine turtles found in Florida’s waters.
2. Alligators (and crocs)
The Everglades, one of the world’s largest tropical wetlands and a World Heritage Site, is the only place on the planet where American alligators and American crocodiles coexist. The Seminole tribe called the region Okeechobee, meaning “river of grass,” is home to these top predators that lurk among the mangrove swamps and razor-sharp sawgrass. Nat Hab travelers will have up-close views of gators and rare crocodiles on a water-based safari by private airboat.
Florida manatees can be found in shallow rivers, estuaries, marine wetlands and coastal saltwater habitats. They are rotund aquatic mammals with paddle-shaped tails, about 10 feet long in adulthood and weighing up to 1,200 pounds. These herbivores swim 3 to 5 miles per hour, moving leisurely through seagrass beds to feed. They consume 10-15% of their body weight in vegetation daily.
Manatees belong to the order Sirenia, an order of aquatic, herbivorous mammals. The term relates to their historical connotation with mermaids–sailors sometimes mistook sightings of manatees to be mythical sirens of the sea. Florida manatees are related to West Indian, West African and Amazonian manatees, as well as dugongs. They were also related to Steller’s sea cows, encountered by Georg Wilhelm Steller after his crew became shipwrecked on Bering Island. Just 27 years after his written descriptions, these slow-moving sirenians were hunted to extinction. Manatees’ closest relatives are elephants and hyraxes, also known as rock rabbits, found on the African plains.
Manatees can live up to 60 years. Habitat loss is their biggest threat, along with human-related activities. Manatees are at risk of collisions with boats, and agricultural runoff spurs algae blooms that kill off the seagrass beds where they forage. The Florida Manatee Recovery Plan has set forth a series of conservation measures to protect these gentle giants, including research, the monitoring of waterways, the creation of sanctuaries and educational initiatives. Nat Hab travelers may come across manatees while kayaking and cruising through Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and the adjacent Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, as well as Everglades National Park.
In Key West National Wildlife Refuge, accessible only by boat, our nature travelers board a private dolphin watch and snorkeling cruise. Our biologist-owned ecotour operator is committed to sustainability and designed Squid to be the first lithium ion battery solar-powered electric boat. Travelers will watch bottlenose dolphins congregate in the shallow, warm waters of the lower keys. As these sleek swimmers splash and play, we will learn more about these marine mammals, from their expert use of echolocation to their protected status under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. We will also be on the lookout for bonnethead sharks, barracuda and spotted eagle rays in the clear depths.
5. Coral reefs
According to the Coral Reef Alliance, “coral reefs are built by and made up of thousands of small animals—coral “polyps”—that are related to anemones and jellyfish. Their brilliant color comes from the zooxanthellae (tiny algae) living inside their tissues.” The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is the world’s third longest barrier reef and the only coral reef in the continental U.S. The 2,900 square nautical miles are filled with pristine coral gardens inhabited by crustaceans, sea squirts, snails, sponges, gastropods and bivalves. On the last leg of their journey, Nat Hab travelers will board a sea plane to the Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park. There, snorkelers can swim amidst the brightly hued coral alongside colorful tropical fish, sea turtles, sharks, stingrays and many other aquatic animals that make their underwater home in the Gulf of Mexico.