Arrive in Fort Myers, the jumping-off point for exploring southwest Florida’s wild Gulf Coast beaches, islands, marshes and wildlife reserves. Meet your Expedition Leader at a welcome dinner this evening.
Day 2: Sanibel Island—J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge / Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge
Just offshore lies Sanibel Island, connected by a causeway to the mainland. Nearly half of this subtropical barrier island is protected within the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, named for the pioneering conservationist who persuaded President Harry S. Truman to set aside more than 6,400 acres of pristine wildlife habitat in 1945 for at-risk species and migratory birds. The refuge is part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the U.S. It also comprises cordgrass marshes, seagrass beds and West Indian hardwood hammocks. World-famous for birdwatching, the refuge supports some 250 species of seabirds, shorebirds, marsh birds, raptors, songbirds and waterfowl. Osprey nesting peaks in March. On a scenic wildlife drive and guided hike, look for birds and other wildlife such as river otter, American alligator, endangered loggerhead turtles, and the rarely seen bobcat.
Continue this afternoon to Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in the Big Cypress Basin. Fewer than 200 endangered wild panthers (elsewhere called puma, cougar or mountain lion) remain in the swamps of South Florida, and less than a dozen den and hunt within the 24,000-acre refuge—so it’s highly unlikely we’ll spy one, but it’s gratifying to walk within their native pine and hardwood habitat. We’ll meet resident wildlife specialists, take a guided hike and watch camera trap footage of panthers. Other mammals in the preserve include black bear, bobcat, white-tailed deer, Big Cypress fox squirrels, nine-banded armadillos and coyotes, as well as 120 resident and migratory bird species. The refuge harbors some 700 plant species, from cypress and ancient live oaks to wet prairies blooming with wildflowers. Later today we head to the quieter north side of Marco Island, the largest barrier island in the Ten Thousand Islands area, to spend the next two nights.
Day 3: Ten Thousand Islands—Mangrove Kayaking / Chartered Cruise in Rookery Bay
Begin the day with a gentle morning kayak tour through the mangrove tunnels edging Rookery Bay with local biologist guides. Examine oyster reefs and mudflats teeming with life as we investigate this intricate ecosystem. After lunch, head back to the bay on a private boat tour to remote Keewaydin Island. The pristine beach flanking this wild barrier island is made of shells, not sand, and we examine them up close as we go ashore. Least terns and endangered loggerhead sea turtles use the 8-mile-long beach as a vital nesting ground. Accompanied by a biologist guide, look for gastropods, bivalves, crustaceans, corals, sea squirts, snails, sponges, fishes, birds, reptiles, and more. The island is part of Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, which protects native wildlife and habitat while providing a wilderness immersion for visitors. The 110,000-acre reserve, along with the adjacent Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, is part of a matrix of protected areas conserving vast tracts of wild southwest Florida, including 232 square miles of mangrove forest. Mangrove systems provide sheltered and nutrient-rich nursery grounds for young fish, crustaceans, and mollusks. Clams, shrimp and many fish feed in the mangroves and live among the complex root systems. Notable species in the region include the Florida manatee, peregrine falcon and wood stork, as well as green, loggerhead and Kemp's Ridley sea turtles.
Day 4: Everglades National Park—Private Airboat Tour / Key Largo
Drive east across the Everglades today on two-lane Highway 41, the scenic Tamiami Trail. As we traverse Big Cypress National Preserve, look for great blue herons and white egrets in the marsh grasses and alligators sunning in the channels alongside the road. An exciting adventure awaits on a private airboat ride through the “river of grass.” This water-based safari offers a chance to see scores of the 300 bird species at home in the Everglades, plus up-close views of gators, crocodiles, otters and other wildlife, in a truly wild setting far from touristic trappings. The Everglades are the largest subtropical wilderness area in the U.S., a vast mosaic of varied ecosystems sprawling over 1.5 million acres of the lower Florida peninsula. Due to the unique nature of their formation and endemic flora and fauna found nowhere else, the Everglades hold global status as well, designated as a World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve and Wetland of International Importance. As we continue into Everglades National Park, we stop at a park visitor center for an interpretive experience and explore the wild environment further on foot. Then it's onward to Key Largo to spend the next two nights.
Day 5: Exploring the Upper Keys
Our discovery of the Florida Keys launches from Key Largo, the first of the 113-mile-long chain of coral and limestone islands that extends southwest from the bottom of Florida peninsula, dividing the Gulf of Mexico from the Atlantic Ocean. "Key" is derived from the Spanish word cayo, meaning small island. With tropical hardwoods, winding creeks, palm-fringed beaches and two state parks, Key Largo holds some of the best botanical scenery in the state. Offshore, the rich undersea world is protected within John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and adjacent Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The two underwater reserves together cover 178 square nautical miles and contain the only living coral reef in the continental U.S. Our schedule today is flexible to pursue a mix of activities, which may include searching for rare birds, hiking, photography, beachcombing or wading in the water looking for fish. Time permitting, we may also have a chance to snorkel from our hotel's private beach.
Day 6: National Key Deer Refuge / Private Dolphin & Snorkeling Cruise / Key West
Today we make our way down the chain of isles to Key West via 42 bridges, the longest of which spans seven miles. The Keys were long accessible only by water until Henry Flagler extended his Florida East Coast Railway down to Key West in the 1910s with an ambitious series of oversea trestles. The highway opened in 1938. Midway down, we reach Marathon Key where we stop for a guided tour of the Turtle Hospital. The facility cares for rescued sea turtles and rehabilitates injured animals to return them to their natural habitat. From ingesting plastic to entanglement in fishing gear and shell damage from boat propellers, sea turtles face many hazards. The hospital also works with state university turtle researchers and provides public education about endangered marine turtles. Continue to the National Key Deer Refuge, a 9,200-acre reserve that protects this endangered species found only in the lower Florida Keys. The smallest sub-species of North American white-tailed deer, only a few dozen Key deer remained by the 1950s, but conservation efforts have helped the population rebound to nearly a thousand since. On a visit to the Nature Center on Big Pine Key, learn about Key deer and 15 other endangered species protected within the refuge.
Ultimately we reach the end of the line at Key West, where we board a private dolphin watch and snorkeling cruise through Key West National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1908 by Teddy Roosevelt. Our biologist-owned ecotour operator is dedicated to sustainability, and we’ll ride on the first lithium ion battery solar-powered electric boat, custom-built to ensure a low-impact experience with wildlife. Aboard Squid, look for playful bottlenose dolphins, which congregate in the shallow, warm waters of the lower keys. In the clear depths we may also see barracuda, stingrays, turtles, small bonnethead sharks, conchs and sponge gardens. The sky overhead holds great white herons, ospreys, frigates and pelicans among the 250 bird species in the refuge. Enjoy dinner aboard in the fading colors of sunset, then return to Key West and our boutique inn in the heart of the historic district.
Day 7: Key West / Seaplane to Dry Tortugas National Park
Enjoy a free morning to explore Key West's colorful Old Town at your leisure. Don't miss Ernest Hemingway's house, now a museum, where the author lived during most of the 1930s. Scale the steel spiral staircase to the top of the Key West Lighthouse, erected in 1825, for a gull's-eye view of the historic quarter. And walk to the Southernmost Point, where you'll be just 90 miles from Cuba. Gather again for a final adventure, one of the big highlights of our trip, as we board a seaplane for the flight to Dry Tortugas National Park. Our narrated low-altitude flight offers an exciting perspective on the clear waters beneath us, and we're close enough to spot sharks, dolphins and shipwrecks below. In just 40 minutes (versus a 2-hour and 15-minute ferry ride), we land at Garden Key, second largest of the seven small islands that comprise the Dry Tortugas. The 100-square-mile national park is mostly open water, and we'll enjoy excellent snorkeling over pristine coral reefs in seas sheltered from storms. Ashore, tour Fort Jefferson, the massive unfinished coastal fortress built in the 1840s. Built to capitalize on the Tortugas' strategic location along one the world’s busiest shipping lanes was the fort's greatest military asset, a vital link in a chain of coastal forts. The fort was abandoned by the Army in 1874, and while it was used briefly during both world wars, its final chapter as “Guardian of the Gulf” had long since ended. We fly back to Key West late this afternoon, in time to enjoy the famous sunset and cap our encounter with wild Florida at a farewell dinner tonight.
Day 8: Key West / Depart
After breakfast, a transfer is provided to the nearby airport in Key West to meet departing flights. We recommend scheduling a morning departure if you will be making connections en route home.
Physical Rating: Easy to Moderate