“Hey, Mom and Dad… let’s go to the beach!” “Honey, I’ve taken the credit card and I’m going shopping for a few hours. See you soon.” “Anybody up for a dip in the pool?” These phrases are heard constantly around Marco Island, and there’s nothing wrong with that. People come to our area to swim, shop, eat and just generally enjoy life’s simple pleasures. But there is a fun and adventurous side to southwest Florida that should be experienced by locals and visitors alike.
We sometimes forget that, before the swimming pools were built and the shopping centers erected, this land belonged to a wide variety of land animals, reptiles, mammals and birds. Wanna know something? They’re still here and you can see them pretty easily… and make it fun at the same time.
Everybody loves to see dolphins and they are all around Marco Island. One of the best ways to learn about these mammals is a trip on the Dolphin Explorer, out of Rose Marina. This dolphin study team will not only show them to you, they will tell you who they are, their habits, social behavior and travel range. This crew is also well versed in other animal and plant life to provide a full, fun learning experience on a brand new 40+ passenger boat.
Kayaking thru the magnificent mangrove islands is always a blast as well. The team at Paddle Marco also boasts and informative staff that will entertain and educate you about the area wildlife while enjoying the island backwaters and sand bars.
Rookery Bay (Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve) is just 10 minutes away from Marco, near Tamiami Trail. Representing one of the few remaining undisturbed mangrove estuaries in North America, you can visit their learning center to enjoy a touch tank, hear about the indigenous tribes, walk through their nature areas or enjoy several guided tours presented by a well- educated staff. Their 16,500 square foot facility has four research labs, a visitor center, 2,300 gallon aquarium and 140-seat auditorium with a variety of events taking place all year long.
If you’re a bit more adventurous, hop in your car and take San Marco road until it stops at Tamiami Trail. Turn right and continue three miles to the Marsh Trail parking lot. Just a couple minute walk down the trail is a tower that overlooks a marsh prairie, and this is fantastic for viewing bird life. Depending on the time of year, expect to find egrets, herons, spoonbills, stilts, white pelicans, Ibis and so many more bird species. When you’re in the tower, do an about face to the waterway behind you. Don’t be surprised to see more birds and, yes, even an alligator or two. Keep a careful eye out for a crocodile that has been seen there as well, river otters, bobcats and even a black bear. It’s close and it’s free.
Just another five miles further and you are at the Big Cypress Boardwalk. This is another free opportunity to see gators, birds and maybe even a bobcat or panther on a safe, controlled setting. The plants and trees here are amazing, and there are more Royal Palms here, growing next to Cypress Trees, than anywhere else in the world. This is also the orchid capital of the U.S.
The Big Cypress Swamp region is huge and offers several guided tours and swamp walks as well. Getting waist deep in the water to obtain an education about the flora and fauna is a fascinating outdoor classroom experience. You never know what’s going to pop up along the way!
For the less faint of heart, you can venture further east to the Oasis Visitor Center to see, and learn, about the true Everglades ecosystem. Fresh water is a key to Florida’s survival and when this meets the estuaries at Florida Bay an entirely different food chain of plants and animals becomes apparent.
The list goes on and on for opportunities to explore our area wildlife. Even on Marco Island itself you can’t pass up the Marco Island Historical Museum. Their staff is so well educated and passionate about the preservation of the island history. Exhibits change quarterly and the main hall is now housing the infamous “Marco Cat” statue on loan from the Smithsonian, an artifact of major significance to our area’s past.
So get out and visit one of these locations and maybe next time you come to Marco you’ll hear, “Hey Mom and Dad, let’s go… to a nature center!” “Honey, I have the credit card and I’m going to… make a reservation to learn about dolphins.” “Let’s go for a dip in the… swamp!”
Expand your boundaries and become more adventurous! See you on the trails!
Bob is a Naturalist on board the Dolphin Explorer. He is the author of two books, “Beyond The Mangrove Trees” and “Beneath The Emerald Waves,” both available locally, and is a regular speaker at area events. Bob loves his wife very much!