Roam Among Wild Horses and Bison
One of Florida’s best-kept secrets is the 21,000-acre savanna at the state’s core, protected as Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park and home to herds of wild bison and horses. Take your pick of eight trails, including the 16-mile paved Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail, in hopes of frolicking among these unlikely residents—and capturing some stunning images along the way.
Witness Mass Coral Spawning
Every year around the full moons of August and September, the reefs of the Florida Keys erupt with colossal clouds of gametes as corals of all shapes and sizes—from brain to elkhorn to staghorn—engage in synchronized mass-spawning rituals. Peep this rare spectacle with a scheduled night dive through a professional dive operator.
Swim with Sharks
While most are content to limit interaction with the planet’s fiercest fish to their HD screens, a niche market has grown for extreme marine expeditions in real life and real time. Submerged in Earth’s Technicolor aquarium, all anthropogenic borders disappear, and we quickly learn that, under the sea, it’s a shark’s world and we’re just swimming in it. Join the crew of Shark Addicts in Jupiter to free dive among the ocean’s apex predators, which vary depending on the season but often include bull sharks, duskies, hammerheads, and lemon sharks. Anticipate a freak-out moment upon entering shark-infested waters—feeling at once excited, scared, and intimidated. Soon, however, awe replaces fear, and a once-in-a-lifetime wild interaction commences.
See Bobcats, Otters, Gators, and More
On the northwest shore of Lake Hancock in Lakeland, a former cattle ranch has been restored to its natural marsh state—and the full cast of Florida’s Jungle Book appears to have received the memo. In the 1,267-acre urban oasis known as Circle B Bar Reserve, go on a Sunshine State safari via nine trails, keeping your eyes open and ears alert for eagles, osprey, owls, bobcats, otters, gray foxes, fox squirrels, and the colossal, 12-foot-long gator named Humpback who has set the internet on fire.
Mingle with Manatees
While manatees on Florida’s East Coast remain in crisis due to pollution, food shortages, and boat strikes, the West Coast population is thriving thanks to staunch protection and a decade of eelgrass restoration by organizations such as Save Crystal River and Sea & Shoreline. In fact, in early 2022, officials recorded 1,333 manatees in Citrus County waters, the highest number ever documented. The heart of this manatee utopia is Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, where the gentle giants bask in the warmth of natural springs. It also happens to be the only place on the planet where humans can swim among manatees. A stay at the waterfront Plantation on Crystal River is anchored by the opportunity to get up close and personal with manatees through tours offered by the hotel’s Plantation Adventure Center. While numbers are greatest during winter, some manatees reside in the area year-round—and Go-Pro-equipped naturalists are at the ready to capture your underwater adventure.
Comb the Beach for Sea Turtles
Between May and October, tens of thousands of endangered sea turtles—mainly loggerheads, greens, and leatherbacks—arrive on Florida’s shores to nest. Approximately two months later, hatchlings emerge from the sand and begin the journey called life. Lucky for us, several coastal parks and organizations host seasonal walks in search of nesting turtles and their offspring. Some of our favorite experiences take place at Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, which boasts the highest concentration of nesting loggerhead turtles in the western hemisphere. Here, Sea Turtle Conservancy, Friends of the Carr Refuge, Stella Maris Environmental Research, and others lead these encounters, which typically occur at night or very early in the morning.