How to See Florida Wildlife

Here’s a quick overview of Florida’s most interesting wildlife species and the best places to see them in Sarasota, Fort Myers, and Naples.

  • Alligators

Alligators are high up on everyone’s Florida Must-See list. To see these larger-than-life creatures, the best places to visit include the Everglades National Park and Myakka River State Park, both vast areas of wetlands where you can tour the rivers by canoe or kayak. Spot alligators resting on the sun-warmed banks or gliding silently through the fresh water. Airboat tours in the Everglades are especially popular. 

  • Manatees

The Florida manatee is native here, but it travels depending on the season, often wintering in Florida’s rivers and canals. These gentle giants spend most of their time munching aquatic plants, traveling, and resting. Because they’re mammals, they surface to breathe every five minutes or so, but resting manatees have been known to spend up to 20 minutes underwater.

If you want a glimpse of manatees in the wild, head to Manatee Park, a warm-water refuge in Fort Myers. Manatees can be shy, but your viewing chances are highest in late December through February, when the mammals escape the Gulf’s cooler temperatures. 

Visitors can often view manatees at Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, especially at its Port of the Islands Marina. This maze of mangrove habitats is about twenty miles southeast of Naples and most easily accessed by boat. 

Take a boat tour around Marco Island for your best chance at viewing manatees.

Another great spot is Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota, a research and conservation organization that offers close-up views of manatees. You won’t get a view like this in the wild! The resident manatees, half-brothers Hugh and Buffet, swim past inches behind the glass, munching their way through heads of lettuce. They’re the only manatees in the world trained in a scientific research capacity, able to touch their noses to a target after hearing a certain noise. 

  • Bottlenose Dolphins

There’s nothing quite like the first time you see a bottlenose dolphin leap out of the water. These intelligent, social creatures are fascinating to watch, and because they travel and hunt in groups (called pods), you’re guaranteed to see more than one at a time. 

They’re most often found in coastal waters, and their playfulness and curiosity continue to delight southwest Florida visitors and residents alike.

Boat tours and wildlife cruises offer the best chances at spotting dolphins in the wild. Top-rated tours in Fort Myers, Naples, and Sarasota, Florida include Captiva CruisesMarco Island Water Sportsand Sarasota Bay Explorers.

  • Wide Variety of Migratory Birds

Southwest Florida is a paradise for bird-watchers, boasting some of the most exquisite species of migratory birds in the world. From common shorebirds to elusive raptors, hundreds of species flock to Florida’s wetlands and mangrove habitats to breed and hunt. 

The J.N Ding Darling National Wildlife Reserve in Sanibel is home to over 245 bird species, including the “Big 5” often sought by birders: the American White Pelican, the Mangrove Cuckoo, the Reddish Egret, the Roseate Spoonbill, and the Yellow-Crowned Night Heron. Take a guided canoe or kayak tour for close-ups of the reserve’s wading birds, like the White Ibis or Great Blue Heron. If you’re lucky, you might spot raptor species, like kestrels, ospreys, and even bald eagles.

Other great places for bird enthusiasts include Myakka River State Park, The Celery Fields in Sarasota, and the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples. 

Myakka River State Park offers river cruises, a canoe/kayak launch, and a vast network of trails, and guests at Audubon Corkscrew Swamp can explore the sanctuary on its raised boardwalks. 

Even those who have spent decades in Florida never tire of glimpsing animals in their native habitats. It’s thrilling to see alligators glide through the rivers, to join the hide-and-seek dance of manatees, and to watch dolphins arc above the waves. And if you call yourself a birder, there’s no better place to see such a wide variety of migratory species.

No matter how you discover Southwest Florida’s wildlife, whether by boat tour, at an aquarium, or on a boardwalk through the mangroves—expect to be amazed.

Photo credits Jennifer Brinkman, Debi Pittman Wilkey, Shutterstock
Best places to see wildlife in Sarasota, Fort Myers, and Naples Florida including alligators, dolphins, manatees, and birds.

Written by: Shannon Evans | Author Website

After living in England for ten years, Shannon Evans now lives in sunny Florida with her husband and two sons. Before kids, her jobs included Editorial Assistant for Macmillan Publishers and Executive Assistant at a national UK charity. She currently works as a freelance writer and editor, is passionate about writing well and making good content even better. And books! Don’t forget the books. She’s crazy about reading, particularly women’s fiction, literary fiction, memoir, and cultural anthropology. When not working, reading, or running around her my kids, she is probably working on her novel, tea in hand.