Florida in the Wild

“Do you LOVE living in Florida?”

WELLLL….. I love the wildlife! But really. I LOVE the wildlife in Florida. Florida living is not the vacation the rest of America would assume it is- but it can come pretty close if you get away from the people, traffic, and silver alerts. Hey, there is a reason ‘Florida Man’ exists.

I’m lucky enough to live on the east side of Tampa with quick access north or south on Interstate 75. This little stretch yields wildlife spotting opportunities that are worth leaving the beach for.

1.) Lettuce Lake Parkway– For $2 you can drive into the park and get up close and personal on the boardwalks with plenty of gators, turtles, fish, birds, armadillos- the real Florida natives. I go weekly and have never missed a gator siting. It’s a staple for me to take all visiting friends and relatives. It can get quite buggy after dark, though, and I’m a buffet for mosquitos.

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Alligator spotting off the boardwalk at Lettuce Lake Park

2.) Manatee Viewing Center– The TECO power plant is located just off the Apollo Beach exit and is the winter vacation spot for thousands of manatees. The plant uses water from the bay to cool the machines and it spits back out at a cozy bathwater temp that the manatees float in like little baked potatoes.  From November to March, seeing manatees is pretty much a guarantee. Did I mention it is FREE? I have vacationed in the area for years and didn’t know this amazing site existed until I moved to Tampa. It’s a GEM.

3.) Hillsborough River- There are multiple places along the river that offer kayak/canoe rentals, but it isn’t for the faint of heart. The gators rule the roost and have been known to do some human damage. I kayak just about every other week and have never had a problem. The gators are the best part! (USF students and staff can go for just $5 and take a guest at the USF boathouse!)

4.) Busch Gardens– Okay, I haven’t actually been inside Busch Gardens and that’s not what this post is about, but if you drive by it on McKinley, you can see giraffe heads sticking up over the fence. I come from an area where we yell and point at cows, so I’m sure you can imagine my elation at spotting giraffe noggins.

5.) Along the road– Some of the best wildlife I spot isn’t in a designated area. It’s along the roadways where all of us human beings have dug paths through their homes. This past May I have seen dead armadillos on the road DAILY. The baby birds have also been thick and I finally spotted my first pink Spoonbill. Forget texting and driving, I’m more likely to crash looking in all of the waterways for gator heads (which I spot very often!) They say you shouldn’t swim in the Florida waterways and you don’t have to tell me twice!

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The elusive pink spoonbill! It took me 6 months to finally spot one of these along the Hillsborough River.

There are plenty of zoos in Florida and wildlife excursions to go on. For tourists, that’s the easy and guaranteed way to see animals, but there are so many inexpensive and authentic ways to see Florida wildlife. If you have an extended amount of time, the Florida Keys and Everglades are worth every mile of driving. A typical marina in the Keys is swarmed with manatees and nurse sharks, and the drive home through Alligator Alley is filled with whiplash looking in every direction at gator after gator. So there, do I love living in Florida? Not entirely. But there’s many living joys around me and the environment is my one Florida joy!

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