One thing all family vacations must have is entertainment, and one of the greatest things about traveling to new places is learning new things, a type of education that only experience can bring. What is key, is finding the best ways to combine the two. In Southwest Florida, much of this ‘edutainment’ surrounds the wonderful wildlife and the important natural resource of water. Dolphin watching is a popular and education activity of the coast of Ft. Myers. — Photo courtesy of Christopher Haley/iStock
Indians, pirates, inventors . . . and dolphins
The boating excursions offered by Captiva Cruises are fantastic ways to discover the Fort Myers area by water. One of the most popular expeditions is the Dolphin and Wildlife Adventure. It takes you into bays and around mangrove islands to observe a host of native species in their natural habitats. Southwest Florida waters are full of playful dolphins and it’s always exciting to see them jump through the wake of the boats, while learning about their impressive intelligence. Learn about the famous residents who discovered and lived along Southwest Florida waterways, during a Captiva Cruises tour in Estero Bay — Photo courtesy of Gina Birch
The newest adventure added to the Captiva Cruises menu takes visitors from McCarthy’s Marina on the island, through the Estero Bay and up the Caloosahatchee River to the historic Edison & Ford Winter Estates. Along the way, guides tell stories of famous explorers, pirates and the American Indians who survived and thrived on the waterways and islands.
Sea School, beach walks and touch tanks
Captiva Island also has a Sanibel Sea School site, although most activities originate from Sanibel proper. This unique program helps visitors connect with, and appreciate the biggest draw to Southwest Florida; the water, the treasures found within and around it. The Sea School offers more than just lectures, but hands on experiences and summer camps. The Sanibel Sea School helps you identify treasures found along the shoreline — Photo courtesy of Gina Birch
The Mornings of Ocean Discovery is one of the best programs for the entire family. After a little bit of time in the classroom, the group sets out to see first hand the topic of discussion. It could be anything from sand dollars to seagrass or fish to birds. You’ll walk the beach with an expert and see what underwater gifts Mother Nature has delivered to the shore.
Also on Sanibel, the Sundial Beach Resort & Spa has a cool Environmental Coastal Observation Center in the pool area. A 450-gallon touch tank is full of local, salty sea creatures, for big and little kids to pick up, check out and learn about. Other aquariums have fish, turtles and a variety of marine life for free viewing. If the kids want to linger a little longer, the parents can wait at the tiki bar.
The lumbering, Florida manatee is endearing to visitors and it is also endangered. Not only can you learn about them but also see them for free, in their natural habitat, at Lee County’s Manatee Park. The best viewing is from November to March when the giant sea cows swim into the canal of this 17-acre park, to escape the cooler Gulf temperatures. The animals are drawn here by warm-water that is discharged from a nearby power plant.
The water is also shallow, making it easy to see the mesmerizing creatures in their entirety. The park offers free, guided walks and other educational activities like Manatee Bingo.
Fossil digs, wildlife cruises, swamp tours
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida encompasses a 21-acre nature center in Naples, where scientists and biologists are committed to wildlife rehabilitation and water preservation among other things. They lead visitors on all types of adventures including fossil digs, sunset and wildlife photography cruises and fascinating swamp walks in the Fakahatchee Strand, part of the Florida Everglades.
Alligator wrestling is one of the main attractions at Billy's Swamp Safari in the Florida Everglades — Photo courtesy of Billy's Swamp SafariPerhaps the most entertaining way to explore the fascinating Florida Everglades is at Billie’s Swamp Safari, through the eyes of Seminole Indians who survived in the tropical wetlands for more than a century. About halfway between Fort Myers and Fort Lauderdale, a stop here also provides a noteworthy look at Native American culture. Most visitors can’t wait to see the thrilling alligator wrestling and ‘critter’ shows, a popular Seminole pastime. It’s even possible to hold baby gators here.
You’ll also want to hop on an airboat or a swamp buggy, to tour the most important eco system of the state. You might see alligators, wild boar, water buffalo, ostriches, snakes and more in the world famous Florida Everglades.
Observe sharks being trained and fed at Mote Marine — Photo courtesy of Mote Marine LabThe shark is another intriguing creature found in large numbers in Florida. A great place to learn about them, maybe even get over your fears of them, is at Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota. You can even join biologist in feeding them.
Mote Marine Lab rehabilitates injured sea turtles — Photo courtesy of Mote MarineMote is well known for its extensive rehabilitation of injured sharks, dolphins, manatees and sea turtles. Make a reservation to have breakfast with the marine residents before the facility opens to the public. Other options include kayaking and eco boat tours on Sarasota bay.
If you are aiming for family ‘edutainment’ during your vacation, Southwest Florida is a Bulls Eye.