Suncoast Beaches, FL - Anna Maria Island, Bradenton, Longboat Key, Sarasota, Lido Key, Siesta Key & Venice - Vacation Travel Guide

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Suncoast Beaches Area Features

Exploring Florida’s Nature

Photo Credit: Mote Aquarium

If you like being outdoors and exploring Mother Nature’s masterpiece, then the Gulf Coast is for you. Take some time to visit all of it—from the beachside splendor of the outer keys to the lush and wild interior of the mainland. You’ll find beautiful landscapes, incredible places to exercise and play, and don’t forget to keep a keen eye out for the creatures that inhabit these areas. Sometimes though, it’s best to let the professionals show you around. Let Sunny Day Guide introduce you to some of the best tours and places in the area!

Visit Myakka River State Park to see 58 acres of “wild” Florida. Hiking, biking, kayaking and canoeing are just a few of the many sports and activities that await you here. Walk along the canopy on a tour to do some bird-watching or see the park from the water with Myakka Wildlife Tours. They’ll take you through the fresh waters surrounding Sarasota on an exhilarating airboat ride. You can see alligators safely from your seat on the Gator Gal or the Myakka Maiden— large covered airboats that take you along the Upper Myakka Lake. While aboard the boat, the tour operator will discuss the plant and animal life that exists along local waterways and shores. You’ll venture into areas that are hard to access and get to see Florida at its most natural. Take lots of photos!

You’re sure to see: Alligators

If you’re near fresh water, it’s safe to assume there’s a resident alligator nearby. Alligators prefer marsh environments where they can feed on fish and small mammals. Though they can grow to about 12 feet in length, they have rarely caused problems for observant passersby in this region. Alligators have a natural fear of humans and prefer to leave us alone. But be cautious and never let children or pets go near the water alone. Alligators can move very quickly for short distances—up to 20 miles per hour and certainly faster than humans can run.

Those who prefer to get wet and take a more hands-on approach to discovering sea life can take a Nature Safari Cruise with Sarasota Bay Explorers. Participants may get the chance to see dolphins and manatees, and they can also use a net to skim the water for puffer fish, stone crabs, and seahorses. After gently handling these sea creatures and learning about them from a marine biologist, participants return them safely to their watery home.

You’re sure to see: Dolphins

Many different species of dolphin play and fish for their dinner off the Gulf Coast. In this region, there are at least nine different species of these cetaceans including the bottlenose, common, Atlantic spotted, short-snouted spinner, rough-toothed, and striped dolphins. Though size varies by species, most adults range from six to ten feet in length and weigh 200–300 pounds. Dolphins travel in pods with just a few members, though scientists have witnessed as many as several hundred dolphins in one pod of varying species. They require large amounts of food to survive and can eat up to 30 pounds of fish a day. Their skin is at least ten times thicker than that of a human, and to keep it sleek for easy movement through the water, dolphins regenerate a new outer layer every few hours.

On the outlying islands or keys, you’ll find the lush tropical plants and soft, white sand that leads to the gulf where you can explore on your own. Take to the beach and watch the shorebirds and even the wildest of creatures—fellow humans! Rent a kayak or paddleboard through I Kayak Sarasota and paddle around the keys. If you like, give snorkeling a try to see what lies beneath the surface of the water. Aside from the gorgeous coral reefs and colorful schools of fish, you may be lucky enough to come across a manatee. Take care not to disturb them, but just watch these gentle creatures go about their business—which is probably eating. Many of the keys also have natural parks where numerous birds and furry animals can be observed. Take a picnic lunch and relax but don’t feed the animals!

Keep an eye out for: West Indian Manatees

These gentle creatures are herbivores and are commonly called sea cows because they often graze on sea grasses in shallow, inland waterways such as rivers and bays. The West Indian Manatee prefers the warm waters around Florida and the Caribbean, but a few have ventured up the American coast as far north as New England and south to Brazil. However, they need to reside in water temperatures 68 degrees or higher, otherwise they can freeze. Human populations have been harming their habitats by invading the warm springs they use in the winter, polluting waterways and destroying sea grasses. As a result, this unique creature is currently an endangered species. Manatees can weigh up to 1,800 pounds and average about 10 to 12 feet in length. They require a third of their body weight in food daily. Manatees have enormous lungs and only breathe through their noses. They can stay submerged for up to 15 minutes at a time.

It may be mainly indoors, but to see nature’s creatures up close, the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium should not be missed. Discover the wonders of the ocean and learn about the populations of wildlife that call the sea their home. The aquarium hosts thousands of fish and animals. Most visitors enjoy seeing the expansive shark exhibit and the manatees. Pet a stingray or watch rescued otters frolic in the water. The center is also world-renowned for its lab work and educational mission. Beginning in 1955, the Mote Marine Laboratory began researching sharks. Now, they are working to establish why sharks are generally free of cancer and how that can be applied to human health. In addition, marine biologists are studying numerous other issues including phytoplankton toxins and algal blooms, the health of coral reefs, the acidification of oceans, and other animals such as dolphins, sea turtles and whales. Mote also has a marine animal hospital that works to save the lives of stranded and helpless animals. Visiting Mote is inspirational, educational, rewarding and a fun experience.

You’re sure to see: Loggerhead Sea Turtles

Since the late 1970s this species of turtle (as well as other sea-dwelling turtles such as the leatherback and green sea turtle) has been on the endangered species list. Found in oceans around the world excluding the Arctic, these reptiles can grow to be three feet in length and weigh over 200 pounds. Because they’re often caught in fishing nets and have had their breeding grounds destroyed, their numbers continue to dwindle despite conservation efforts. A surprising fact about loggerhead turtles is that they can swim up to 15 miles per hour along an ocean current.

The beauty contained in the expansive and tranquil Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is a sight to behold. Enter the conservatory where, inside the greenhouse, a tropical rainforest environment exists with exotic orchids and other tropical plants. Kids will have a great time in the Ann Goldstein Children’s Rainforest Garden. While they play on swinging bridges, in caves, and at an Amazon village, kids can learn about the horticultural and conservation principles that the Selby Gardens promote. Families can take a leisurely stroll through the various manicured gardens: some attract and conserve migrating butterfly populations; others include Banyan trees or mangroves. All are lovely backdrops to a picturesque afternoon.

You’re sure to see: Mangroves

As you walk around the gardens, you’ll come across mangroves—the same that can be found throughout the Sarasota region. These trees that root in the water are the ultimate plant survivor. They tolerate salty waters at tide levels, extreme heat, marshy conditions and exposed roots—but yet they flourish! Not only that, but mangroves are essential to supporting life in this environment. Fish, amphibians, birds, and even some animals make their home in the trees and their roots. At Selby Gardens, you can see the native black, red, and white species while strolling through them on the boardwalk. The red ones are usually closer to the water and are situated on “prop-roots” whereas the black and white occupy space a little higher up on the land.

In Bradenton, more than 480 acres of natural coastal environment await outdoorsy families at Robinson Nature Preserve. Paddle around the saltwater marsh and through natural mangroves in a kayak or canoe. Both are available for rent through online reservations with Surferbus. Or, scale the 53-foot tower for a great view of the entire preserve. Explore the area on the preserve’s hiking or biking trails. Nearby is the Palma Sola Botanical Garden for some more time “getting in touch with nature.” And don’t forget to bring all members of the family… Leashed dogs are welcome to explore the preserve with their owners.

Keep an eye out for: Stingrays

Stingrays glide through the water with a beautiful grace that instills a sense of peace. This prehistoric creature is generally very docile and will evade humans, but if you accidentally step on one, the pain is immense. Between April and September, savvy beachgoers perform the Sarasota shuffle, also known as the stingray shuffle. In an attempt to frighten stingrays away from their resting spots where they hide from sharks under the sand, it’s advised that anyone entering the water should shuffle their feet to avoid being stung. The stingray has razor-sharp toxic barbs on the base of its body where the tail begins. If the barbs are stuck in your skin, seek medical treatment to avoid the release of additional toxins into your body. Use very hot, soapy water to soak the injury and relieve the pain. Stingrays can grow to about six feet in length and can weigh up to 800 pounds.

Bird enthusiasts will have no trouble photographing a myriad of species at the Venice Area Audubon Rookery. Great horned owls, green herons, bald eagles, belted kingfishers and so many others can be seen here. Bring binoculars, a camera and even a picnic lunch for a wonderful day among the birds. The best times to see the birds are in the morning and late afternoon. Alligators can also be spotted at the rookery in the pond. They actually serve the birds well by protecting them from mammalian predators.

Keep an eye out for: Roseate Spoonbill

This bird with gorgeous, rose-colored plumes and an odd-shaped, spoon-like beak is a close cousin to the ibis, though many people often mistake it for a flamingo. They can be found on the gulf coasts of Texas and south Florida, but the majority typically live in South and Central America and the Caribbean. Once hunted to the brink of extinction for their beautiful feathers (which were used to make ladies’ fans at the turn of the last century), the roseate spoonbill has seen a resurgence in numbers though they are still considered a vulnerable species. They also still tend to steer clear of humans, but they are very sociable birds and often flock together.

You’re guaranteed to see a multitude of animals while walking around Sarasota Jungle Gardens. In addition to their famous flamingos that kids can hand-feed, there are snakes, owls, monkeys and even prairie dogs—just to name a few. Plus, the vegetation that lines the walking paths creates the feeling of being in the jungle. It’s a favorite family destination!

You’re sure to see: White Ibis

One of the most common native creatures visitors will encounter as they explore Sarasota is the white ibis. These birds can be observed probing the ground with their long, narrow, pink beaks while their stilted legs help them forage through shallow water. They’re in search of little fish, insects and especially small crustaceans for their meals. By doing so, these birds help keep fish populations plentiful since they eat the predatory species that feed on fish eggs. White ibises are beautiful birds that begin life with brown plumage. As they age, the brown molts off and snow white feathers emerge with black wing tips. They’re adaptable birds and have taken to suburban living, so encountering a white ibis is practically guaranteed—especially at Sarasota Jungle Gardens where they hang out with the free-roaming flamingos to get their leftover food!

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