Paddling in Paradise: 4 of Florida’s Best Eco Tours

Paddling in paradise (Shutterstock/G-Stock Studio)

Imagine paddling through winding mangrove trails, seagrass flats, and water lilies. Entranced with the bright blues and greens of your surroundings, you watch for native birds, manatees, and other marine life as your kayak glides effortlessly through the creeks and waterways of exquisite wetlands. Pure solace. Is this Florida? Yes! But a Florida that may be less familiar to you. We’re guessing you’ve been to Florida’s beaches, so why not try an eco-tour this time?

To get you started, we have assembled four recommendations below on where to go for the best guided eco tours in Florida. No kayaking or paddle boarding experience is needed, and most tour operators will provide transportation to and from your launch point. So, leave the stresses and strains of bad parking, crowds, and sand in your burger behind and go rogue for a bit of relaxing eco fun.

A peaceful paddle through the mangroves (Source: Key West Eco Tours Facebook)
A peaceful paddle through the mangroves (Source: Key West Eco Tours Facebook)

Key West Eco Tours, Key West

This is a guided, two-hour meander through the sheltered mangroves of beautiful Geiger Key, with a launch point just a 15-minute shuttle ride from downtown Key West. Enjoy learning about this exotic environment while your expert nature guide points out birds, sea life, and vegetation unique to the Florida Keys. Tours vary depending on weather, wind, and tide conditions, but you’re likely to see some combination of dolphins, turtles, rays, and fish — not to mention iguanas decamping in trees and birds soaring overhead. Tours cost about $70 per person and are limited to small groups so that everyone can enjoy the peaceful surroundings.

 

Chill with a manatee (Source: Nature Coast Eco Tours Facebook)
Chill with a manatee (Source: Nature Coast Eco Tours Facebook)

Nature Coast Eco Tours, Homosassa 

Farther north on the Gulf Coast lies the world’s largest natural winter refuge for the West Indian Manatee, one of nature’s most lovable (and endangered) sea creatures. With their hefty build (they tend to weigh in at around 1,000 pounds) but sweet demeanor, these lumbering “sea cows” spend their days grazing on sea plants and napping. Seeing manatees in situ is a bucket list item, and from November through May, Captain Jodi of Nature Coast Eco Tours offers a great kayak tour for a chance to encounter them up close. Head up the local Chassahowitzka River for views of fresh and saltwater springs, black vultures, tricolored herons, fish, and a rare look at the manatees in their Florida winter residence. Tours last about three hours and run $65 per person.

 

Ah…(Source: A Day Away Kayak Tours Facebook)
Ah…(Source: A Day Away Kayak Tours Facebook)

A Day Away Kayak Tours, Titusville

A day away says it all, no? These guys are serious about reconnecting with nature and they have a kayak-load of tours for you to do just that. Most of their kayak tours are on Florida’s east coast, within the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge — one of the most diverse estuaries in North America. Here you can see dolphins, manatees (November-May), and a plethora of bird species, including ibis, herons, egrets, pelicans, cormorants, and roseate spoonbills.

Our pick? The Sunset Bioluminescence Kayak Tour. Not only do you get to experience Florida’s extraordinary sunsets from the water, but the area is teeming with activity as the local wildlife starts its evening routine. Watch in awe as birds, dolphin, and other sea life prepare to bed down for the night. And, from November through May — once darkness descends — the waters come alive with bioluminescent comb jellies (kind of like jelly fish that don’t sting). It is a magical experience that should not be missed! Tours are about two hours and run $60 per person.

Sunrise in the Everglades (Source: Shurr Adventures Everglades Facebook)
Sunrise in the Everglades (Source: Shurr Adventures Everglades Facebook)

Shurr Adventures Everglades, Everglades City

Kayak tours with Shurr Adventures start with a leisurely paddle through warrens of exotic mangrove tunnels to the Everglades National Park where you will encounter sawgrass marshes, pine flatwoods, and the hundreds of animal species that call this area home. Typical sightings include wading birds, turtles, songbirds, orchids, and alligators. Shurr is one of a limited number of outfitters permitted in the Park, and are known for their exceptionally experienced and knowledgeable guides (two of whom are Master Naturalists). The Mangrove Tunnel trip is about 3 hours and runs $109 per person.

Cypress National Preserve (Source: Shutterstock/Matt Tilghman)
Cypress National Preserve (Source: Shutterstock/Matt Tilghman)

If you’re feeling ambitious, go with the 12-mile Full Day Mangrove Tunnel trip. This is a one-of-a-kind, all-day excursion that begins in a freshwater ecosystem and ends in a saltwater estuary within the 10,000 islands area. Along the way you will see birds and wildlife from both habitats, the exotic grasslands of the Big Cypress Swamp (where you will stop to have lunch), various lakes, and mangrove tunnels. The paddling goes from moderate to difficult, though, so think about this one. Still, it is an opportunity to explore the area in depth and experience the solitude and beauty of nature in a unique way. This tour runs about $250 per person for the full day.

Eco tour pro tips:

  • Unless you feel comfortable on a paddle board, we suggest going by kayak (single or tandem). Most kayaks have backrests and are easier to maneuver for the duration of the tour. Also, there are some areas (e.g. lower mangrove tunnels) that will not be accessible by paddleboard.
  • Be sure to bring water, snacks, water shoes, a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, and an additional quick drying layer, and of course, your camera.
  • Consider a small, dry bag for your important essentials.
  • Be sure to reserve your tour ahead of time, and review all tour operator guidelines and instructions carefully.