Coast Into Summer With These Water Adventures
Summer may be heating up, but you could be cooling off - if you take a trip to Florida! Not only are we surrounded by water on our coasts, we also have plenty of natural springs, lakes, and rivers throughout the state. Wherever you go, there’s a new kind of water adventure to be had: diving and snorkeling, kayaking and canoeing, or boating, just to name a few! Here’s your guide to enjoying the water.
Diving and Snorkeling
While you may have thought the song “Under the Sea” was meant for the Little Mermaid, it is true that life is better down where it’s wetter. Beneath Florida’s surface you will find a whole new world; one made of colorful seashells, bumpy coral, waving seagrass, and curious fish. Diving and snorkeling can take you to whole new levels of exploration and discovery. If you are not SCUBA certified, what better place to learn that at one of Florida’s many dive centers? There are also numerous outfitters who can help you with gear purchases and rental, air tank refills, and more.
Imagine the expanse and beauty of a state park - but, underwater. This is what you’ll find at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo. The first undersea park in the United States, John Pennekamp encompasses approximately 70 nautical square miles that include mangrove swamps and tropical hammocks in the park's upland areas, and coral reefs and their associated marine life spread out beyond. While you could get a great view of the park’s underwater life during the glass-bottom boat tour, or have a fun time exploring the mangroves in a kayak, it is the diving here that draws most visitors and provides one of the most spectacularly scenic dives in Florida. After a local guide takes you out into deeper waters, you’ll dive below to see sharp-toothed barracuda, huge yellow snapper, harmless nurse sharks, and shimmering damsel fish. See (but don’t touch) live brain coral and Venus sea fans. One of the main scenic points is the Christ of the Abyss statue, an 8.5 foot, two-ton bronze statue of Jesus in 25 feet of water.
Known as the Paradise Coast, the Southwest Florida communities of Naples, Marco Island and the Everglades are known for their natural beauty and vibrant life. So, it makes sense that they would have one of the best diving areas in the state, thanks to their initiative in building amazing reefs to draw in marine life. There are now 37 new artificial reefs built from over 18,000 tons of recycled concrete, which have expanded fish species here and boosted the wildlife habitat. Above the surface, fisherman have taken advantage of the fish expansion to catch snapper, cobia, and Goliath grouper. In between the surface and the deep, snorkelers can search through the emerald Gulf waves for shells and fish sightings. Further below, divers have a whole new reef to explore. Swim around the deep nooks and crannies to see these same fish up close, along with the quickly-growing plant life. The Paradise Coast offers many dive shops, like Scuba Outfitters of Naples, who include classes for young divers ages 8-17.
Just a short drive from Miami, over a scenic bridge, is the Biscayne National Park. The park’s Maritime Heritage Trail features a series of historic shipwrecks that cover nearly a century, from the iron-hulled steamer Arratoon Apcar built in 1861, to the steel-hull schooner Mandalay built in 1928 as a luxury cruise ship. Diving to explore these wrecks will seriously make you feel like a real-life treasure hunter, with some of the wrecks being in a surprisingly (and eerily!) good condition. Be sure to take the Biscayne Park ranger-led tour to learn more about the stories of the ships and how they met their demise, or rely on the knowledge of a local dive guide.
Another great shipwreck site is that of the Gunsmoke in St. Petersburg, which also includes one of the wildest stories you could imagine to make the diving even more fun. The Gunsmoke was an old shrimping vessel that allegedly smuggled marijuana back in the 1970s, but after witnesses caught the smugglers in the act, a series of strange events ensued that led to the ship’s demise (we’ll let your dive guide tell you the whole story, or at least what is known now). Don’t miss diving into this mystery for yourself when you SCUBA down to the Gunsmoke, which sits in 80 feet of water just 24 miles from John’s Pass in St. Pete. visitstpeteclearwater.com
Not all dive sites are on the coast - Devil’s Den Spring is located in Central Florida’s Williston, and is a complete diver’s resort that includes a training center and lodging. One of Florida’s best-kept secrets, Devil’s Den is an underground spring inside of a dry cave, and is home to many extinct animal fossils dating back to the Pleistocene Age (now on display at The University of Florida's Museum of Natural History). Early settlers were very un-settled by the steam, like smoke, that would rise from the cave’s chimney opening in the winter (thanks to the water’s year-round warm temp of 72 degrees) and thusly named it Devil’s Den. During your dive into the crystal-clear warm water, you will see ancient rock formations with stalactites and fossil beds dating back 33 million years! This is also a prime snorkeling spot, perfect for guests over six years. The park rents snorkeling gear, so all you have to do is show up with an adventurous spirit! devilsden.com
Kayaking and Canoeing
One of the best ways to explore the waters of Florida is by taking things (namely, a paddle) into your own hands. Not only is paddling a great workout for your body, it’s also a fantastic form of therapy for your mind as you learn to take things slow and adventure at an easy pace. It’s also a great way to take a group or family outing, and some places will even encourage you to bring your furry friend along with you.
The St. Lucie River is a seven-mile long estuary that links to a coastal river system in Martin County, which is part of Florida’s Treasure Coast on its eastern side. St. Lucie is an ever-winding, wild river that is often surrounded by a thick jungle of tropical forest and lined with tall, moss-covered oak trees. Expect to see lots of birds like blue herons and black-bellied whistling ducks. As the water in the river transitions from saltwater estuary to fresh water, you may see mullet fish, or possibly otters. Along your paddle you’ll see lots of little islands, and little parks where you can stop off and picnic. Perhaps the most startling aspect of this wild-child river is the fact that it’s only a short distance from the I-95! Ye sure to visit South River Outfitters in Stuart to prep for your adventure; they have everything from kayak rentals to accessories and clothing.
You could literally spend days following the paddling trails in and around Everglades National Park, and each day see something totally different! And, while self-guided paddling tours are just fine, we recommend taking advantage of a guided tour to learn the most you can about this amazing park and its wild inhabitants. Everglades Area Tours will guide you through the exploration of the park and the 10,000 Islands nearby, with a variety of eco-tours that include Sunset and Full Moon Paddles, best suited to experienced paddlers looking for a little extra something in a kayaking experience. Burnham Guides are perfect for birding lovers (guide Joel Beckwith can name all the birds you’ll see!) and is also ideal for several-day trips. Try the Eight-Day Wilderness Waterway tour, which traverses the largest roadless area in the Lower 48!
The St. Johns River in Central Florida’s Putnam County is Florida’s only American Heritage River, with nine public landings on the river and twenty public landings on attached waterways. The river’s Paddling Trail is easily accessible, and is a great paddling destination whether you want to spend one day or several. Because many of Florida’s original inhabitants used the St. Johns for transportation, there are scores of Native American historic sites to visit along its banks, including the Mr. Royal Indian Mound site near Fruitland. Also along the riverbanks you’ll see plenty of wildlife, from whitetail deer, Virginia opossums, raccoons, and wildcats to the occasional Florida black bear. In the water, you’ll find alligators, water snakes, and lots of fish species, and above you’ll see birds like swallow-tailed kites, sand hills cranes, and osprey. putnamcountychamber.com
The locals of Central Florida will tel you that in the summer months, Ichetucknee Springs State Park is the place to be! The springs create crystal-clear, 72-degree waters that feed into the Ichetucknee River, which eventually runs into the Santa Fe River. While the main summer activity is tubing, this is also a great place to hop in a kayak or canoe. Paddling through the transparent waters makes you feel like you’re floating on air at times, until you get to the deeper and darker waters, which are still fed by the springs of the underground cave system. At this point, your attention will be drawn to the surrounding woodlands, filled with thick foliage and quiet wildlife (except for the busy beavers). You will also see open canopies, cypress swamps, and wild rice that grows in the marsh, with the occasional turtle sunning himself on a log. Adventure Outpost in High Springs has all of your paddling gear as well as camping equipment, clothing, and jewelry at their Springs Republic store.
Boat Rentals and Charters
Channel the vibe of a high-seas explorer when you take a boating adventure on Florida’s open waters. During a charter, you can sit back and relax while someone else does the work. With a boat rental, you’re the captain of your own destiny, steering you and your family or friends to whatever escapades you have planned for the day. If you do plan to rent a boat, particularly if you’re going fishing, be sure that you have the proper ID and licensing. Florida doesn’t have a boating license, but you do have to obtain a Boating Safety Education Identification Card issued by the FWC. You can learn more about the ID card, as well as what is needed for fishing activities, here: myfwc.com
Islamorada, known as the "Sportfishing Capital of the World,” is comprised of six islands in the Florida Keys. If you want to do something in, on, or beneath the water, this is the place to be - especially if you love to fish. Islamorada is where backcountry sport fishing and saltwater fly fishing were pioneered, and where legendary fishing figures including Ted Williams, Jimmy Albright, and Cecil Keith perfected their skills. Due to the Gulf Stream’s flow past the islands, there are plenty of seasonal visitors like sailfish and marlin, kingfish and wahoo, dolphin (mahi-mahi) and tuna, with tarpon and bonefish being inshore species. All of this fishing and boating means that the world’s highest density of professional offshore charter boats with tournament-grade captains can be found in Islamorada. We certainly recommend chartering here to take advantage of the captains’ knowledge; Bud n’ Mary’s Sportfishing Marina offers plenty of top-notch charters that sail from their docks. Their captains are second and third generation fisherman, many of whom have been featured in media articles and won or placed in a majority of the islands’ tournaments - some are even backcountry fishing pioneers.
Motor off on an island getaway when you visit Caladesi Island State Park, located just a short sail away from Clearwater on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The island is accessible only by boat, which has helped to preserve its natural beauty and tranquil, relaxing setting. You can relax on the sandy beaches or take a kayak trip through the mangrove tunnels, or take a walk along one of the nature trails through the island interior to the historic Scharrer Homestead. A favorite pastime of the locals is to take a pontoon boat out near the island’s shallow waters to relax and cool off while still soaking in the sun. Clearwater Boat Rentals has what you need to enjoy Caladesi, including fantastic and comfortable pontoon cruisers. After exploring the island, you can boat around Clearwater Beach and enjoy the contrasting busyness.
In the Central area of the state, you’ll find “Florida’s Inland Sea”: Lake Okeechobee, the largest freshwater lake in Florida. Waterways on either side run into the lake, making it part of a 152-mile boating passage way through the middle of the state known as the Okeechobee Waterway. Boaters love exploring the lake and fishing, particularly since this is the home of the legendary largemouth bass and speckled perch. Blue gills, Okeechobee catfish and black crappies are other local catches. Many lake-goers love to swim in the dazzling fresh water. You can drop anchor here and there around the lake to explore hiking trails, or spend all day on the water if you like. There are plenty of outfitters near the shore, including Jolly Roger Marina (on the south side of the lake). This marina is your one-stop shop, with boat sales and rentals, guide services, a bait and tackle shop, and more.
More Ways to Enjoy the Water
Enjoy the thrill of Pensacola Beach’s “original dolphin cruise boat”: Chase-N-Fins! Aquatic Charters welcomes you aboard this 50 foot, converted Navy launch for a two hour adventure on Pensacola Bay and the surrounding waters. Walk about the deck on your search for dolphins, or speak with the knowledgeable crew about marine life and local historic landmarks. Be sure to bring your camera to capture the beauty of the dolphins as they entertain you!