Picture of people watching the sunset from the shoreline at Gulf Islands National Seashore

A ranger leads a guided walk along the shoreline at Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Photograph by Raymond Gehman, National Geographic

By Maryellen Kennedy Duckett

Seeing the shoreline through the eyes of a naturalist or park ranger reveals the complex science at the beach. Learn about Florida’s unique marine ecosystem on one of the guided nature walks offered at many coastal preserves and parks.

Gulf Islands National Seashore, Gulf Breeze

Gulf Islands is home to four species of sea turtles, over 300 species of birds, and pods of bottlenose dolphins commonly seen from the beaches. During the summer (early June through early August), rangers lead a variety of guided walks designed to make a day at the beach a fun and interactive learning experience. Summer programs in the Gulf Islands National Seashore Florida district typically include one-hour sunset walks on select weekend evenings; Saturday morning beachcombing walks on Langdon Beach; and weekly “Seining for Sea Life” sessions, which include walking along secluded Johnson’s Beach, examining marine creatures collected (temporarily) in a net, and, of course, getting wet.

Keewaydin Island, Collier County

Located within the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Keewaydin Island has eight miles of sugar-sand beach, rare coastal habitats and wildlife, no roads, and only a few private homes. Join the three-hour Life is a Beach Boat Tour (November-April) to learn about the barrier island’s dunes, dune plants, drift algae, crustaceans, corals, sea squirts, snails, sponges, worms, shells, and more from fifth-generation Floridian and naturalist Randy McCormick. The land-and-sea tours are limited to six people, providing ample opportunity to ask questions. And while the experience is relatively pricey ($90 per person), all tour proceeds support research, management, and education activities at the reserve.

TRAVEL TIPS

What to Read Before You Go: Florida’s Living Beaches: A Guide for the Curious Beachcomber (Pineapple Press, 2007) by research scientist Blair Witherington is an info-packed field guide that includes 983 color images, 431 maps, and descriptions of 822 items you could encounter at the beach.

Fun Fact: In the late 1950s and early 1960s, local residents organized a successful grassroots effort to block government plans for a bridge linking the mainland to the island. Their victory has kept Keewaydin Island relatively undeveloped. Most of the island is held in trust for the people of Florida and is owned and managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

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