Five of the best wildlife experiences in Fort Myers, Florida

Throughout Fort Myers’ islands, beaches and neighbourhoods, amazing animal encounters are par for the course, whether it’s manatees in the morning, alligators in the afternoon or turtles hatching by moonlight.

In Fort Myers and surrounding areas, nature holds sway and the opportunities to experience it are plenty.

Photograph by Jason Boeckman
By David Whitley
Published 25 Feb 2023, 15:00 GMT

Travel to the southwest of Florida and you'll find a destination that tends buckle against most of the state's stereotypes. The estuary city of Fort Myers and its surrounding areas boast not only idyllic beaches and handsome heritage neighbourhoods, but islands and mangroves where nature holds sway. Both inventor Thomas Edison and industrialist Henry Ford chose to build their winter homes here, relishing the tranquil pace of life, warm climate and diverse natural surroundings. To experience the best of the area, here are five standout wildlife experiences to weave into your trip.

1.  Experience turtle time

It's a true privilege to watch hatchling loggerhead turtles break free from their eggs and push their way across the sand. Their mothers will have returned to the beaches of Fort Myers over a month prior — skilfully finding their way back to where they themselves were born — in order to lay and bury their eggs in the sand. Turtle-hatching season on most Fort Myers beaches runs from May to the end of October, during which time plenty of tiny turtles will make this journey across the beach towards a new life in the Gulf of Mexico. Street lights are banned on many of the area's beaches to preserve and protect the wildlife, so this journey is lit only by the light of the stars, creating a truly remarkable atmosphere.

Some hatchling turtles will return to the island in a few years’ time, to lay their ...

Some hatchling turtles will return to the island in a few years’ time, to lay their own eggs and keep the Captiva circle of life turning.

Photograph by Fort Myers

2. Cruise with dolphins

Aboard a dolphin safari, humans think they have come to seek out these mischievous aquatic mammals. For the dolphins around the islands of Fort Myers, it appears to be the other way round as they play in the wake created by the boat. These aren’t chance encounters — dolphins can be found year-round in the waters of Fort Myers and its surrounding areas, so the dolphin pods found here are residents rather than intermittent visitors. This means they’re confident around boats, and it never takes long for the cruise operators to spot them. Once they do, the two-way engagement commences, as it has for decades. 

3. Mooch among the mangroves

The JN ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge on the northern shore of Sanibel Island plays host to the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the US. This carefully preserved environment is home to more than 300 types of bird and 32 species of mammal. Expect to spot pink roseate spoonbills, snowy egrets, dolphins, manatees and horseshoe crabs — though it’s often the swooping ospreys and sunbathing alligators that get most of the attention. How you mingle with the mangroves is a matter of personal preference, with the refuge offering a vast amount of opportunity for activities. There’s a four-mile driving trail, a range of walking routes — including the Wildlife Education Boardwalk — and a guided tram tour.

The mangroves of Fort Myers and its surrounding areas are a haven for wildlife, including migratory ...

The mangroves of Fort Myers and its surrounding areas are a haven for wildlife, including migratory birds, lazing alligators and a wealth of marine life.

Photograph by Fort Myers

4. Kayak with manatees

At first glance, the Florida Power and Light Power Plant wouldn't strike you as a promising wildlife refuge. But in the winter months, the water used to cool the plant’s equipment draws in an array of manatees from the Gulf of Mexico. The gulf gets a little cold for these gentle giants’ tastes, and the warmer water found in the Lee County Manatee Park is a welcome alternative. The best way to see these wonderfully wallowing creatures is to paddle among them on a kayak, with rental available within the park. Prime manatee-sighting months span from mid-November to the end of March.

The best way to meet manatees is to paddle among them at the Florida Power and ...

The best way to meet manatees is to paddle among them at the Florida Power and Light Power Plant.

Photograph by Fort Myers

5. Hang out with butterflies

It’s impossible to know where to look at the Butterfly Estates. Inside a 3,614sq ft glass conservatory, legions of butterflies flit among the plants, dancing across the eyeline. They’re busiest around lunchtime, when in search of food, so photographers aiming to capture the kaleidoscope of colours across several native species should visit earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon, when the hand-raised butterflies tend to stay still.

Located in the Downtown Fort Myers River District, the Butterfly Estates are run by a non-profit organisation intent on preserving Florida’s native butterfly species, so all entrance fees go towards education and research projects. The Estates are open all year round, from 10am-3pm November through May and 9am-2pm June through October. However, visitors should note they are closed on Mondays and on public holidays. 

Plan your trip

From the UK, most visitors to Fort Myers and surrounding areas will fly into Miami, with several direct flights available daily from Heathrow. The drive from Miami to Fort Myers takes around two hours and 25 minutes. Tampa Airport is slightly closer, however — it’s about two-and-a-quarter hours away by car — with direct flights from Gatwick.

For more information, go to


Sign up to our newsletter and follow us on social media:


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2023 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved