goatCreativecommons.org/ Britt Reints

For those looking to get wild on the Emerald Coast, they don't need to be sport fishers to get up close to some of the native wildlife. Not only does the area host zoos to allow visitors to get up close and personal with native and exotic wildlife, but it also hosts marine and wildlife refuges. However, some argue that the wildlife is at its best out in nature and tracking it down only makes the experience more worthwhile. No matter how visitors want to see the local wildlife, they will surely not be disappointed.

Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park

This marine park located along the Miracle Strip in Fort Walton is very much an interactive experience where visitors can wander in from the beach and swim with the marine life. Visitors to the Gulfarium can enjoy snorkeling with stingrays and sharks, feed the penguins and watch otters play. While this marine park hosts seals, turtles, alligators and sea lions in abundance, it is the dolphins that steal the show. Not only do they offer dolphin shows, but visitors are invited to come and swim among them. This is the perfect way to experience the marine life on the Emerald Coast in a controlled, yet interactive, environment.

Snorkeling and Diving

Those looking to see marine life in a more native environment are in an excellent area for it. The beautiful white sands and emerald green ocean water just begs to be explored. However, since there are so many fishing boats and beach fishers in the area, those who want to explore further off shore should consider a tour company. Companies like Destin Snorkel or Emerald Coast Scuba not only know the most beautiful spots to swim among marine life, but they also know the safest locations to avoid the hooks of chartered fishing boats. Off the Emerald Coast is regarded as some of the best diving in the Gulf of Mexico and visitors are sure to see a large variety of sea life on their trip.

Gulf Breeze Zoo

Those who have had enough of the beach should head inland to the town of Gulf Breeze for their beautiful eponymous zoo. Along the walking path and in the petting zoo, visitors can view an assortment of both native and exotic primates, large cats, bears, colourful birds and much more. They host an Australian aviary where visitors can feed the birds that will perch right on their hands or view the free range rhino, zebra, and antelope in the African safari area.

Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge Zoological Park

Over in the town of Crestview is one of the newest animal parks in the area. Since 2013, the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge has served as home to a number of native Floridian wildlife as well as exotic animals like tigers, monkeys, tortoise, wolves, lemurs and a number of birds. In an interesting mix of zoo and wildlife refuge, this animal park hosts all the joys of the former while having the function of the latter. The skilled zoologists in the park aid in rehabilitating and facilitating breeding of many of the more endangered species so that the world may once again be populated by them in the wild. They provide informative lectures and demonstrations about the animals that can't be missed by visitors interested in conservation.

Night Time Sea Turtle Walk

During sea turtle nesting season, which runs from June through November, the tourist committees of Destin and Okaloosa Island offer educational night time walks to explore and educate visitors on this majestic marine animal. The aim of the night time tours is not only to give a unique view of these animals, but to educate visitors on sea turtle nesting habitats. Many beach goers never realize they share the beach with the sea turtles, so their digging and stopping has become one of the reasons that many sea turtle species have become endangered. While spotting turtles are not guaranteed on every 30-minute tour, it does provide some excellent educational information. Hatching begins to thrive from August until late November, making these tours especially popular during those times.

Exploring the Ecosystem in Grayton Beach State Park

Most visit the Emerald Coast for the beaches, but while Grayton has a great beach, it also hosts fantastic sand dunes nestled among pristine wetlands and pine forest. The Grayton Beach State Park sits outside of town and protects the natural landscape and wildlife within. The dunes, seaside and brackish lakes host a wide variety of shore birds all year around, making it an eclectic bird watching location. The blue herons, cattle egrets and laughing gulls are especially popular among bird enthusiasts in the area. The beach front is also a popular sea turtle nesting area, but is not open to the public during those months to help preserve the population. Moving into the wetlands and pine forests along nature trails, visitors can spot deer, foxes, rodents, snakes, lizards and maybe even a few alligators in the marshes.

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