Best Wildlife Watching Spots

Whether hiking deep into subtropical wilderness, paddling a kayak or hanging out at the beach – wildlife is everywhere you look in St. Pete-Clearwater.

a drone image of a mother and baby dolphin swimming in bright green water

There's a good chance you'll spot wild dolphins on one of our local boat tours.

Wildlife watching in natural settings is one of our area's greatest attractions, ranging from hatchling sea turtles and fuzzy bird chicks to super-sized manatees and enormous loggerhead sea turtles. Look for them in the wild at one of our beautiful parks or when cruising our waterways. Or visit them in local rescue and rehab centers, where you can learn more about their fascinating lives and how to help them survive. 
 

a baby alligator on a log at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve

Boyd Hill Nature Preserve is a good place to see juvenile alligators.

Alligators

Everyone wants to see a ‘gator on their Florida trip! Although they’re iconic of the Florida wilds, it’s possible to see them in and around any freshwater in the state. Here in St. Pete-Clearwater, you might spot them (from a safe distance) along boardwalks or trails at local parks such as Boyd Hill Nature Preserve and Sawgrass Lake Park in St. Pete, or John Chesnut Sr. Park in Palm Harbor. Boyd Hill even offers “Awesome Alligators” guided walks, where you can get the inside scoop on these awesome. To see ‘gators up-close, visit Alligator & Wildlife Discovery Center, which provides a home for rescued juvenile gators, along with other small critters.

An important note: Never approach or feed alligators, which are wild and potentially dangerous animals. And avoid the water’s edge near lakes and freshwater wetlands, especially if you’re visiting with small children or dogs.

 

two manatees underwater touching snouts

Manatees are gentle creatures that inhabit coastal waters throughout Florida.

Manatees

The teddy bears of marine mammal life, manatees are gigantic, spud-shaped, and totally gentle animals that have existed since prehistoric days. Today, they're threatened by speeding boats and their propellers, as well as habitat loss and pollution.

These 1,000-pound vegetarians eat up to 100 pounds of seagrass and seaweed a day as they munch their way through local waters. 

The best place to spot them locally, especially in winter and spring, are the bayou waters next to Coffee Pot Park and Coffee Pot Boulevard in St. Pete. You may see them anywhere in the bayou, but they tend to hang out around 23rd Ave NE. Closeby, near the St. Pete Pier and Spa Beach, you might also have another wintertime opportunity to spot these gentle giants.

Anytime of year, you may see manatees while kayaking with outfitters such as Get Up & Go Kayaking Shell Key in St. Pete and River Wild Kayaking in Tarpon Springs. In the summer months, you may even spot manatees swimming in Gulf waters at the beach. Manatees will not hurt you, but keep a respectful distance as they are protected species and it's unlawful to chase or harass them in any way.

If you're a boater, observe all no-wake zones and be on the lookout for manatees as you explore local waters.

 

a dolphin jumping in the wake of a boat with another boat and the shoreline nearby

Boat tours are a great way to see native wildlife, including playful dolphins!

Dolphins

What a joy it is to spot dolphins playing, fishing and swimming in local waters! Many local boat tour companies and nature tours can take you to their most likely hangouts, but if you look sharp, you can spot bottlenose dolphins anywhere in Tampa Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, canals and other saltwater and brackish marine environments.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) is your foremost expert for all things related to dolphins: Since 1972, it has rescued and rehabilitated dolphins who are injured or ill. Its most famous resident was the late “Winter,” star of the popular Dolphin Tale movies. The aquarium offers a "Sea Life Safari" boat tour where you can learn about dolphins and other area wildlife. 

 

A tiny loggerhead sea turtle hatchling leaves tracks in the sand as it crawls to the Gulf.

A tiny loggerhead sea turtle hatchling leaves tracks in the sand as it crawls to the Gulf.

Sea Turtles

Roughly the weight of a baby elephant, female loggerhead sea turtles use the beaches of St. Pete-Clearwater as its nesting grounds and nursery. Green turtles and the occasional leatherback also crawl up on our beaches to lay their nests in a ritual as old as time. A few months later, the nest "erupts" as tiny hatchlings escape the nest and head to the water. You can view rehabilitating sea turtles up close at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Learn more about sea turtle nesting season in Florida.

 

two young deer look up while standing in a field of grass with pine trees behind them

John Chesnut Sr. Park in Palm Harbor is a beautiful spot to spend the day. You might even spot white-tailed deer.

White-tailed Deer

Bambi-lovers see their dreams come true in St. Pete-Clearwater, where white-tailed deer feed and play in local parks. John Chesnut Sr. Park in Palm Harbor is particularly known for deer sightings, often close to the park’s trails. Come on a weekday, early or late in the day, for the best opportunity to see them, as the park can be busy on weekends. Deer also live in Brooker Creek Preserve’s vast acreage in Tarpon Springs. Does keep their fawns hidden for one month after birth, so if you happen to see a solitary baby deer while visiting a local park, it's not a cause for concern, as the mother will return to it. 

a gopher tortoise crawls out of its burrow

Gopher tortoises create extensive burrows they share with other animals, such as snakes and rabbits.

Gopher Tortoises

At Brooker Creek Preserve in Tarpon Springs, kids can act like a gopher tortoise and crawl through a simulated burrow to find out what other creatures share living space with this keystone species. (Be ready for surprises!) You might also spot them on one of the preserve's trails, and other local parks such as Weedon Island Preserve are also potential tortoise-spotting locations. On 280-acre Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge, accessible only by ferry or private boat, they’re fairly likely to make a cameo appearance near the island’s lighthouse. In fact, the refuge has more than 1,000 gopher tortoises on the island.

Unlike sea turtles, gopher tortoises live their entire lives on land, building extensive burrows in sandy locations with vegetation nearby. If you are relatively still and quiet, it's likely you'll be able to observe this protected species out in the wild.

 

A white heron at John Chesnut park

Great white herons and other wading birds can be seen in parks and preserves throughout the area.

Birds

St. Pete-Clearwater truly is for the birds! The area counts 15 sites on the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail, from the trail gateway at Fort De Soto Park near St. Pete Beach to Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin. Fort De Soto has logged more than 40 varieties of wood warblers. Other species along the coast include roseate spoonbills, reddish egrets, wood storks, ospreys, bald eagles and wintering populations of white pelicans (they often stop in for a few days of rest on their migration path at Coffee Pot Bayou near downtown St. Pete).

You can also learn about local efforts to rescue and rehabilitate sick, injured and orphaned brown pelicans and other shorebirds at a beachfront care facility, Seaside Seabird Sanctuary on Indian Rocks Beach. 

Read more about the best local birdwatching spots.

 

About Our Writer

Chelle Walton is a veteran Florida travel writer who knows the Gulf Coast like the back of her hand. She's the author of 10 guidebooks, and has contributed to articles for VISITFLORIDA.com, USA Today, Gulfshore Life, Frommer's and many others. She lives in Sanibel, Florida.