A trip to Florida can feel exotic – colorful fish swirl around you in the ocean, blue herons sail overhead and alligators float along in dark water. Tampa offers many spots to go on a photo safari from sanctuaries and zoos to area parks. The city’s subtropical weather is a perfect climate for animals from Africa and Asia and several parks rescue these fascinating species. Here are the top ten places to get your Instagrammable nature fix in Tampa.
Amusement Park, Zoo
One of the most visited theme parks in America, Busch Gardens Tampa is a 335-acre African theme park with a speciality for exotic wildlife and adrenaline-inducing roller coasters. Busch Gardens is one of the largest zoos in North America, home to 12,000 animals including lions, tigers, cheetahs, giraffes and gorillas. There are specialized tours with elephants, penguins and tigers along with safaris, animal feedings and “keeper for a day” experiences. If thrill rides are your thing there is “SheiKra,” a 200-ft high monster with a 90-degree plummet, and “Montu,” the twisting roller coaster that has seven inversions.
Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park
This 56-acre zoo located at Lowry Park was started in 1930 and has grown into a major, family-friendly attraction. There are over 1,300 animals in residence, including hippos, rhinoceroses, orangutans, elephants and penguins, along with Zoo Brews and yoga events for adults. If you’re looking to experience exotic animals in a quieter setting away from the crowds at the other parks in town, this attraction is for you.
With over 20,000 aquatic animals and plants, the Florida Aquarium offers visitors a chance to connect with the sea. Sea turtles, stingrays, sharks, and spiny lobsters are visible in the 500,000-gallon tank aquarium, which includes a tunnel for visitors to walk through and enjoy surrounding views of the sea life. Above their replica of the Dry Tortugas Park, you can have a fun snorkel adventure and swim with the fish – it’s an exciting in-water reef experience. Ideal for kids, the aquarium also boasts a playground with a waterslide and pirate ship.
Croc Encounters is a family-owned facility that opened in 2008. Started as a nonprofit sanctuary to rescue crocodiles, the facility eventually added reptiles, mammals and birds. There are alligators, crocodiles and caimans on the property along with pythons and boas, monitor lizards and bearded dragons. The facility offers self-guided tours on Saturdays, guided tours during the week and educational outreach programs.
Big Cat Rescue
Big Cat Rescue is one of the world’s largest sanctuaries for exotic “big cats.” The 67-acre plot houses over 80 cats—including species of lions, tigers, bobcats and cougars—all of which were abandoned, abused or orphaned before being rescued by the sanctuary. Come here for an experience unlike any animal establishment you have seen before. This place is not a zoo; it’s a center of peace for these beautiful animals. All visits must be prescheduled and prepaid at the following link
Giraffe Ranch is a 47-acre wildlife preserve located in Pascoe County, 45 minutes outside Tampa
. Two daily safaris are offered by 4WD vehicle, camel, segway or llama trek. In addition to giraffes, the sanctuary has ostrich, antelope, zebra, hippo, rhino and more. Open by reservation only for tours at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., each tour lasts 1.5 hours.
Safari Wilderness is a Lakeland preserve with over 260 acres of wilderness and wildlife in a quiet, uncrowded setting. See lemurs, zebra, warthogs, watusi, antelope and more. Safaris can be booked in vehicles, by kayak or by camel. This is one of the only places in the area to offer a Madagascar lemur encounter experience.
Tampa Electric's Manatee Viewing Center
Come see manatees at the Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach at Big Bend Power Station. The center is open from November 1 through April 15 when the temperature dips below 68 degrees and warm water from the electric company attracts these gentle sea cows. The center also offers educational exhibits, butterfly gardens and a tower from which to view the wildlife.
Fort DeSoto Park
Local photographers agree that this is one of the best places to see nature and birds of all kinds. It’s a county park, located in St Petersburg. There are 18 different viewing areas and the potential to see almost 300 different species of bird, detailed in this birding checklist
. There is also ample sealife to be spotted, beaches, bike and walking tails, kayak rentals and a fishing pier.
Lettuce Lake Regional Park
Noted by National Geographic as one of the best parks to photograph wildlife at in Florida
, Lettuce Lake Regional Park is located on the Hillsborough River and offers ample opportunities for bird watching, hiking, canoe rental and guided tours. There are a variety of birds regularly seen such as blue heron, egret, bald eagle and osprey, along with the occasional alligator. There is a 3,500-foot boardwalk and a 40-foot observation tower to help with wildlife spotting.