6 Incredible Animal Encounters in South Florida - Family Traveller (USA)

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Dolphins and turtles and birds, oh my! One of the biggest draws to a Florida family vacation is the chance to see so many incredible animals. And while the state is famous for its rays, manatees, sea turtles and more, Martin County, located along South Florida's Atlantic coast, is the place to be. The region offers wildlife encounters for families that are a safe and environmentally responsible, allowing kids of all ages to learn about and discover some of our country's most precious animals.

Stingrays in Martin County.

1. Pet a stingray.

At the Florida Oceanographic Coast Center on Hutchinson Island, you'll find 57 acres that are home to nature trails through the mangrove swamp, a game fish lagoon, a sea turtle pavilion, a children's activity pavilion, a sea star touch tank and more. But the biggest draw is the Stingray Program, where visitors learn about different rays through hands-on interaction. Slimy? Smooth? You'll find out!

READ MORE: "6 Reasons to Plan a Family Escape to Florida’s Best Kept Secret Beach Destination"

Horseback riding in Martin County.

2. Go horseback riding.

There's just as much natural beauty to see on land as there is on the water. The best way to experience the wild beauty of Florida is by horse. You'll traverse through cypress and oak hammocks, swamps and water crossings. Through it all, keep your eyes peeled for exotic birds, gators, wild pigs, otters — and even Florida Panthers! Martin County is home to several companies that offer horseback riding tours, like Justin’ Time Stables, Browns Riding Stables, McNally Show Horses and Art of Riding.

A sea turtle in Hobe Sound.

3. Join a sea turtle walk.

The Hobe Sound Nature Center is dedicated to environmental awareness and education, and one of its most popular summer programs is the nighttime Sea Turtle Walk, an unforgettable experience geared toward families. Begin with a presentation to learn about the threatened loggerhead sea turtle, followed by a visit to the Hobe Sound Public Beach to witness the egg-laying first hand. Reservations are required, and be sure to book well in advance to secure your spot. The Florida Oceanographic Society also offers guided sea turtle walks during the summer, where you can join a group or arrange a private tour with just your family to observe the nesting.

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Martin County is known for its amazing birds.

4. Visit a bird habitat.

Bird Island is one of the best kept secrets of the Treasure Coast. Nestled in the Indian River Lagoon, the island is a wonder of nature filled with all kinds of birds — over 40 types flock to Bird Island. It's the nesting site for brown pelicans, wood storks, blue herons, ibis, frigate birds, American oystercatcher and more. The best way to see these birds (along with dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, otters and sting rays) is by heading out with Sunshine Wildlife Tour or Treasure Coast River Tours.

Liquid Aloha, where you can rent boards to go paddling with marine mammals.

5. Paddle alongside dolphins and manatees.

No visit to Florida is complete without spotting a dolphin or manatee. The aquatic adventures in Martin County are a favorite for getting up close and personal with these marine mammals. Book a kayaking or paddle boarding excursion to ride a wave with a pod of dolphins or a pair of manatees. Try one of these reputable, local operators: Liquid Aloha Paddle Co., Zeke's Surf, Skate and Paddle Sports, the Ohana Bus, Stuart Paddle Tours or Native Water Sports.

Treasure Coast Wildlife Center.

6. Explore the Treasure Coast Wildlife Center.

Do you have a budding veterinarian in your family? Head to the Treasure Coast Wildlife Center, which receives more than 3,000 wildlife patients each year. Sick, injured or orphaned animals such as bobcats, eagles, alligators, gopher tortoises, sandhill cranes and songbirds get treatment and rehabilitation with the goal of returning them to the wild. This community institution is open to the public, with an educational center coming soon.