From a distance, the manatees, dolphins, and bald eagles that populate Estero Island make quite an impression. But the staff at Holiday Water Sports of Fort Myers Beach believes up-close encounters are not only the sole way to determine if the animals can talk, but also the best way to enjoy them. To that end, they guide tours and rent out myriad watercraft, from Yamaha 4 waverunners and 10-passenger pontoon boats to paddle bikes, which resemble oversized tricycles as they surge through nimbuses of sea foam. The staff hoists parasailers over their water-bound peers, letting out up to 1,200 feet of slack and allowing riders to plunge into free falls with houses and piers blurring into a cubist painting beneath them. Captains certified by the United States Coast Guard guide the ships back toward the sun-bleached sands, where the company’s rental umbrellas rustle in the breeze above lounge chairs.
With a stable of two schooners, Appledore IV and Appledore V, which split their time between Fort Myers, Florida, and Bay City and Mackinaw City, Michigan, BaySail's captains ferry passengers about the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico during leisurely and educational tours. The sea vessels depart from Bay City to wind along the Saginaw River and into open water, letting passengers soak up summer sun or, in the autumn, traveling upriver for spectacular views of changing leaves and scarecrows playing hooky on the riverbanks. Come winter, the Appledore V makes its way to Florida, where it seeks out the dolphin populations of San Carlos Bay. All of BaySail's excursions are interactive seafaring affairs in which passengers are encouraged to help to crew the watercraft, learn about fish brought into onboard tanks, and force seagulls to walk the plank.
The gentle clap of paddles against the water and the tenor thrumming of jet-ski motors drift from Adventure Water Sports. On waverunners, diminutive sailboats, and kayaks, patrons spread out across the surf and around Estero Island, their eyes peeled for dolphins and other fauna at all times. The shoreline falls back in quiet bays and estuaries, where little fish dart among tangled knots of mangrove roots. Instructors certified by the United States Coast Guard demonstrate the operation of vessels, lead tours, and knock down sand castles lacking proper fire exits.
The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum's colorful exhibits and collection of rare specimens entertain and educate visitors on a wide range of nature's shell-encased organisms. The multi-chambered museum houses about 150,000 lots of mollusks from all over the world and 28 exhibits that give museum goers a glimpse at notable shell collections, fossilized shells from Florida, and humans' use of shells throughout history. Inside the exhibit Calusa: the Original Shell People sits a life-sized statue depicting a father showing his son how to use tools fashioned from scavenged shells. A short walk across the building takes patrons to the Children's Learning Lab, where interactive displays, games, and a live shell tank prove to youngsters that shells don't only exist in mermaids' underwear drawers.
With more than 31,000 nautical miles of sailing under his boat shoes, Captain David Richardson is more than capable of navigating his sailboat, Sundance, on the leisure cruises for which he has become known. The half-day charters he leads out of Bonita Bill's Waterfront Café take in the many moods of the Gulf of Mexico, from its tranquil disposition in the sun to the turbulent waters it experiences when it realizes it'll never be a full-grown ocean. The Sundance itself boasts comfy accommodations, from cushy seats to an on-board bathroom, and many passengers bring their own food on board to eat while ogling jumping dolphins.
Jet Boat Fun LLC rockets groups across the water aboard Hot Tuna, a yellow-painted vessel packing 375 horsepower and specializing in 360-degree spins. A USCG master captain helms all supersonic voyages, which are available in 30-minute jaunts or extended, 60-minute tour that explores Mantanvas Path and San Carlos Island. During rides, passengers hang tight as the boat zigs and zags atop the water's surface, blurring past local sights and defeating dolphins in hotly contested drag races.