It turns out baby alligators are pretty cute when there's no chance they're going to bite you. That's what people learn when they visit the Alligator Attraction, where they feed the seven-inch creatures from a safe distance by dangling fishing poles off an overhead bridge. Visitors can also come in for a closer interaction by handling the gators, cradling them in their arms and smooching their snouts. These animals are much larger—the center's 50 gators grow as large as seven feet long—but the interaction is still safe because the gators' jaws are securely taped shut.
There are other animals to behold and interact with, too. Visitors feed koi fish from baby bottles, and they line up to greet rescue animals such as Becca the Australian blue-tongued skink and Rudolph the 95-pound African spur thigh tortoise. Outside of the small zoo, personnel bring The Alligator Attraction's titular reptiles to pool parties to swim around with guests and gossip about the neighbors as much as they can with their mouths bound.
In 1962, Charles Redington commissioned a 1,200-foot-long fishing pier to be built in the Gulf, one of eight others like it in the area. Today, this long wooden walkway represents the last of its brethren, preserved and restored by the current owners, the Antonious family, who treasure its historic significance and excellent fishing. The waters surrounding the pier teem with sea life, such as flounder, eels, sharks, dolphins, and kingfish who burble "checkmate" when they get hooked. The crystalline Gulf waters provide a view of the vibrant reefs below, best seen and fished from the very end of the pier, which is reserved for those who purchase VIP passes. Since The Long Pier requires no fishing license, both amateur and professional fisherfolk can enjoy its sunny lengths and salty breezes by simply renting a rod and buying bait from the onsite tackle shop.
In 1848, a great hurricane washed over Florida, blasting a passage through the sand of Madeira Beach. It would be first traveled by the pirate John Levique, whose legend would lend the inlet its name, Johns Pass. But Levique was not the only individual to make use of the pass. In what is now Boca Ciega Bay, travelers can make out the cresting fins of bottlenose dolphins and the slick backs of manatees. The sailors of Dolphin Quest strive to give their passengers up-close experiences with these creatures, embarking on 90-minute tours to seek out the elusive pods. The calm waters make for a pleasant ride as the Coast Guard-licensed captain and crew narrate, largely by way of free-verse shanty. On their journeys, passengers may also see frigate birds, osprey, and pelicans craning their necks from the mangroves.
When he turned 40, Christian Cook decided he wanted to try something new: the Molokai 2 Oahu Paddleboard Race, a 32-mile sprint between the two Hawaiian islands. A self-described “eternal optimist,” Christian formed his own workout regimen and trained for 365 days straight to prepare, finally competing in the race in 2009 and 2010. Now, he shares his experience, teaching new wave riders how to paddle as a fun fitness activity. He is joined by NRG Salt Stand Up Fitness's staff of trainers, who cater their programs to match clients’ needs, whether students wish to learn the sport for leisure, exercise, or commutes between riverboat casinos and oil rigs. The gurus also rent out their boards for joy rides in the water around Madeira Beach.
There's something magical about John's Pass Village and Boardwalk. Maybe it's the quaint shops on one side, and the sprawling cerulean expanse of the Gulf of Mexico on the other. Or perhaps it's the red, white, and blue parasails that take up to three passengers at a time high above the water, where they can finally retrieve their car keys from that seagull. At the other end of those flying stars and stripes is an expert crew aboard a Coast Guard–certified and inspected boat. Should Eagle Parasail's patrons want another adventure, Eagle Parasail's sister companies Lady Godiva Fishing Charters and John Pass Waverunners are just down the boardwalk.
Eric, Mitch, and Julie Audit head up a crew of "wannabe pirates and friends" at Island Life Charters. Their armada of kayaks are equipped with quiet electric motors, carries visitors out on self-guided excursions and tours, where they can take in views of mangrove trees teeming with birds, as well as manatees and dolphins. For a different boating experience entirely, the fleet's crown jewel is Islandicity, a 30-foot Chaparral boat that comfortably seats 12 passengers on a deck equipped with a powerful stereo system, a wet bar, and a Coast Guard-deterring scare-Poseidon.