Florida has 1,197 miles of coastline, more than any state except Alaska. The Gulf Coast stretches for 798 miles while the Atlantic coast is 399 miles long. Of the total length of Florida coast, beaches lie over 800 miles. Add to that Florida's 4,424 square miles of water — nearly 10 percent of its total area — and you can see why Coastal Florida is a fishing and boating paradise.
Florida's Gulf coastline has a low ocean floor 60 feet deep, from 3 miles out near Panama City to 40 miles out off Cedar Key. On the east coast the low area begins at West Palm Beach, widening toward Jacksonville Beach. However, off Miami Beach the ocean floor drops from 600 to 6,000 feet, making this the closest area to the continental shelf.
Tucked into Florida's coast are a myriad of estuaries, inlets, bays, and islands. The state's eastern shore from Fernandina Beach to Miami Beach is one long string of sandy beaches, some extremely wide, like Daytona. On the Gulf side, sandy beaches run from Pensacola east to Saint George Island in the northwest and from Honeymoon Island south to Marco Island along the west coast. Florida's Big Bend, as the peninsula curves into the Panhandle, has shorelines consisting of mostly salt marshes. Around the state's southern tip lie 96 miles of mangrove islands and another 438 miles of coastal marshes and lagoons.
But Mother Nature frequently remodels shorelines. Through wind and wave action, sands move from one side of an island or inlet to the other. Storms and hurricanes can drastically alter the coastal landscape, creating channels where before there were none and filling in those created previously. These high-energy shorelines have natural sand dunes, built up over time around stands of wild sea oats. This particular grass is so important to dune protection that Florida law prohibits anyone from picking, breaking, or trampling it. Beach erosion is a natural thing, but the State of Florida has undertaken extensive beach restoration to preserve its major tourism resource.
Of the seven species of sea turtle, five nest on Florida's sandy beaches — green, loggerhead, leatherback, hawksbill, and olive ridley. The best time to view them is in June during peak nesting time. Take one of the ranger-led turtle walks offered at state parks and national seashores along the southern portion of the northeast coast.
When you think of sandy beaches, you naturally think of sunbathing and swimming. But there's so much more going on along Florida's coasts. Beaches provide a habitat for many species of animals and birds. By day, shore birds prowl the break line — that line where the waves break on the sand — searching for a tidbit. By night, sea turtles creep ashore to lay their eggs along some beaches. And where you don't find sand, you'll find mangrove forests, salt marshes, and estuaries. Offshore, coral reefs provide you with another exotic ecosystem to explore.
Beaches are probably Florida's prime natural assets. Of the twenty-five state beach parks, Little Talbot Island, off the coast of Saint Augustine, is the largest while Cayo Costa Island is one of the most unspoiled. In recent years, the State of Florida has undertaken a “Save Our Coast” campaign by purchasing natural beach property for recreation while at the same time preserving it. In addition, the federal government has established national seashores, one encompassing 26 miles of shoreline at Cape Canaveral on Florida's east coast and another encompassing 50 miles of shoreline among the Gulf Islands of the Panhandle.
Since Portuguese man-of-wars have no means of locomotion, their floating, sail-like bodies often wash ashore. Their tentacles, sometimes up to 60 feet long and often buried just under the sand's surface, can deliver a painful sting. Be aware of their purplish bodies with far-reaching tentacles.
One of the major activities along Florida's beaches, especially those along the west coast, is shelling. Sea waves toss many interesting creatures onto Florida's beaches. Horseshoe crabs lie waiting for the next tide while sponges and seahorses dot the sands. The variety of Florida's shells will boggle your mind — conches, fig shells, moon snails, whelks, red and orange scallops, cockles, turban, and pen shells, to name only a few.
Nearly 470,000 acres of tropical mangrove swamps dot the shores of southern Florida. Some occur even as far north as Cedar Key, north of Saint Petersburg on the Gulf Coast. Botanists call them “walking” trees because their knee-like roots make them look as if they're ready to walk away. They're a necessary part of the coastal ecosystem because they create a protected nursery for shellfish, crustaceans like lobsters, and some fish. And along Florida's hurricane-prone coastline, they also protect the mainland from storm winds and floods.
Three species of mangrove grow in the brackish waters around the Florida Keys and the southwest coast. Unlike other trees, mangroves produce live young. Their seeds germinate while still attached to the tree. After dropping from the parent, the young seedling can float for weeks or months until it washes up on a suitable shore, where its sprouted condition allows it to quickly send out roots. Mangrove trees have difficulty extracting oxygen from the muddy soil, so they send out a system of aerial roots, which dangle from branches or twist outward from the lower trunk. Crocodiles, frogs, river otters, mink, and raccoons love to hide beneath them.
Florida's territorial boundaries also include thousands of islands. In fact, locals call the coastal area south of Naples and west of the Everglades “the Land of Ten Thousand Islands.” Second in number only to Alaska, these islands rise from Biscayne Bay to Pensacola Bay. Others occur in rivers, lagoons, inlets, and harbors. At least 4,500 of them cover 10 acres or more.
Florida's living coral reef, the only one in the nation, frames its southeastern corner. Coral comes in a rainbow of colors — orange (elkhorn coral), red (brain coral), and green (star coral). Though to a diver, coral lying on the ocean floor may seem huge — and some is gigantic — it's actually made of millions of small, soft animals called polyps, related to sea anemones. The polyps secrete limestone to form a hard outer shell. At night they extend their feathery tentacles to filter seawater for microscopic food. This provides only a fraction of the coral's nutrition. They gain the most from the photosynthesis of algae that live within their cells. When warmer water kills off large numbers of these algae, the weakened polyp succumbs to disease and dies. While this may sound severe, the damage from tourist activities in Florida has had much more of an impact on the reef. Fortunately, it's against the law to take any live coral to sell or as souvenirs.
Hundreds of colorful fish, including parrot fish, porkfish, grunts, and blennies, swirl about in dazzling schools or lurk between coral crevices. Sponges, sea fans, crabs, spiny lobsters, sea urchins, and conches all make their home on or around the reef.