Watching Wildlife in Biscayne National Park

The Biscayne National Park is an American National Park located in South Florida, just south of Miami. The park preserves the Biscayne Bay as well as the offshore barrier reefs. About 95% of the park is water, with the shore of the park boasting an extensive mangrove forest. The park covers 172,971 acres in total, which includes the largest and northernmost island of the true Florida Keys. In the north of the park, visitors can spot transitional islands of coral and sand.

The park protects four distinct ecosystems today: the mangrove swamp, the shallow waters of Biscayne bay, the coral limestone keys, and the offshore Florida Reef. The shoreline swamp region provides a nursery for larval and juvenile fish, molluscs, and crustaceans. The region is also covered with tropical vegetation and cacti, palms, and the ever-endangered sea turtle. The offshore reefs and waters harbor more than 200 species of fish, pelagic birds, whales, and coral reef.

The Biscayne National Park is home to 16 endangered species, including swallowtail butterflies, smalltooth sawfish, manatees, hawksbill sea turtles, and alligators.

Inhabited by the Glades culture more than 10,000 years ago before the rising sea levels filled the bay, native people called the region home before the Spanish took possession of Florida in the 1600s. Upon arriving in the bay, the coral reef in the water claimed hundreds of ships into the 20th century.

Fun fact: the park was originally proposed for inclusion in the Everglades National Park. It was removed from the proposal and remained undeveloped until the 1960s.

Today, the park is home to over 600 native fish, neo-tropical water birds, and migratory habitat.

Biscayne National Park’s Top Animals

  • Sea turtles
    • The loggerhead sea turtle calls the park home, although it is endangered today. The females may lay about 100 eggs per nest, but that doesn’t protect the babies from the hardships and dangers they must survive to reach adulthood. Most eggs are eaten by predators. Once grown the sea turtle has fewer predators, though the Tiger Shark still hunts them.
  • Cotton mouse
    • Named from the cotton that it uses to build its nest, the cotton mouse is known by its dark brown body and white belly and feet. With short lifespans of 4-5 months, these mice provide sustenance for dozens of species in the park.
  • American alligators
  • American crocodiles
  • Swallowtail butterfly
    • Characterized as a large, colorful butterfly endemic to South Florida, the swallowtail butterfly has been listed as endangered since 1975. In recent years, the population has declined so steeply that park service intervention has been taken to ensure the species survives. There are only 75 swallowtail butterflies left in the park today.
  • Arctic tern
    • Boasting the longest migration of any animal, the arctic tern migrates 44,300 miles in one year. Migrating across oceans, around Antarctica and back, these birds feed on smaller marine invertebrates. Nesting only once every three years, the tern can live up to 30 years. Over one million terns can be spotted passing through the park every year.

Viewing Locations

Dante Fascell Visitor Center: Get a good glimpse at local manatees from the main visitor center. Manatees can be seen year round.
Chicken Key Bird Rookery: Located northeast of the Deering Estate in South Miami, Chicken Key is only accessible by canoe. You can book a tour with park naturalists who discuss the history, wildlife, and ecology of the island. It’s a great spot for bird watching.
Elliot Key and Boca Chita Key: Two amazing campsites within the park, both of these locations are great places to sit back and catch some local animal activity. Note that standing bodies of fresh water are not safe to wade into due to the alligator and crocodile population. Follow local camp recommendations for securing food at night.

When Should You Go?

You can visit the Biscayne National Park anytime of the year, though there are more manatees present in the colder winter months. The park has a pretty stable climate with winters still manageable for visitors.

Generally, December to April is considered the dry season and has increased ranger-led program availability. If you want to plan around the natural moistness, the winter is the preferred time to check out the park.