Nature tours mean many things to many people but in our monthly series of blogs, which we begin today, we are focusing on locations where people can experience natural places and observe wildlife; we begin with Perdido Key.

The “miracle strip”, as it was called years ago, is a string of barrier islands and beaches that claim to be the world’s whitest. The whiteness of the sand here is due to one of the many minerals that make up granite rock; quartz. Actually if you view quartz under a microscope you find that it has not color – the whiteness is due to reflection from the sun.

For eons weathering and erosion has released minerals from the granite rock of the Appalachians and washed it downstream. The densities of the different minerals caused them to settle out at different rates as they moved down river. When quartz, one of the lighter minerals in the group, reaches the Gulf of Mexico it encounters the longshore current – which typically runs from east to west in this part of the Gulf. This light white sand is then moved westward forming shallows and bars, which made navigating this area hazardous during colonial times, and small thin islands we call barrier islands. These islands continue to move and shift even though we have, in the last few decades, decided to build on them. Trying to control and manage this movement of sand has been a problem we have faced ever since.

Kayak ramp

These barrier islands are isolated from the mainland and make excellent nesting areas for shorebirds trying to avoid predators. Sea turtles have been leaving their young here for centuries and with the growth of the maritime forest, many animals have found refuge here. Reptiles, mammals, insects are quite common and amphibians and fish can be found in some of the freshwater ponds that exist here.

There is a whole community of subterranean creatures that live along the shore of the Gulf and the bayside is lined with salt marshes and seagrass meadows which are some of the most biologically productive areas on our planet. Despite the xeric conditions typically found on barrier islands, there is a lot of wildlife to be found here.

Pensacola Pass

Perdido Key is the most western barrier island in Florida. Actually it begins in Alabama at Perdido Pass – or Alabama Point, as many locals call it. The island extends 14 miles from Perdido Pass to Pensacola Pass. The western 7 miles is developed and much of it is private property, but there are public beach access points and Escambia County has provided a canoe/kayak launch on the north side allowing paddlers to explore the “Old River” area.

Old River, as the locals call it is dotted with small islets and acres of seagrass meadows to explore, photograph, snorkel, or fish. There are outfitters that can provide you paddleboards or kayaks and small boat charters if you are interested in fishing. Perdido Key State Park is located on the Gulf side and provides an area to view natural dune fields, beach combing, and picnic areas. At the point where Highway 292 leaves the Key there is a road, Johnson’s Beach Road, that heads east to Gulf Islands National Seashore.

As you turn on Johnson’s Beach Road you will see the first of the public beach access points at Sandy Key Drive. Here Escambia County has provided a nearshore snorkel reef in the Gulf. There are markers on shore to help the snorkeler locate the reef. Before you leave the Key you should visit the Gulf Islands National Seashore. This section of the national seashore is called “Johnson’s Beach”. The road has several pull-off areas and dune crossovers so that you can explore either the Gulf or the bay side of the island and there is a kayak launch just as you enter the park to the north. From here you can paddle all the way to Pensacola Pass with little or no human interaction. There are miles of dunes, salt marshes, and seagrass meadows to explore, snorkel, fish, or photograph.

Johnson Beach

To learn more about nature tours in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties visit Rick O’Connor UF/IFAS Sea Grant Program Escambia County Extension