Wild Gopher Tortoise Sightings: The Absolutest Cutest Moments of My Recent Vacation

The oft-sandy gopher tortoise.

Last week we made our triumphant return to Little Gasparilla Island, which we visited last year and basically fell in love with. This island, located on the Gulf of Mexico about two hours south of Tampa, is car- and business-free. As a result, nature thrives. My handwritten list (because I’m that dorky) of wild animal sightings includes manatees, osprey, snakes, armadillos, starfish, stingrays, herons eating mullets, lizards…well, you get the idea.

Last year, though, we didn’t see one of the prized species — the gopher tortoise. Large and land-dwelling, the gopher tortoise, I was told, could allegedly be seen lumbering around the island, emerging from its vast burrow during the heat of the day, and gingerly crossing the sandy paths that are considered “roads” on the island. I kept my eyes peeled but no tortoises. Sadness.

This year, though: wow! Every day I saw numerous tortoises, ranging from small (about the size of of a volleyball) to large (about the size of a mid-sized watermelon). And I often sighted dark, black sleek snakes nearby. Turns out this is not coincidental: The large burrow of the gopher tortoise is renowned for housing not just the tortoise itself, but numerous other species, especially the indigo snake. This makes it a keystone species  — meaning that its existence is enormously helpful to many other creatures.

The gopher tortoise is the Florida state tortoise, and a protected endangered species. I feel honored to have spent my vacation amid such cute, special reptiles. Who, notably, are not shy and let me film them with my iPhone:

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