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Emerald Coast in Florida, a Family Nature Vacation

One southeast Michigan family's quest for a fun, Disney-free trip found them spotting dolphins and sharks – and trying a 'Swapvette' and Snuba

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It's not the word you ever think you're going to yell for real while on a vacation with your kids. "Shaaaaarrrk!" I squealed during a recent trip to the Emerald Coast in the Florida panhandle, where sparkling green waters and soft, white sand meet around Destin.

The goal of our "adventure south without the mouse" crystallized in that moment: creating nature-based vacation memories in Florida.

Zach, 12 and Jimmy, 10, have already had fun at places like Sea World, Disney and Ripley's Believe It or Not. And they enjoyed the Magic Kingdom, Shamu and "Are they real?" displays of the weirdest things on Earth.

But this vacation was going to be different: Enjoying what the ocean, sand, seashore and swamp had to offer, instead. Here's what we discovered.

Gone (shark) fishing

Our adventure began with deep sea fishing with Swoop II (there's also a Swoop I). The six-hour trek is a commitment but well worth it at $55 for adults and $45 for kids 12 and under. Take a brown bag lunch and a couple of drinks – you'll be too busy for anything else!

On a sunny, 80-degree April morning, we set sail on our 65-foot-long vessel, about 20 miles off the shore of Destin. The boys, especially Zach, had done surprisingly well being patient during the 1.5-hour trip out to our fishing spot with about 40 people ready to drop line along the sides.

I earned mom-points weaving raw squid on our hooks, and we laughed clutching our you-drop-it-you-bought-it $250 fishing poles as we let out our first line. But the moment a shark broke through the navy blue waves – and latched onto Zach's bait – it was all mom yelling for help. Zach gasped, "It's a shark!" under his breath.

He kept calm as he reeled it in and I frantically summoned the crew. They wouldn't land mini-Jaws in the boat, as the shark flipped its tail and banged against the side. But we made our way back with a great fish tale and plastic baggie of little snapper fillets ready for a Michigan fish fry.

On other tip on this trek: Be sure to check the weather before booking, because tickets are non-refundable.

Dolphins galore

If there was a theme to our adventure, it proved to be dolphins. A couple years ago, we'd tromped across southeast Florida's Melbourne Beach with a locally based naturalist to see sea turtles nesting. It's a not-to-miss adventure-of-a-lifetime at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. (For a virtual tour, visit Tour de Turtles to follow sea turtles' three-month migration starting in August.)

As soon as we mentioned going to Florida again, though, both boys talked about swimming with dolphins. As I searched guide books and blogs, I found most interactions happen in the not-so-natural environment of giant fiberglass pools. Determined to stick to the plan, I kept looking.

The result was a highly touted but disappointing trip – by dolphin standards – on a smaller boat to swim with dolphins in the wild with Blue Dolphin Tours. In gray skies and blowing drizzle, we set off in six-foot swells. Our directions: Our captain would maneuver the boat near a pod of dolphins and shout for us to jump in.

But the dolphins disappeared as soon as they heard the slapping of our bodies on the surface – a distress signal that something's wrong in dolphin-speak. Another deckhand on the boat said it's easier to get close and slide off the back of a personal watercraft in less wavy conditions. We wished someone would have told us that before we shelled out the cash!

While disappointing from the dolphin perspective, the trip became another adventure when our boat pilot decided to hunt for his dinner. So as the boys and I snorkeled around looking at urchins and fish below us, they were also entertained by our captain spearing a flat-eyed flounder and breaking off crabs' claws for his food. Who needed character breakfasts?

If you want to take a chance on swimming with dolphins in the wild – or just take a fun, $49 ride on a six-passenger boat to snorkel along the coasts of Panama City Beach – give this option a go.

For dolphin experiences with little ones, try Southern Star Dolphin Cruises, a glass-bottomed boat cruise on a sturdy, tug-like ship. Tickets are $29 for adults, $15.50 for ages 4-14 and free for kids under 4.

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