I had long held a strong desire to visit the Florida Everglades ever since a trip to the Florida Keys in 1986. Even back then, as I drove past the signpost to the Everglades, I decided then and there that I would eventually get back to investigate the Everglades. It just took a little longer than I anticipated. However, it finally came true and I recently spent five amazing days in and around the Everglades. There is so much to do. What should I do first? The most publicised things to do in the everglades are the airboat tours, the bike riding, the alligators, the birds, the islands, the swamps and the world class boardwalks through incredibly diverse eco systems. I wanted to experience it all! So, first things first.
The Everglades basically have two seasons. HMM time (hot, muggy and mosquitos) May to October and BMM ( busy, mild and mammals ) November to April. It is busier in the winter as its a much more palatable time of year for non-Floridians. It is advisable in the winter to book ahead to do almost anything ( particularly if it has to do with alligators). There are at least a dozen airboat operators on the main road from Miami into the Everglades, we happened to choose “Capt’n Mitch’s” airboat tour and had an awesome time. Once aboard the airboat with its huge fan behind us, our driver cranked up the fan and we smoothly cruised away from the dock. It wasn’t long before we were alternating between scooting around the sawgrass swamps under the mangrove forest tunnels with the wind in our hair to sneakily slinking up on unsuspecting alligators and turtles basking in the sunshine. As we whizzed through the waterways it was fun to watch the many different birds like herons, mallards, woodstalks and roseatte spoonbills as they flew out from the shores of the waterways as we passed by at speed. There was an abundant variety of birdlife and plenty of alligators to be seen close up. Our trip was only one hour long which in hindsight wasnt really long enough for the amount of things there were to see. Back at the dock, and a vist to the ever present gift shop offered us the opportunity to hold an alligator, which was both exciting and concerning.
The beauty of the everglades is so close at hand, that you can see it at a casual strolling pace. Wandering along one of the many boardwalks in the Everglades gives you the opportunity to see many species of wildlife including Great Horned Owls, Red-shouldered Hawks, Turkey Vultures, Anhinga’s, Little Blue Herons, Night Herons, Wood Stalks, Florida Water Snakes, and Red Bellied Cooters. The boardwalk at Big Cypress Bend is around 1km long and the Corkscrew Swamp boardwalk is 3km. Both of these feature a completely different set of wildlife because of their differing ecosystems. Keep your eyes peeled for snakes in the trees, turtles poking their heads out of the water and anhinga’s spearing fish in the swamp. Strolling a boardwalk in the Everglades is a sure way to feel and absorb the essence of this world renowned multi ecosystem habitat.
The tropical wetland eco system of the Florida Everglades is a massive watershed covering a huge area of over 1.5 million acres. The enormity of the Everglades spans from Orlando in the north 450 kms down to the bottom of Florida in the south, and from the western suburbs of Miami in the east 200 kms all the way across the width of the state to Naples in the west, almost reaching the Gulf of Mexico. This area covers an overall area of approx. 2 million acres. During the wet season, the water leaving the vast but shallow Lake Okeechobee near Orlando becomes a slow moving body of water 97 kms wide and over 160 kms long. As it gradually flows along the Florida limestone shelf, towards Florida Bay at the bottom of the state, this massive cascade of water reinvigorates the everglades following its seasonal half yearly winter dry spell. The Everglades are colloquially known as the “River of Grass” because this huge body of water flowing across the state of Florida causes the sawgrass to ripple like golden waves. The Everglades are made up of a series of ecosystems including the iconic sawgrass marshes and cypress forest, images that we associate with the Everglades. Other ecosystems that make up the Everglades are estuarine mangrove forests, coastal prairie, pine rocklands and tropical hardwood hammocks. Borders between these ecosystems are subtle or imperceptible. These systems shift, grow and shrink, die, or reappear within years or decades. Geologic factors, climate, and the frequency of fire help to create, maintain, or replace the ecosystems in the Everglades. Its no wonder there is such a diversity in flora and fauna with so many ecosystems supporting their own indigenous species and coexisting in the Everglades. It is reliably estimated by the U.S National Parks Service that there are approx. 200,000 alligators in the Everglades, and in excess of 1.5 million of these reptiles across the state of Florida sharing this unique tropical wetland region with 40 other species of mammals. Some 350 bird species have been identified in the Everglades National Park and whilst most are year-round residents others just visit for the winter; and still others stop by on their journey to more southern destinations.
There is great diversity of wildlife that live in the Everglades including raccoon, skunk, opossum, bobcat and white-tail deer, however the pin up symbol of this wild, vast unique ecosystem is the Florida panther. It is the most endangered species in the Everglades, with only about 200 remaining in the wild. Panthers feed on deer and other mammals, live in the upland Everglades areas, and require large ranges. A special Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge has been created to assist them to repopulate. While there is much to see on land, an interesting diversion from the land Everglades is in the salt waters that surround them. The waterways that flow in and around the Everglades through the thousands of tiny islands on the fringes of the Gulf of Mexico support many tropical fish varieties as well as sharks, alligators and the very large rotund gentle giant known as the West Indian Manatee. Growing up to 4 mtrs in length and weighing up to 1800 kgs, these barrel shaped fully aquatic marine mammals are also known as sea cows. With a horizontal rear paddle-like flipper (its smaller relative the eastern hemisphere dugong has a fluked flipper similar to a whales tail) which it uses for both propulsion as well as flipping or scooping vegetation towards its mouth when feeding.
Getting to the Everglades is relatively easy. There are two main roads that traverse the east – west corridors of the Everglades. Firstly I-75 in the north, travelling from Ft Lauderdale in the east across the state to the Naples in the west. This is the northern access route. This route is straighter and a little longer, and is a very interesting entry to the Everglades. The road is largely uneventful, but as you drive along it and realize that the waterway running along both sides of the highway is infested with alligators and is the reason that the road is colloquially known as “Alligator Alley”. It builds the excitement that this ecosystem is like no other on the planet and the reason you’re here to experience all it has to offer. The other amazing feature of this highway is that both sides of most of the 175km are fenced to prevent the alligators from straying onto the highways and becoming road kill victims. You might give thought to the fact that hitting a 16ft 400kg alligator at 75 miles per hour ( 120kph) wlll do significant damage to the undercarriage of a vehicle as well as in all probability causing an horrific accident. The southern road starts in Miami and travels the most popular route into the Everglades on the Tamiami Trail ( US-41) travelling through Homestead, Florida City, Everglade City and Miccosuki Indian tribal land. On this road you’ll find many of the airboat tours, trading posts and tourist operators specializing in showing you the everglades via airboats traversing the rivers of grass, and selling you some souvenir trinkets including, but not limited to, alligator belts and alligator head backscratchers. About 50km from Miami you arrive at Shark Valley. This is a serious conservation research facility that features ranger guided tram/trolley bus tours that circumnavigate the 5km paved road around the valley, and explain in detail about the Everglades: how they came about, details of the various ecosystems, what their challenges are and how they are being sustained. In addition, there are hundreds of alligators that you can get real close to, a multitude of bird life, and a tower to ascend which affords a 360 degree view of the area. It is one of the premier spots to visit to see wildlife firsthand and to gain a deeper understanding of the Everglades and its inhabitants.
The Everglades are a totally wild experience in a unique environment that is, like many other natural environments on this planet, under constant pressure and stress to remain in its current pristine state. Many millions of dollars have been allocated by the US government to rectify some of the wrong decisions that have impacted negatively on the Everglades over recent decades in an attempt to de-stress the ecosystems and reduce harmful effects on it. I recommend you see it before its gone! Its very cool!