The Everglades is the third-largest national park in the contiguous United States after Death Valley and Yellowstone. The park encompasses 1.5 million acres of tropical and subtropical habitat with one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems. So you would expect to be overwhelmed by the park - but maybe not if you base your opinion of other National Parks in the US. President Harry Truman's summed it up best during his address at the Dedication of the Everglades National Park 1947.
"Here are no lofty peaks seeking the sky, no mighty glaciers or rushing streams wearing away the uplifted land. Here is land, tranquil in its quiet beauty, serving not as the source of water, but as the last receiver of it.”
You need to appreciate the Everglades for the role it plays in protecting one of the most uniquely diverse and fragile ecosystems on the planet. It is truly a biological national park. The Everglades is one of only three location in the world designated as an International Biosphere Reserve, a Wetland of International Importance and a World Heritage Site.
The Everglades once covered almost 11,000 square miles of South Florida. Just a century ago, water flowed down the Kissimmee River into Lake Okeechobee, then south through the vast Everglades to Florida Bay, the ultimate destination of uninterrupted sheetflow.
However, in the early 1900s, the Everglades was drained. Water was rerouted by a series of pumps, canals, levees, and other structures. Half of its original wetlands were lost. The water that used to fill the lake and overflow the southern lip is now sent out to sea along the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Canals (red arrows), while the southern Everglades is starved for freshwater.
By the early 1990s, the conclusion that something was seriously wrong with management of the Everglades was obvious and both the State of Florida and the Federal government undertook projects to redirect large amounts of water back into the Everglades. The question as to whether these massive efforts can reverse a century of human-caused environmental damage in the Florida Everglades. These programs are showing positive results, but the Everglades continue to be stressed and this presents a serious problem for the over 8 million Floridians who rely on the this ecosystem for drinking water.
While sometimes thought of as a giant swamp, the Everglades is technically a very slow-moving, shallow river. Because sawgrass marsh dominates this river, it's traditionally called the "River of Grass".
This "River of Grass" is about 50 miles wide, ankle to knee deep, and flowing at an almost imperceptible 100 feet per day. Looking out at this expanse makes you wonder, can man and the Everglade's fragile ecosystems coexist in Southern Florida.
Activities covered in this blog include:
Kayaking Buttonwood Canal at Flamingo Visitors Center
Walking through Mahogany Hammock
Walking through Anhinga Trail at Ernie Coe Visitors Center
Airboat ride in the Everglades
Biking at the Shark Valley Visitors Center
Day 1 Our Everglades exploits began at the Flamingo Visitors Center that is located 35 miles from the Main Park Entrance. For many visitors, Flamingo is too far 'down the road' to warrant a visit; however, since we had two full days in the Everglades we made the journey.
Once a remote fishing village, Flamingo is located at the southernmost tip of the Florida peninsula within Everglades National Park. Although still in a remote area, the Visitors Center offers a variety of services including camp grounds, boat slips, launch ramps, and an abundance of recreational activities. Operations are limited but a soon to be completed revitalization project will return the Center to its previous glory.
Our plan was to rent a 2-person kayak at the Visitors Center and paddle the length of the the Buttonwood Canal, a man-made waterway that’s begins at the Flamingo marina. Everything was going great for the first few minutes in this tranquil environment until ...
a huge crocodile began swimming toward the kayak. It seems we had gotten too close to a mom and her hatchlings. It was a defensive move on her part and as we paddled away she returned to the swampy undergrowth.
American crocodiles are the salt-water cousins of the more common American alligator seen throughout the Everglades. The main differences between these two reptiles are:
Alligators have wider, U-shaped snouts, while crocodile front ends are more pointed and V-shaped.
Alligators usually have darker, blackish-grey skin whereas crocodiles normally have olive green to brown skin.
Full grown alligators are typically 11 feet long while full grown crocodiles are on average 19 feet long.
Alligators hang out in freshwater marshes and lakes. Crocodiles tend to live in saltwater habitats.
Most importantly, and luckily we didn't know this at the time, crocodiles are more aggressive and more likely to attack at random when something comes near, whereas alligators are more likely to wait until hungry or threatened to attack.
This isn't a great photo but there was no way I was going to miss capturing our first encounter. This was indeed a mean, aggressive,19-feet long crocodile! Welcome to the Everglades.
Once the croc disappeared, we continued exploring the canal.
Along both sides of the canal were mangroves trees. Mangroves are a variety of highly salt-tolerant trees that can thrive in channels, rivers and tidal waters, which consist of a mix of fresh water and salty ocean water. They are known for their twisted, tangled, and exposed roots that make the trees appear to be standing on stilts above the water.
The Everglades National Park has the largest area of protected mangrove forests in the Northern Hemisphere. These trees act as a nursery for many marine animals. Wading birds congregate in the mangroves during the dry months to feed and nest.
Mangrove roots slow the movement of tidal waters, causing sediments to settle out of the water and build up the muddy bottom thus helping to stabilize shorelines and reduce erosion from storm surges, currents, waves, and tides. Importantly, mangrove forests also hold tight in hurricanes.
Unfortunately, less than an hour into our journey we passed a kayaker who was returning to the Visitors Center after receiving a weather alert about a fast approaching rain storm. We contemplated continuing further but changed our minds once we heard the rumble of thunder. We hightailed it back as fast as we could.
We made it back to the dock with less than a minute to spare before monsoon rains began. Fifteen minutes later the clouds parted, the sun came out, and the humidity level skyrocketed. Welcome to Florida.
Before leaving the Visitors Center, we spotted several West Indian manatees swimming in the marina. These marvelous creatures have a large, seal-shaped body with paired flippers and a round paddle-shaped tail. Often referred to as ’sea cows‘ manatees are primarily herbivores and spend up to eight hours each day grazing on aquatic plants like seagrass. On average they graze and digest over 100 pounds of aquatic greens every day. An adult female manatee can measure up to 13 feet in length and weigh over 1,300 pounds so it was difficult capturing their entire body in a single frame.
We were lucky to spot this young calf playing in the water as the adults fed on algae growing on the marina supports.
Since our kayaking adventure had been cut short we had time to make several stops along the main road back to the Park Entrance. Our first stop was at Mahogany Hammock. A hardwood hammock is a dense stand of broad-leafed trees that grow on a natural rise of only a few inches in elevation from the surrounding wetlands. It only takes 2-3 inches of raised ground to enable the hammocks to support some of the largest trees in the Everglades. Drop down a few inches in elevation, and only saw grass prairie can exist. This delicate balance of ecology is what makes the Everglades one of the most unique places on earth.
A boardwalk bridges the sawgrass prairie of the Shark River Slough. Because we were still in the dry season, water was no longer flowing.
Instead, of water much of the ground was covered in a brown-colored sponge mat of algae called "periphyton". During the rainy periphyton floats on the surface and is eaten by fish. During the dry season, it habitats for numerous small, burrowing creatures such as small worms and insects. Because periphyton absorbs water, these animals find a source of moisture here even after the water in the prairie has dried up. In the Everglades ecosystems every organism has a role to play during wet and dry seasons
Walking into the hammock, the sawgrass prairie quickly gave way to a wall of trees. Do these hardwood hammocks become islands surrounded by wetlands? The acids from decaying plant life at the edges of the hammock eats away at the limestone underground to form moats which encircle the hardwood hammocks. In addition to providing animals with a perennial source of water, the moats also protect the hardwood hammocks from wildfire, a constant danger in the Everglades.
Tree branches and leaves crisscross so much they create a canopy, or cover, above your head. The thick canopy of a mature hammock creates shade which maintains temperatures that can be several degrees cooler than neighboring habitat.
Shaded from the sun, lush vegetation including ferns and air plants thrive in the moisture-laden air of these hammocks.
The most interesting feature of the Mahogany Hammock Trail is that it houses the largest living Mahogany tree in the entire United States. It has been reported the tree is approximately 3.75 feet in diameter at breast height and 70-80 feet tall.
Our next stop was suppose to be the Anhinga Trail at the Ernie Coe Visitors Center; however, we stopped at a random spot along the road and were mesmerized by a flock on Swallow-Tailed Kites zipping around a field performing aerial acrobatics. The Swallow-Tailed Kite is a large black and white raptor with a deeply forked tail. In fact, no other bird in the United States has a tail as long (10-14 inches) and deeply forked as the Swallow-Tailed Kite. These birds of prey are normally spotted soaring above the tree line, rarely flapping their wings as they coast through the air. As their name implies, these kites are fantastic flyers and are often observed seemingly floating in the breeze. Kites continually flick and rotate their tail, switching from a straight course to a tight turn in an instant as it scans for prey. These nimble, aerial acrobats can even roll and dive backwards to catch an insect behind them.
These magnificent birds measure almost two feet long and have a wingspan of over four feet. Although the same overall size of a Red-Tailed Hawk, they are only about half the weight. This slender design allows kites to stay in flight for long periods of time so that they can catch their favorite prey – flying insects. Although this isn't a perfectly centered photograph photo, I love that I was able to capture a low-flying kite before it moved out of the frame. What incredible creature to watch.
Finally, we arrived at the Anhinga Trail, one of the most popular trails in Everglades National Park. It's known as one of the best places to photograph wading birds and alligators because of their numbers and their tolerance of people on the boardwalk.
The path starts by traversing the Taylor Slough. Slough is used to describe areas of the Everglades where there is slightly deeper water than in the surrounding marshes and where a slow, but measurable current is present.
Sloughs are important refuges for aquatic wildlife especially during the dry season. Taylor Slough is one of the few waterways in this section of the park that retains water year-round, no matter how bad the drought may be elsewhere. The water makes this a haven for all types of wildlife.
Walking through the slough on the elevated platform made wildlife viewing so much easier. Peering down from the platform, it wasn't long before we had our first sighting.
No other animal is more closely paired with the Everglades than the American alligator. You can hardly finish saying Everglades Nati…. before picturing an alligator.
Alligators primarily inhabit freshwater swamps and marshes, and are considered a keystone species. Their presence in an ecosystem plays a critical role in supporting other wildlife.
These reptiles are kind of clumsy on land, but they're built for life in the water. As great swimmers, they are equipped with webbed feet and strong tails that propel them through the water. Just looking at this photo makes my heart race. Can you imagine being in the water and see this monster approaching?
Except for an Anhinga bird in the marsh and a Florida redbelly turtle sunning itself on a rock, we didn't observe other wildlife during our walk.
Before we wrap up the Anhinga Trail, I need to mention the "black vulture problem" that exists in many areas of the National Park. It seems black vultures have developed a taste for rubber. They like to eat windshield wiper blades and will peck away at gaskets around the windows and doors of the vehicles. Before the pandemic, the Park Service at the Ernie Coe Visitors Center maintained a bin with tarps for visitors to borrow. None were available during our visit but someone obviously taken matters into the own hands.
We scheduled an airboat ride at Gator Park for our last day in the Everglades. Yes, the ride is "touristy" but there is no way we were going to miss this iconic Everglades experience.
Airboats are flat bottomed vessels that are propelled by giant fans instead of motors. When the propeller is working, it pushes air behind the boat, which pushes the boat forward. Due to the lack of a motor, the boat can quickly glide across the surface of the water; something that no other boats can do. Airboats do not have brakes and are incapable of traveling in reverse. Stopping and reversing direction are dependent upon good operator skills.
After a brief safety talk, our pilot began to steer the boat out into the Everglades. It was a slow gentle start as we navigated down a canal that led into the Everglades.
Once out in the open water she increased the speed and we experienced the sensation of skimming over the ankle to knee deep water.
Our pilot stopped the boat several times to talk about the significance of this river of sawgrass in the Everglades. Sawgrass is a slim, tall plant that can grow to over 9 feet high. Besides its grass-like appearance, sawgrass is named for the sharp-toothed margin to its leaf blades: serrations that are capable of drawing blood from a bare arm or leg run across them.
Sawgrass is key to the health of the Everglades. It's efficient at utilizing nutrients to sustain the health of its surrounding environment and as it decays, it creates a healthy, organic soil called peat. Peat promotes the growth of other aquatic plants. Sawgrass also provides energy to migrating birds with its nutritious seeds, and it provides safe shelter for animals like alligators.
She maneuvered the airboat down a narrow opening in search of a gator. It wasn't long before she sighted a "big guy" in the grass.
He was not happy with the boat and began swimming toward it. It was mating season when alligators are more aggressive and rather than irritate him further, the pilot slowly guided the boat away.
Before leaving, we watched a brief educational but entertaining show about alligators. The captive Gator Park alligators have been rescued from state-licensed nuisance trappers who remove gators from situations that could harm people. These "trouble makers" ended up in someone's swimming pool, backyard, or parking lot and had to be removed to keep everyone safe. Florida state law requires nuisance-trapped alligators to be relocated to captivity or euthanized. They cannot be released back into the wild once caught.
The airboat ride was definitely worth the time and money. FYI, airboats are prohibited in nearly all of the Everglades National Park's 2,400 acres. These tours are only permitted in one small section of the park.
Before leaving the Park we drove a short distance from Gator Park to the Shark Valley Visitors Center where we rented bikes to explore a path that borders a canal. Despite 24 hours of gators, gators, and more gators, we also wanted the opportunity to see other "nonreptile" wildlife too. Shark Valley has basically one trail – a smoothly paved 15-mile loop that you can explore either by bike or a tram. We chose to bike since the weather wasn't completely oppressive.
The fun part of the ride was spotting alligators along the canal. Some alligators were conspicuous while other were more concealed. But in either case, even riding the bike you have the possibility to be very close to these creatures. But on a serious note, there is a reason the grass at the path edge is mowed - it allows you to easily spot gators that maybe be "too close'"' This beast was hiding in the tall grass not far from the edge of the bike path. If you have an inkling to get close for a great photo, think again. Alligators trick people with their "laziness" when it comes to how dangerous they can be. Just because an alligator is sunbathing doesn't mean it's harmless. Alligators can run at speeds up to 11 mph and can swim at speeds double that. If you run a 10-minute mile, you're running an average of 6 mph. Can you really outrun that alligator? Another fun fact, alligators can also jump up to 6 feet in the air from a resting position. If the photo is that important, maybe you should invest in a zoom lens instead of getting a few feet closer.
An average male American alligator is 10 to 15 feet long. Half of its length is its massive, strong tail. An alligator can weigh as much as 1,000 pounds. American alligators hunt predominantly at night. Alligators will eat almost anything: fish, turtles, small mammals, or birds... and even some larger mammals like deer. If large prey is captured, they drag it underwater, where it is drowned and then devoured. These creatures have between 74 and 80 teeth in their jaws at any given time, and as teeth wear down or fall out they are replaced. An alligator can go through over 2,000 teeth in its lifetime. Once a week is a typical feeding schedule for alligators living in the wild. Excess calories are stored in fat deposits at the base of the alligator's tail. Incredibly, by burning fat reserves, it is possible for an alligator to last more than two years between feedings.
This Everglades ecosystem depends on alligators to thrive and support its biodiversity. Once listed as an endangered species, American alligators were nearly wiped out due to hunting and habitat loss. With protection and the addition of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, their populations were able to rebound. By 1987 American alligator populations were stable enough to be removed from the endangered species list and they continue to thrive today.
We spotted this "baby alligator" in the canal. It was definitely less than 12 inches long. It may have many siblings nearby; a female can lay up to 90 eggs in her nest. These little alligators are carefully protected by their mom so don't consider getting close since she may not be far away.
Although Great Blue Herons are common throughout the Everglades, it was great seeing these stately birds in the wetlands. These birds stand over 4 feet tall and have a wingspan of over 6 feet in length.
Whether poised at a river bend or cruising the coastline with slow, deep wingbeats, the Great Blue Heron is a majestic sight. The heron often stands motionless as it scans for prey or wades belly deep with long, deliberate steps. They may move slowly, but Great Blue Herons can strike like lightning to grab a fish or snap up a gopher.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we spotted this black vulture - a downright ugly bird compared to the heron. The black vulture gets its name from its deep black plumage, featherless grey-black head, and its short, hooked beak. While it is a relatively large bird with a wingspan of up to 5 feet, it is considered small in comparison to other vulture species. The black vulture has excellent eye sight and sense of smell, and because they often find prey by following other vultures.
All-in-all it was a successful two day excursion into Everglades National Park. We traveled by kayak, bicycle, and foot and we explored the Park by land and water. Lots of memories and photographs for this unique biological national park.