Tropical escape, part 2

Gators in the ‘Glades

After reveling in the retroglam of Miami Beach, we lit out for the territory to visit something wilder—Everglades National Park. We’d already had a glimpse of the Everglades from our plane. It looked like this: On one side of the canal, dredged waterways and man-made islands covered in homes and golf courses … on the other side, miles of uninterrupted grassland.

A long straight canal divides development from natural grassland in the Everglades

Houses on one side, sawgrass on the other [qz.com]

The Everglades is not a swamp. It’s a shallow, slow-moving river, draining water out of Lake Okeechobee to the ocean. This vast grassland covers the southern end of Florida. Everglades National Park is at the southernmost tip of the overall Everglades area.

Like many of our natural areas, the Everglades has been ruthlessly exploited and nearly destroyed by humans. The northern part was converted to grazing land and sugarcane fields. Canals, levees, and roads blocked the natural flow of water and decimated animal life downstream. Urban development crept ever closer from the East Coast. Approximately 50 percent of the original Everglades has been developed as agricultural or urban areas [Wikipedia]. I won’t go into the horrifying history of what humans have perpetrated there, but if you read about it, it will make you sick. Fortunately, restoration efforts have been underway since the 1990s, with the $7.8 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000. Better late than never, right?

Map showing loss of Everglades habitat in the 20th Century

Loss of Everglades habitat in the 20th Century [fas.org]

After a brief stop at the main visitor center to plan our day, we continued a little further into the park to Royal Palm Visitor Center, where we walked the .8 mile Anhinga Trail. Most of this accessible trail is a beautiful boardwalk that allows you to peek down into the brush and water.

Man walks on wooden boardwalk in Everglades National Park.

What’s around the next bend?

Green lillypads float in Everglades National Park

Lillypads floating in the clear, shallow water

Young mangrove tree growing in Everglades National Park

A young mangrove tree

Cardinal air plant growing on a tree trunk

Cardinal air plant (tillandsia fasciculata)

Spherical white flower in Everglades National Park

This may be a powderpuff (related to mimosa?)

Before long we found some wildlife … this turtle was lounging on the warm mud.

Turtle sleeping in the sun

Lazing in the sun

Smack in the center of this photo is an alligator bag. No, wait—it’s a real alligator!

Alligator resting under a tree in Everglades National Park

See him?

Alligator in Everglades National Park

A better view

Here’s another one, facing away from me.

Alligator hides among grasses in Everglades National Park

We never saw a gator in action … they were all just lying around

I didn’t know much about the Everglades, other than what TV shows lead us to believe. Here’s what I thought it would be like.

Cartoon gator inviting you to take an airboat tour

Thankfully, airboats aren’t allowed within the national park. We certainly did not expect to see this:

Smoke from wildfire hangs over Everglades National Fire

An eerie landscape

The Everglades were on fire. Lightning-induced fires are not uncommon, and sometimes prescribed fires are necessary to burn off spilled fuel or to reduce invasive plant species, but this 3800-acre fire was caused by some idiot who got careless at a campsite.

We had hoped to take a boat tour into the interior of the park, but because of reduced visibility from the smoke, the Forest Service made us wait for a lead car to escort us through part of the main park road. We waited. We missed the boat. By the time we arrived at Flamingo Visitor Center, only one last boat tour was available, out into Florida Bay. (Florida Bay is between the mainland and the Florida Keys.)

Pink Flamingo Visitor Center in Everglades National Park

What color did you think Flamingo Visitor Center would be?

As we cruised into the bay, the captain ran through the mandatory flotation vest demonstration. “If you fall overboard and can’t remember how the life vest works,” he said, “just stand up.” Florida Bay is only three or four feet deep … six feet in dredged boat channels.

Aerial shot showing southern Floida and Florida Bay

You can see the park and the shallowness of Florida Bay. [Google]

View from dock at Flamingo looking toward Florida Bay

Looking south from Flamingo Marina toward Florida Bay

FLorida Bay with island visible in the distance

Heading out into Florida Bay

From the water, we saw birds … lots of birds. Ubiquitous brown pelicans, white egrets, terns, and this nest of osprey.

Three osprey chicks and their mother on a nest on a harbor navigation marker

These osprey chicks look almost ready to fly.

Brown pelican diving into water

A pelican dives for dinner

Perky terns

Perky crested terns perch on a piling

A graceful white egret perches on a mangrove root.

A graceful white egret perches on a mangrove root

Out in the bay, distant mangrove islands shimmered in the sun like mirages. They seemed to float above the water.

Distant island shimmers in heat

Mirage?

These islands begin as a single mangrove seedling that breaks off the parent tree and floats away. If the seedling gets hung up on a shallow spot, it can put down roots in an hour. As the tree grows, its dropped leaves decay and build up, eventually forming a small island.

Small mangrove tree grows near the water

Baby mangrove

Over many years, this island may gain enough elevation—just a few feet—to support hardwood trees. These small humps are known as hardwood hammocks. We passed many hammocks as we drove through the park … but we don’t have a single photo to show you. Guess we’ll have to go back.

Everglades cross section

Everglades cross section [USGS]

Reflection of mangrove roots in the water of Florida Bay

Reflection of mangrove roots

After the cruise we lingered at the marina, hoping to see the manatees that often visit there … but we were disappointed.

Two manatees under water

We did not see these manatees [Keywestaquarium.com]

Cruise boat docked at Flamingo Marina

Our cruise boat in manatee-free Flamingo Marina

The only manatees we saw during our whole trip were these popular mailbox holders. They’re so cute and kitchy, I suppose I would have to have one.

Manatee mailbox holder

Close, but no cigar

A few hours in Everglades National Park was only enough to scratch the surface. We’ll have to come back to catch that boat into the interior, meet a manatee, and hang out in a hammock with a Florida panther. But now, off to the Keys!

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15 thoughts on “Tropical escape, part 2

  1. Jessica@CapeofDreams

    Why does man seem so determined to destroy everything natural? I’m glad that people are gaining awareness, but then I hear about that fire and want to strangle the idiot that started it. Thanks for sharing your pictures and knowledge. I had no idea the Everglades were not a swamp.

    Reply
    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      I know, Jessica … I was upset, too. I thought maybe it was just a controlled burn, but when we saw the whole landscaped charred, and the ranger told us the story, well … I was actually surprised that there are campsites in the Everglades, but it is a national park, so the risk comes with the territory, I guess.

      Reply
  2. Cathy Lee

    Thanks for explaining the background of the Keys. West Coaster that I am, my sense of the area came from Miami Vice. Didn’t see Crockett, by any chance?:) Love the manatee mailbox. I would have to have one, too!

    Reply
  3. Karen B.

    In your next career you can become a tour guide. I found what you shared fascinating. I didn’t know most of what had happened to the Everglades. What a fun trip you and Eric enjoyed. Can’t wait to hear more.
    xo,
    Karen

    Reply
    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      Thanks, Karen! Part of the fun of writing the blog is that I get to relive the trip. Except for missing our animals, I wish we were still there! (Well, maybe not for the tornado in Vero Beach!)

      Reply
  4. Nine Dark Moons

    “If you fall overboard and can’t remember how the life vest works… just stand up.” – love that!!! i’ve had similar experiences with florida boaters. It’s funny how shallow so many spots are. great story and pictures. where we used to vacation in florida there was a marina and the manatees would float upside down next to the dock drinking fresh water from the hose people kept leaving on (for them). there was sign saying you shouldn’t do that, since they can get hit by boats, but they’re so damn cute when they do it and they love fresh water so much. it’s hard to say no to a manatee!

    Reply
    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      That’s exactly what our captain said–the manatees like drinking from the hose! This was a very quiet marina so I think they’d be fairly safe. I hope on our next visit we will be luckier.

      Reply

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