The Everglades

The Everglades today are recognized as one of the world's most unique ecosystems and have been designated as a World Heritage Site. Early American settlers, however, considered the area a worthless swamp and made every possible effort to drain it. They nearly succeeded.

Today, although the Everglades National Park spans some 2,350 square miles, it covers only about 27% of the original Everglades ecosystem. Much of the remaining portion has been given over to agriculture.

The Everglades have been called a "river of grass". Anyone visiting the Everglades will instantly understand the reference to "grass" – the area at times appears to be one large, flat grassland – but the "river" reference is not so obvious. The water that is so widespread throughout the Everglades actually comes from overflow from Lake Okeechobee well to the north. During the wet season, a slow moving flood enters from the north and gradually makes its way over the flat limestone shelf of the Everglades toward Florida bay at the southern tip of the state. This slow progression of water has been likened to a river.

A great way to experience the Everglades is on an air boat. These unique vessels consist of a lightweight, flat-bottomed hull and tube super-structure driven by a powerful V8 car engine that turns a large fan at the rear of the boat. With no propeller or rudder in the water, the air boat can easily navigate through shallow water, grassy marshes and even up onto dry land.

The Everglades host a vast assortment of wildlife. Among the large animals – the so-called "charismatic megafauna" – visitors are most likely to see alligators. Alligators are members of the crocodilian order that also includes crocodiles, caiman and the gharials of India. As such, alligators belong to one of the most successful animal groups on the planet. Crocodilians evolved during the time of the dinosaurs, survived the vast extinction 65 million years ago and have continued to thrive in warmer areas around the world.

Large alligators (the longest recorded in Florida was 17 feet, 5 inches long) are territorial and will vigorously defend their range against intruders. Unlike many reptiles, alligators raise their young and protect them for up to two years after hatching. During that time, young alligators are vulnerable to raccoons, herons, snakes, fish and larger alligators. Even after alligators reach four to five feet long, they tend to hug the vegetated shorelines where they are better able to hide from cannibalistic adults.

During my air boat tour, Captain Bill navigated to an area he knew was the territory of a large male alligator. It wasn't long before the gator approached the boat, perhaps hoping for a handout (he didn't get one) and perhaps just looking to break the monotony of his day by paying a social call. It was, at first, a bit unnerving to see his gaping, tooth-filled mouth so close to the vessel. It looked like he was trying to climb aboard. Bill explained, however, that the water's bottom was soft and muddy and offered no solid surface the gator could use for leverage. A firmer bottom would have allowed the gator to use his powerful tail as a spring and propel himself onto the boat. I was further assured when Bill – who has had decades of experience with alligators – reached down and patted our visitor on the nose!

For more about the alligators in the Everglades (and the park in general) check out the National Park Service Everglades web site. For more information on crocodilians in general, see Crocodilian Species List. You also might want to check out my photos of the larger Nile crocodiles in Africa.

My trip held two other surprises: Thankfully, there were almost no insects (perhaps October is just not the season). Disappointingly, there were very few birds. Bill explained that October was in the "off season" for birds and recommended February or March as the best times for bird viewing.