The Florida Everglades

In March 2009, we rented a car while in Marathon and traveled up Highway 1 in the Keys to the Florida Everglades.  We went to Homestead, Florida, and headed west to visit Flamingo, a site in the Everglades National Park.  Everglades National Park, the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, boasts rare and endangered species. It has been designated a World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve, and Wetland of International Importance, significant to all people of the world. The Everglades National Park was dedicated in 1947, and set a new standard in the conservation movement. For the first time in American history, a large tract of wilderness was permanently protected not for its scenic value, but for the benefit of the unique diversity of life it sustained. The mosaic of nine distinct habitats (Hardwood Hammack, Pineland, Mangrove, Coastal Lowlands, Freshwater Sloughs, Freshwater Marl Prairie, Cypress, Marine, and Estuarine) found within the Greater Everglades Ecosystem supports an assemblage of plant and animal species not found elsewhere on the planet.

The Everglades National Park protects the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River.  The wilderness area is names for Majory Stoneman Douglas who was instrumental in creating the park, and who coined the phrase "River of Grass".

  The Everglades is not the proverbial swamp many people consider it to be. It is technically a river, flowing southwest at the slow rate of about a quarter mile per day.  We were surprised when we went in the park. We saw vast grasslands, the Everglades "River of Grass" prairie grasses.  We expected a more tropical, jungle-like terrain. 

FLORIDA GATORS

As we rode across the Everglades, I craned my neck looking for alligators on the side of the road. I was in the Everglades, and I WANTED TO SEE ALLIGATORS! Finally, I got to see some local 'gators!  Hey, and how do you know whether it's an alligator or a crocodile???  Both alligators and crocodiles are found in the Everglades, which is unusual.  The two are often confused, but visually they are different. Alligators have a very broad, wide snout and crocodiles have a narrower snout and jaw.  Crocodiles often have a lower tooth that juts out, while the alligator's fourth tooth is hidden.  So, what were we seeing?? 

Alligators! 

The alligators we saw were in a narrow slough alongside the road.  Fortunately, there was a lookout platform where we could look at them from a safe distance.  Are alligators dangerous?? Not usually, but if they have young and are threatened, they may attack in self-defense. 

Adult alligators average 800 pounds and 13 feet in length.  The gators we saw averaged about 10 feet.  Although they have heavy bodies, they are capable of short bursts of speed and are remarkably fast, which is a good reason to keep your distance. In the state of Florida, it is illegal to feed or harass alligators.  If they are fed by humans, over time they will lose their fear of humans and eventually learn to associate humans with food, posing a greater danger to humans.

What do they eat?? When young they eat fish, insects, snails, shrimp, and worms.   Adult alligators' main prey are smaller animals that they can kill (turtles, fish, birds) and eat with a single bite. Alligators may kill larger prey by grabbing it and dragging it in the water to drown.

 

Alligators consume food that cannot be eaten in one bite by allowing it to rot or by biting and then spinning or convulsing wildly until bite-size chunks are torn off. This is referred to as the "death roll." A hard-wired response developed over millions of years of evolution, even juvenile alligators execute death rolls when presented with chunks of meat. Critical to the alligator's ability to initiate a death roll, the tail must flex to a significant angle relative to its body. Immobilizing an alligator's tail incapacitates its ability to begin a death roll.

Alligators generally mature at a length of 6 feet. The mating season is in early spring. The female builds a nest of vegetation where the decomposition of the vegetation provides the heat needed to incubate the eggs. Strangely, the sex of the offspring is determineed by the temperature in the nest and is fixed within 7 to 21 days of the start of incubation. Incubation temperatures of 86 F (30 C) or lower produce a clutch of females; those of 93 F (34 C) or higher produce entirely males. Nests constructed on leaves are hotter than those constructed on wet marsh and, thus, the former tend to produce males and the latter, females. The natural sex ratio at hatching is five females to one male. The mother will defend the nest from predators and will assist the hatchlings to water. She will provide protection to the young for about a year if they remain in the area. The largest threat to the young are adult alligators. Predation by adults on young can account for a mortality rate of up to fifty percent in the first year.

EVERGLADES AIRBOAT TOUR

We traveled to Everglades City and did the touristy thing, the Everglades airboat tour. LA wasn't enthralled with the idea, but I had always wanted to ride in an airboat, and I wasn't going to miss my chance!  The Captain Doug's sign called out to me like a siren and I wasn't going going to be denied.  $29 per person later.......

AIRBOATS

Airboats are flat-bottomed boats propelled by an aircraft-type propeller and powered by either an aircraft or automotive engine.  The engine and propeller are enclosed in a protective metal cage that prevents tree limbs from coming in contact with the propeller.  The propeller produces a rearward column of air that propels the boat forward.  Airboats do not have brakes and are incapable of traveling in reverse.  Stopping and reversing are dependent upon good operator skills.  The passengers are seated in elevated seats that allow visibility over swamp vegetation.  Steering is accomplished by swiveling vertical rudders positioned at the stern (rear) of the vessel.  The flat-bottom design of the airboat, in conjunction with the fact that there are no operating parts below the waterline, permit the vessel to be easily navigated through shallow swamps and marshes.  Notice the headphones on the back of the seats.  When the engine was cranked up full speed, it was LOUD!  The sound is produced by the propeller.

We boarded our airboat, LLoyd at the helm, with LA, me, and four guys (Dutchmen) as the passengers. We also picked up a hitchhiker along the way.

As it turns out, LLoyd spent many years in the Louisiana area running oil supply boats in the Gulf.  He was a very personable fellow and gave us a very good one hour tour of the mangrove swamp. Mangroves are trees and shrubs that grow in saline (brackish) coastal habitats in the tropics and subtropics.  Mangroves protect the coast from erosion and storm surges.

 

 Mangroves support unique ecosystems, especially on their intricate root systems. The mesh of mangrove roots  produces a quiet marine region for many young organisms. In areas where roots are permanently submerged, they may host a wide variety of organisms, including algae, barnacles, oysters, and sponges which all require a hard substratum for anchoring while they filter feed. Shrimp, crab and mud lobsters use the muddy bottom as their home. Red Mangroves prop themselves up above the water level with stilt roots and then take in air through pores in their bark. They also trap mud and silt that flows with the tide, thus gradually increasing the soil around them. They are found closer to the water than the other mangroves in the community due to their high salt tolerance. The wood is used for fuel, piling, crossties, and charcoal. The red mangrove is also known for its large quantity of tannins found in the bark.

Lloyd "hotdogged" a bit, too.  He would get in the open water and run the boat at top speed, then turn the boat around very quickly, spraying water everywhere.  Being boat people, LA and I weren't fazed in the least.  The Dutch guys liked the excitement, though.  The engine was unbelievably loud during all of this and we used the headphones to try to drown out some of the noise.

Local scenes along the waterway

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