The Everglades – as the expansive wetlands in South Florida are known – stretches out across two million acres and can be explored on foot, by bike or by boat. While I was tempted by the high speed air-boat option, I ultimately chose to explore the area by hover-craft which, although slower, could maneuver through more waterways and inaccessible bayou.
It’s sunny and typically humid for Florida as we set sail. Above and on the tall grass, a variety of birds watch us set off. Our captain is also our tour-guide and begins telling us that the early settlers wanted to drain the Everglades. For years the government has renovated the area, pumping water into the river which has resulted in an increase of fauna and flora. (One out of every three residents in Florida’s water comes from the Everglades.) However more than sixty species are still endangered – turtles, the Florida panther (less than 100 remain) and the American alligator.
The river stretches for fifty miles and is the only habitat in the world where alligators and crocodiles co-exist.
While crocodiles prefer the more coastal regions, and are more aggressive than their American cousins, scuba-divers in Key Largo have occasionally encountered these saurians. Not an ideal situation!
The alligators watch us as we sail along, only their eyes visible above the surface; resembling logs floating just below the surface.
Oops! We are stuck in thick grass. Our captain revs, reverses and then accelerates. I could swear one alligator was daring me to swim back to shore. No chance! Seconds later we are back on course.
Our guide tells us about native American legends and customs. The Seminoles and the Miccosukees are the prominent tribes still living in remote areas. Forbidden by the government to hunt, fish or pick medicinal plants, they set up casinos to generate an income. This industry now generates more than $2 billion per annum funding schools and stores.
After a quick lunch we’re off to the crocodile and alligator park where a ranger invites any brave soul to venture into an alligator’s enclosure. He is of course joking as this is strictly taboo.He explains the differences between alligators and crocodiles. How alligators lay their eggs inland and more than a third are lost due to raccoons, frogs, snakes and humans; hence the reason they are endangered. When the young hatch, the mothers carry them back to the river. After his talk, you walk around the various enclosures observing mothers with their young; watching the adults eat and interact with one another. To round off this memorable experience, you can have a photo taken holding a baby alligator whose mouth is taped.
Most captains have a variety of interesting tales to tell but they also know when to keep quiet allowing you to savour the scenery of this unique biosphere because soon the hour – long trip is over. The Everglades is a World Heritage Site and provides a magical experience for any nature lover. In the swamp, stress melts away and you leave the park appreciating the importance of preserving the natural eco-system.