“I just spotted an alligator”, shouted a grade school age boy excitedly in Mandarin, as he pointed to the bank of the pond by the Royal Palms visitor center in Everglades National Park. Alligators are so abundant here, he will encounter dozens of them before he finished the Anhinga Trail, a flat boardwalk trail that puts visitors in the middle of the vast Everglades “river”.
Everglades National Park: Fragile Ecosystem
Everglades National Park is the third largest National Park in the lower 48 states of the US. This fragile ecosystem supports a huge diversity of life that depend on a constant flow of water from Lake Okeechobee. Elevation change of just inches creates different habitats for plants, fish, and birds. The whole ecosystem is a delicate balance that must be maintained to support the diversity of wildlife. Look at a map of south Florida, imagine a huge but very shallow river, as wide as 80% of the state, flowed from that big lake in the middle to the southwest.
The roads that ran across this giant river acted like a dam, which dramatically changed the habitat because little water flowed past the highway. Downstream areas started to dry out. Fortunately, conservation efforts allowed the habitat to slowly restore itself. The ecosystem will take careful management to return to full health. I did not appreciate the delicate nature of this ecosystem, and the wildlife that depends on it, until I was educated during this visit.
Four Corners of Everglades National Park
There are four major areas in Everglades National Park. Royal Palms near the southeast entrance boasts the best trail for wildlife viewing. Flamingo by Florida Strait on the southwest side has a boat tour of Florida Bay and a backwater tour through the mangroves. Shark Valley, in the northeast, has the tram tour that is fantastic to see birds and alligators. Gulf Coast on the northwest corner, has boat tours into the Gulf of Mexico and the brackish water that support a different set of wildlife.
Beware of Vultures
We pulled into the parking lot for the Royal Palms visitor center and immediately noticed tarp covered cars. I thought the tarp was to protect the car from bird poop or sap from the tall trees but when I asked the cashier at the gift shop about this, he said “The vultures will attack the rubber seal of car windows. “. I never heard of vultures eating rubber so I asked nervously “Do you have a tarp I can rent or buy?” He did not. They had some to loan out, but they were all out. Apparently, this is a large enough problem, there is a NPS web page devoted to this. I was just going to wing it and pray the vultures don’t like the rubber from a Toyota Camry, but Loretta insists we protect the car somehow. We ended up wrapping the windshield wipers in plastic bags. I was dubious about the usefulness of protecting just the wipers, but Loretta insisted. As the saying goes – happy wife, happy life.
Alligators, Birds, and Fish
The Anhinga trail, named after the Anhinga bird with its black and white wings, started with a pond by the Royal Palms visitor center. Anhinga nests were clearly visible across the pond. Young hatchlings thrusted their tiny beaks upward, waited for their mother to return with food. Long fish, round oscars and dark blue tilapia swam in clear, shallow water. Anhinga birds spread their wings, still as a statue, to catch the warm rays of the morning sun. A turtle peaked her head just above water, with her shell barely above water.
At the end of a branch trail, people pointed excitedly at the dozen alligators sunning themselves. A blue heron walked gingerly around the alligators. He looked for a morning meal but could end up as a meal for the alligators. An Anhinga was trying to swallow a fish that was clearly too big for him. He bit off more than he can chew. As he tries to reposition the fish, the fish actually escaped back into the water. Survival of the fittest!
No Dolphins Today at Everglades National Park
We drove from Royal Palms to the Flamingo area, 38 miles away. Although the road appeared flat, there were actually a few feet of change in elevation along the way. These few feet of elevation change brought different vegetation and the scenery along the drive. We got there in late afternoon, just in time for the last boat tour of Florida Bay. We struck up a conversation with a friendly man, who was camping by the lake. He had a nice camera and was trying to get good pictures of the sun setting over the lake. We just wanted to see dolphins.
There was a trio of Chinese friends who spoke in Mandarin and pointed to many of the birds. I heard more Mandarin than any other language besides English in tourist areas of all types. I suppose I shouldn’t be because when a billion people reach middle class and want to travel, they will show up everywhere. The man we met didn’t get his perfect sunset pictures because the boat never got to an angle to see the sun set over water, instead of trees. I didn’t see any dolphins either. He kept talking to Loretta and I. After a while, I just wanted some peace and quiet to enjoy the glass like calmness of Florida Bay. I didn’t get the peace nor the dolphins. While the scenery was beautiful and birds plentiful, the trip was a disappointment.
Everglades National Park Shark Valley
We boarded the first tram at the Shark Valley area the next morning, all the way on the northeast side of the giant park. The sky was cloudy and the temperature comfortable, perfect for bird watching. While the weather was perfect, the tram looked like it was built in the 1960s. The engine was very loud so the ranger guide had to turn up the speaker to overcome the engine noise, all to spoil the tranquility of the marsh lands and the beautiful birds that surrounded us. We saw white birds, blue birds, pink birds, grey birds, lots of alligators and even a crocodile hiding in the bush. Our group was small. The guide took more time to stop for interesting flocks of birds.
When the driver shut the engine in some spots, the only sounds were camera clicks. The peaceful scene with beautiful birds of all sizes hunting, eating, and flying was amazing. A blue heron walked slowly, and suddenly, with lighting speed, dipped the long beak into the water and came out with a fish in his mouth. He gets to live another day. The fish, not so much.
We learned about non-native invasive species such as anaconda snake that is wreaking havoc on the ecosystem. They ate everything including alligators, who normally would be on top of the food chain. The anacondas multiplied rapidly. NPS organized annual hunts for these snakes to remove as many of them as possible.
The tram tour was the highlight of our Everglades visit.
Birds and Gators Galore
We saw baby gators and a gator on his last legs, withering away. We even saw a crocodile in the distance. Not that we can tell the difference between an alligator and a crocodile from afar. Crocs are usually in saltwater and brackish (mixed salt and fresh) water so it was rare a croc made it this far up the marsh.
The tram slowed down and went around an alligator that took up a third of the road. Right after that, we saw a boy about six years old riding a bicycle, coming towards us and the gator. The boy didn’t look like he had full control of the bike and he was getting awfully close to that gator. Loretta cringed and imagined the worst. The guide went on to tell us a boy did get hurt a while ago when he lost control of his bike and ended up on top of a gator on the side of the road. Just because gators will theoretically ignore you if you leave it alone, they are still animals in the wild. Respect them and keep your distance!
Brackish Waters to the Northwest
The Gulf Coast section of the park featured brackish water and tour boats into the Gulf of Mexico. The marsh in this area was deeper and allowed airboats to navigate its waters. This was the image whenever I thought about the Everglades before our visit. We had a very nice waterfront meal of fried fish and gator meat, while watching airboats come and go with their small groups on board. I’m not fond of alligator meat. They are too tough. Loretta knew that so she didn’t even bother – smart lady. By this time, we’ve had our fill of alligators sightings so we skipped the airboat tours.
Thought for Everglades:
Environment matters! Create a positive environment and life will thrive. Create a great environment for your family and watch them succeed. Environments are delicate. Nurture them with all your might, just like we must nurture the Everglades environment to preserve the delicate balance for wildlife
Impressions of Everglades:
The very fragile ecosystem that supported so much wildlife, so close to major cities required protection. The need for protection and the natural beauty of birds, alligators, turtles, fish and even an occasional bobcat made a National Park designation necessary. The park is big, but only the edges can be explored. The highlight was the wildlife – in the air and in the water. There were several hiking trails with varied views of the marsh, wildlife and coast. If you were hardy and an experienced kayaker, there was a one hundred mile route along the Gulf coast that took a week. Mosquitos and insects could be nasty on hikes. We were there in February and the ranger advised us to avoid a few of the trails due to mosquitos. I could only imagine what the summer would be like.
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(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
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Practical Info for Visiting Everglades:
- Anhinga Trail is a must do.
- Shark Valley tram tour is a must do. Reserve your tickets as early as possible. Go for the first tour of the day when the temperature is cool and the birds are feeding.
- The Florida Bay boat tour can be hit or miss, depending on your luck. If you don’t want to go on a boat tour or camp, there isn’t a lot at Flamingo Visitor Center. There are some good trails on the way to Flamingo, however.
- There was a lot of construction on Krome Avenue, the main road between Homestead and Shark Valley. Make sure you have enough time to make it for your tram tour time .
- Homestead / Florida City are good gateway cities for the southern part of Everglades.
- City Seafood in Everglades City near the northwest part of the park is a no-frills place for excellent fried fish and gator meat (if you don’t mind the toughness).
- Size: 1,508,538 acres, ranked 10th
- Visitors: 930,907 in 2016, ranked 24th. 1991 was the record with 1,292,014 visitors.
- Peak Month in 2016: March with 134,815 visitors.
- Low Month in 2016: September with 44,750 visitors.
- Entrance Fee: $25 per vehicle, $20 per motorcycle and $8 for pedestrian or cyclists.
Date Visited: February 7 – 9, 2017