Each time I’ve been to South Florida I’m always struck by the ecosystem’s sheer complexity – as well as how fragile it all really is.
When the average person thinks of Florida there are two things that typically come to mind: Miami and Disney World. But for me that’s not the case. When I think Florida I envision vast swamps, mangrove forests, and white-sand beaches with nary a soul on them. Instead of people, my Florida is populated by alligators, lizards, gopher tortoises, manatees, dolphins, big cats, giant grasshoppers, millipedes, and all manner of wild birds. Perhaps this is due to my upbringing—when I was little my family would eschew the big cities, the tourist traps, and even Disney World itself in favor of national parks when on vacation—but of all the places I’ve seen, there’s nowhere that’s quite like Southern Florida. It’s an eco-traveler’s paradise, one that I keep finding myself coming back to again and again.
Florida is, as most know, home to the Everglades, a vast wetland region that takes up much of the southern portion of the state. It’s safe to say that the Everglades are among the Sunshine State’s crown jewels. The area is so large it’s split over two parks: Everglades National Park proper, and Big Cypress National Preserve to the north. Most of the Everglades consist of grassland marshes, and a lot of the time it can be difficult to get around without a boat. Fortunately airboat tours are readily available, as are rentable kayaks. Many are based in and around Everglades City, a town located to the South of Naples. Not only can you use it as a jumping off point for a trip to the glades, but it also provides access to the nearby Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Experienced kayakers can make the trip and set up camp there, taking in the beautiful night sky.
The Everglades are famous for the host of animals that call it home, and none are more iconic than the American Alligator. However you don’t need to go deep into the Everglades to see them. In fact, they make their homes all over the state. While paying a visit to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, I actually got to see quite a few lazing about in the water. Corkscrew can best be described as the Everglades in miniature, however there are many things about this place that make it special. The central boardwalk takes one through both stretches of wet prairie, cypress forests, and other marshland ecosystems. If you arrive during the summer you may even lay eyes on the “super ghost orchid”, an individual orchid famed for the number of flowers it produces each year. Ghost orchids are already extremely rare, so this plant may literally be one of a kind!
While the Everglades and its neighboring swamps are the most famous hotspots for eco-tourism, there are many other areas worthy of a look. For those averse to mosquitos and other bugs, a visit to either the Naples Botanical Garden or Flamingo Gardens in Davy might be worthwhile. The two gardens differ very much in character, as well as location—while the Naples Botanical Garden is on the west side of South Florida, Flamingo Gardens in on the east end, closer to Miami and Fort. Lauderdale. The Naples Botanical Garden is home to tropical plants of all shapes and sizes, with a particular focus on Florida’s own native flora. The Garden also maintains a wildlife reserve as well as a tower for birding.
Flamingo Gardens meanwhile is quite different. Part botanical garden, part aviary, and part wildlife sanctuary, the garden is home to scores of birds, reptiles, and more. The park’s giant central aviary is filled with hundreds of birds, and there are other smaller aviaries and enclosures that are home to other creatures native to South Florida. All of these animals cannot otherwise survive in the wild due to previous injuries. The offspring they have are released into the wild when they are able to live on their own, and a colony of wild birds has since taken up residence there. These birds are surprisingly friendly, and will come up to you if they think you’re carrying anything edible.
Florida has many islands, but there’s one in particular that’s worth a visit for eco-tourists looking to see wildlife. Sanibel Island is already famous as one of the premier sites for shell collecting in the country, but more than half of the island is made up of wildlife reserves. J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is known both for its pristine mangrove ecosystem and the migratory bird populations that live there. You can take a tour of the area by boat, and if you’re lucky you’ll see more than just birds. Pods of dolphins can be seen swimming about, and manatees are also sometimes spotted. Sea turtles nest on Sanibel’s white shores from May to October; every now and then you may spot their tracks or even come across a live turtle. Be sure to never disturb either the turtles or their nests, as their nests are fragile and the babies are helpless. No matter where you go you must also make sure not to leave any trash or disturb any wildlife. As they say, take only pictures and leave only footprints.
As we can see South Florida is an eco-traveler’s paradise. The area is home to vast stretches of marshland, great chains of mangrove islands, and so much more. Each time I’ve been down there I’m always struck by the ecosystem’s sheer complexity – as well as how fragile it all really is. In some respects it’s a wonder it’s all still there. About a hundred years ago the Everglades were in danger of being totally drained so that the land could be developed. Millions of wading birds were shot so that their feathers could be harvested and used for women’s hats. While such threats are thankfully confined to history, Florida’s rich natural heritage is still threatened by development, pollution, invasive species, and the effects of climate change. The situation is more severe than it looks: a study for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) ranks the Everglades as one of the most endangered natural wonders on the planet. Travel leads to understanding and appreciation, and it is my hope that if enough people are aware of the beauty of South Florida’s unique ecosystems, we will be more easily able to save them.
Jeremy spent over a week in South Florida.