The Everglades is a vast tropical wetland area covering around 1.5 million acres of Sawgrass grasslands, swamps, waterways, rivers, sloughs, hardwood hammocks, inlets, mangroves, estuaries and islands covering almost the entire bottom end of the peninsula that is Florida. Much of the area is wilderness and inaccessible, with other areas only accessible by small boat or limited to small tracks.
The name ‘Everglades’ is derived from seeing the blades of sawgrass shimmer and ripple as water and wind move them past them, creating small waves across the grasslands, hence the name.
The Everglades has many unique geographical features, one of the most apparent being ‘sloughs’ small waterways formed when a river, like the Shark River in the Everglades takes a new course after floods, leaving behind a series of small lakes where it previously flowed. Each flood may create new courses for the river to flow. ‘Keys’ (or cays) are also another geographical term, meaning a small island of sand above a coral reef, and there are thousands of them just rising above the water off the Florida Coastline, including the area they call “Ten Thousand Islands” off the south west coast. Hammocks are small stands of hardwood trees that stand like islands of trees in the middle of grasslands. They occur when a mound of soil creates enough land for trees to grow on top.
Overall the Everglades are just 20 feet or so above sea level, with the waters flowing southwards through the wetlands to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. It is the permanent home to less than 1000 people, but also home to thousands of alligators, racoons, snakes, other animals and millions of birds, crabs, fish and insects including mosquitoes. There are two seasons – the rainy season (May to October) and the Dry season (November to April) – and the Mosquitoes and biting flies enjoy both. As much as using a repellent works, the best protection is to cover up as much as you can. It is not a place to wear just your bikini or shorts!
In earlier times, people saw the swamps and mosquitoes as a wasteland that if they could drain it, and fill with soil, they could create valuable real estate for farms or housing, whereas today the unique nature of the Everglades is recognized for its value as a breeding ground for millions of fish, turtles and other marine life.
Originally the Everglades covered an area of around 3 million acres, but 1 million acres of the Everglades became sugarcane fields and agriculture. The remaining 2 million acres became a water conservation area and protected wetlands as part of the Everglades National Park. Outside of the Everglades National Park – there are also the Big Cypress, Biscayne and Dry Tortugas National Parks too.
There are three entranceways to the Everglades National Park – on the east coast south of Miami, there is Florida City and the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center and Royal Palm Visitor Center; then the Shark Valley Visitor Center, roughly half way between the East and West Coast; and Gulf Coast Visitor Center on the west coast side.
Most people choose to visit the Everglades during the dry season, and if you intend to camp or stay nearby, you need to book to ensure a place to stay. The Everglades are managed by the NPS (National Parks Service) of South Florida.
Most people coming to the Everglades – head to it from Miami and there are a number of Tour companies to choose from. These include –
AIRBOATS – are almost synonymous with the Everglades, a unique way to skim across the water, with the flatboat below you, and an engine that propels a large fan behind you, with a fin out back to control the direction you’re heading in. It’s a fast but noisy way to see the Everglades. Depending on where you are – you can also walk on along boardwalks, bike or kayak – but you need to check first to make sure that you are on a recognized pathway. The Visitor Centers will give you advice on what you can and can’t do.
Most people will also stop at the Visitor Centers to see and learn more about what they are seeing here in the Everglades.
ALLIGATORS and CROCODILES –
There are both Alligators and Crocodiles in South Florida, but Alligators or often just called ‘Gators’ are better known here in the Everglades. South Florida is one of the only places in the world where both Crocodiles and Alligators can both be found.
The most visible differences between Crocs and Gators is their snout shape. Gators have U shaped snout, whereas Crocs have more of a pointy V shape. Remember the song “Never smile at a crocodile…” ? Well, particularly if he or she smiles back at you! The Croc has big sharp teeth on both its upper and lower jaw that you can see, but a Gator has its lower jaw teeth pretty much hidden. Their skins are also a bit different too – the Gator skin is much smoother than a Croc’s. Croc’s also can live in saltier water than alligators, who prefer to live in more freshwater areas.
Both Alligators and Crocodiles can also run fast on land too, up to 11 miles an hour, but only for short distances. They prefer to catch their prey unawares, and no doubt you have seen movies or nature shows where the prey is caught by stealth and dragged back into the water. They may well look asleep or have just the eyes showing above the water, but don’t get too close, or they may give you a surprise. Having scared you, you should know that in recent years the number of fatal attacks on humans by alligators numbers between zero and three, and injuries from bites that required medical attention, less than 10 a year.
WHERE TO GO –
The Ernest F Coe Visitor Center is roughly an hour or 50 miles southwards from Miami, and the road leading south eastwards from the Coe Center to the Flamingo Visitor Center on the southern end is a further 38 miles further on.