When thinking of the hottest tourist destinations in the world, there’s no doubt that Miami Florida comes to mind for many people. What’s not to like? We have sunny skies, beautiful beaches, great food, and so much more. But we’re not here to talk about the mainstream. We want to shed light on one of the hidden gems often overlooked by visitors and residents alike; the Florida Everglades.
With so much to do in South Florida, it’s easy to miss the adventure that can be found in our very own backyard. Many of our residents have limited knowledge of the Everglades and all the magical things we might encounter when visiting. Everything from unique and rare animals, plants, and birds to the beautiful pristine waters and stunning sunsets, it’s a wonder that more people don’t visit.
In this article, we’ll uncover some of the best-kept secrets tucked away in the mysteries of the Florida Everglades. Let’s dive in.
The Florida Everglades is the largest subtropical wilderness in the Southeastern United States, covering nearly 1.5 million acres of protected wetlands. Officially sanctioned in 1947, the Everglades National Park is the largest protected area this side of the Mississippi — that would be East of the Mississippi for those of you who are curious. Before the official sanctioning, specifically since 1916, the area was known as the Royal Palm State Park.
Host to a vast yet delicate ecosystem, the Everglades also acts as a natural water filter, most of which flows down from Lake Okeechobee in central Florida or comes by way of rainfall – about 60 inches of rain a year. The Biscayne Aquifer, responsible for roughly two-thirds of the water consumed by South Floridians, sits directly under the Everglades. The water that flows into the aquifer is filtered through nutrient-dense soil and limestone, producing some of the purest water found anywhere in the world. Whether you know it or not, if you’re in South Florida, you’re most likely drinking Everglades water every time you turn on the tap.
Sadly, over the past 100 years, rising sea levels coupled with overdevelopment of the land have caused the natural filtration system to change – and not for the better. Due in part to rising sea levels, saltwater has contaminated the Biscayne Aquifer presenting challenges to the ecosystem. This has also driven up the cost of desalinating our drinking water and strained the natural filtration system. According to the Everglades Foundation, the ultra-pure water we have enjoyed has fallen to about 50% of what it used to be. However, there is hope; the National Park is working hard to restore the flow of fresh water into the Everglades, which has successfully managed to push back against the intrusion of the saltwater.
Because of the ecosystem’s delicate nature, even small fluctuations in the amount of water can have devastating effects on the flora and fauna that call the Everglades home. Too much or too little water can be disastrous for wildlife, depending on the time of year. Everything from the water the animals drink to the estuaries where young fish and amphibians are spawned relies on the balance of water in the Everglades.
In March 2020, South Florida experienced record dry conditions with only a quarter-inch of rainfall. Combined with one of the driest Septembers on record in 2019, South Florida has experienced a massive rainfall deficit for over 7 months.
Once connected to Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades ecosystem was well equipped to deal with drought conditions but those conditions are no longer present. Currently, the Everglades ecosystem has shrunk to an astonishing 50 percent of what it once was resulting in a disconnection from Lake Okeechobee. This disconnection has led to very low water levels with all areas of Everglades National Park experiencing very low water levels; areas such as Northeast Shark River Slough are very dry creating a high risk for fires.
As if the dry conditions weren’t bad enough, dry marsh conditions contribute to further loss of habitat for aquatic animals including fish, crayfish, alligators, and wading birds. Additionally, there are much greater consequences for peat soils, the foundation for the Everglades ecosystem. As these areas dry, they decompose and release dangerous levels of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Decomposing soils also become a source of water pollution, releasing nitrogen and phosphorus into the waters making it unsuitable for wildlife and plant life leading to massive die-off and land loss due to collapsed marsh conditions.
The ensuing consequences of the drought conditions and shrinking ecosystem have also increased salinity levels of the coastal areas where the Everglades meets the ocean. This hyper-salinity is harmful to the estuarine seagrass and wildlife that inhabit the areas further highlighting the need for restoration projects that focus on building environmental resilience instead of dumping excess water when it is wet.
If restoration projects are successful, we can expect to see great improvements to our environment, our water supply, and even our way of life in South Florida.
As unique as it is beautiful, the Everglades is home to some of the rarest species of animals ranging from amphibians, reptiles, and fish to insects, birds, and mammals. You never know what you’ll see when you visit. There’s a good chance you’ll come across alligators, frogs, and snakes, although they are less common to see than birds, fish, and everyone’s favorite insect, mosquitoes *eye roll*. If you’re paying attention and know what to look for, you might come across some rare finds like the elusive Florida panther or a beautiful Miami-blue butterfly.
The deeper you venture into the uncharted waters of the famous River of Grass, the more likely you are to uncover breathtaking views and rare wildlife sightings.
Among the varying wildlife you’ll encounter, you’re likely to find a few endangered species. We mentioned the Florida panther and the Miami-blue butterfly, but there are many other endangered species that can be found in the Florida Everglades.
Endangered wildlife isn’t always near extinction; there are many that may have critically low numbers of their species that could potentially disappear if circumstances don’t shift in their favor. It’s good to know that not every endangered species has a critical habitat in the Everglades too. These factors can add to the successful growth of endangered populations and give hope that our future generations will enjoy the splendors we and past generations have had the pleasure of experiencing.
Let’s take a look at some of the endangered species you’re likely to encounter in the Everglades. We’ve compiled a list based on the animals listed by Everglades National Park.
Now that we’ve covered some of the endangered wildlife in the Everglades, it is important that we help you understand how delicate the ecosystem is and the role it plays in their sustainability. As we mentioned earlier in this article, even a slight change in the water levels can cause big trouble for the wildlife and their habitat, depending on the time of year. A very pressing threat is the effect humans have on the environment, adding to the challenges the wildlife face. Specifically concerning is the overdevelopment of local land, which destroys the animals’ natural habitats pushing them further into unfamiliar territory and in some unfortunate cases towards extinction. It is our responsibility to make sure these animals remain safe, and their habitats remain untouched.
Another problem created by humans is pollution. It may not seem like a big deal when you toss that plastic wrapper out of your car window, but we can assure you the impact is far more significant than you can imagine. Consider those wild animals who don’t understand the difference between garbage and food. This confusion can lead to the consumption of our non-biodegradable waste. When animals consume the trash, it can cause several digestive issues with more severe problems resulting in their demise. It is unfortunate how what is perceived as a simple sleight can cause population numbers to fall and lead to species becoming threatened or worse, extinct.
Due to these circumstances, our government has protected large areas of the Everglades, restricting human access to support different species in stabilizing their population numbers.
Among the native wildlife and plants you might see when venturing into the Everglades, you’re likely to find invasive or nonnative species. The invasive species can range from fresh and saltwater fish, amphibians, and reptiles to birds, mammals, and even plants. These species are very aggressive in adapting to their new environment, often presenting several challenges for native wildlife and plants. In certain circumstances, thriving populations have been brought close to extinction or pushed out of their invaders’ natural habitat. Nonnative species are generally wildlife; however, invasive plant species have made their way into the ecosystem, too.
You might be wondering how nonnative species find their way into the Everglades. If you think humans are responsible, you’d be partly correct. However, humans are primarily at fault for unintentionally introducing these species by importing them on ships and even airplanes and intentionally by importing them for the pet trade. There are other factors that we will highlight in this article.
South Florida is surrounded by water on three sides coupled with freezing temperatures from the north, forming an ecological boundary resulting in conditions similar to tropical islands and account for much of the susceptibility to exotic animal invasions. The most successful invaders outcompete native species and typically do not have biological controls or predators to keep them in check. There are so many invasive species in the Everglades that it has become challenging to keep track of the growing diversity, let alone control the growth and spread of their population.
An unfortunate problem with the pet trade is the reckless act of abandonment for unwanted pets like reptiles or amphibians. Specifically concerning snakes, one of the most dangerous species that is taking over is the Burmese python. These massive snakes, often growing beyond 20 feet long, with massive girths, have decimated the region’s small- and medium-sized mammal populations and wreak havoc with the delicate ecosystem. In recent years the Everglades National Park has taken action to control the spread of invasive species throughout the ecosystem. We’ve compiled a list of invasive species that are often found in the Everglades.
How you can help:
From mountain tops to sea floors, our planet is covered in vegetation. Plants, just like animals, vary widely in their shapes, sizes, and colors – some plants can be medicinal, edible, and very nutritious; others should probably be avoided if you value your health. In the Everglades, you’ll find thousands of different species of plants serving their specific purpose to keep the ecosystem in check and thriving.
Wetland plants serve many purposes, including food and shelter for the wildlife as well as environmental filters, trapping impurities such as toxins and excessive nutrients along with silt and larger debris as water flows through the ecosystem. These incredible plants and the sediment they thrive within also balance nutrient sources in the ecosystem. A great example is how the plants produce oxygen that is used by other organisms, while the sediment contributes to environmental health by trapping beneficial elements like atmospheric carbon. Additionally, wetlands are much like environmental sponges, absorbing and temporarily storing excess water caused by runoff from storms; this property helps to prevent flooding.
Just like wildlife, plants also face the challenges of nonnative species invading their habitat. It’s equally important to understand that not all invasive plants are created equal; some are far worse than others. Many invasive plant species are collected by home gardeners who may not be aware of their rapid growth rates, just like weeds. Other species recognized as weeds are often very difficult for property owners to control and tend to spread very quickly. Several plant invaders do not become invasive until they have been neglected for long periods of time, with a few that aggressively colonize small areas. Some may spread, eventually dominating large areas in just a few short years.
These invaders find their way into the Everglades by different means; some spread when their habitat is disturbed. A good example of a habitat being disturbed is when water levels fluctuate due to construction when draining and pumping operations take place. Another could be when runoff from agricultural processes flow extra nutrients into the waters. Everglades National Park gives the example of native cattails (Typha species) quickly dominating disturbed or nutrient-enriched areas and replacing the native sawgrass (Cladium Jamaicense). This type of invasion can be devastating to other native plants and animals that depend on a certain balance within the ecosystem to thrive.
We’ve compiled a list to give you a better idea of the plant invaders Everglades National Park is working to control.
Now that you’ve learned about the splendor tucked away in the Everglades, you might be wondering what you can do when visiting. Depending on your interests, there are tons of ways to experience the grandeur of Florida’s backyard. You can hop on airboats, kayaks, and canoes to ride along with expert guides, join Ranger-led tours through trails and sloughs, or even enjoy a few days and nights of front or backcountry camping and fishing. Let’s take a look at the most popular things to do when visiting Everglades National Park.
One of the most fun ways to get up close and personal with the plants and wildlife is an airboat ride like the ones we offer here at Everglades Safari Park. General tours are always available for budget-minded travelers, but if you really want to go off the beaten path, a National Park private airboat tour is the thing for you. Our skilled guides take you deeper into Everglades National Park through trails explicitly designated for Everglades Safari Park private airboat tours. This means that nobody can venture into these parts of the park without our guides, giving you an exclusive view of what the Everglades is all about. Check out our tour options and book your unforgettable journey here.
There are many trails for visitors to explore throughout Everglades National Park. Guided tours are also available depending on where you are planning to visit. The Anhinga Trail offers one of the most popular guided walking tours around. Knowledgeable guides lead visitors through a half-mile long boardwalk along a man-made canal where you can experience breathtaking views and native wildlife of the Everglades. There are plenty of trails of varying lengths, so be sure to do your research before visiting.
Shark Valley is another noteworthy attraction welcoming visitors to explore 15 miles of flat road known as the Tram Road, you can walk, run, or bike the trail, or you can hop on the tram for a guided tour. Bicycle rentals are available from the Shark Valley Tram Tour Company. You’ll also find two dedicated hiking trails at Shark Valley. The Bobcat Boardwalk is a self-guided half-mile walking trail that winds through the sawgrass slough and tropical hardwood forests located off Tram Road just behind the Shark Valley Visitor Center. The Otter Cave Hammock Trail is a quarter-mile of rough limestone pathways through a tropical hardwood forest with small footbridges over a small stream. We recommend checking with the Shark Valley Visitor Center for trail conditions as it can flood during the summer months.
Take some time to observe the thousands of different birds that call the Everglades home. From Great Blue Herons to very colorful Roseate Spoonbills, you find some pretty incredible sights. Be sure to bring binoculars for a closer look and your camera to capture the memories!
Want to experience the Everglades overnight? Long Pine Key and Flamingo campgrounds offer both front country camping and backcountry camping along with a few welcomed amenities like drinking water, picnic tables, grills, restrooms, and tent and trailer sites with showers and electrical hookups. Want something closer to nature? Primitive campsites and beach sites are available in the Everglades backcountry.
Glide through 99 miles of pristine waters, wildlife, and vegetation along the Wilderness Waterway. Taking anywhere from 7 to 10 days to traverse, you’ll experience tranquility as you silently cruise along, taking in the majesty of Everglades National Park. If you’re looking for something shorter, there are plenty of well-marked trails available, too.
If you’re feeling adventurous and want a hands-on look at native plants and wildlife in Everglades National Park, we recommend slough slogging; a Ranger-led guided tour. Along the way, you’ll get your feet wet and hands dirty while you explore the waterways and encounter various wildlife and plants that are unique to the Everglades ecosystem.
These are just a few of the wonders you may encounter, as well as some of the activities you can experience while you visit Florida’s Everglades National Park. We encourage you to check out everything the National Park has to offer and hope you enjoy your next adventure while you Explore Your Nature™ in our backyard.
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