Gators Galore!

Friday after work, we left Siesta Key and headed south.  We spent the night at a campground in Big Cypress National Preserve, which borders the Everglades to the north.  Our neighbors were super friendly and we ended up playing drinking games with them.  One thing led to another and we woke up the next morning very hungover.  I blame it on the difficulty of knowing how much you’re drinking when you’re using a Nalgene and a box of wine.

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The eclipse – not quite what we were expecting but still looked cool

After struggling to get out of the tent on Saturday morning, we headed into the Everglades.  Matt got me a National Parks pass for Christmas so we saved $25 on entry.  I would definitely recommend getting a pass if you’re planning on going to more than a handful of fee-charging parks in a year.

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Two of the many alligators we saw

Our first stop was Shark Valley.  I had planned on renting bikes and riding the 15 mile loop but was severely doubting my ability to do anything other than nap in the car all day.  Zach convinced me to at least get out and walk around and I felt a lot better once I was moving.  We ended up renting the bikes and I’m very glad we did.

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More alligators!

On the way out, the loop follows a big water filled ditch (I’m sure there’s a more scientific word for it). In and around it were so many alligators.  I would guess we saw well over a hundred.  At one point, we had an alligator spotting contest that lasted a mile or two and I won 20-13.  Zach clearly had the advantage – I let him have the inside of the road and he was standing for most of the time but I still easily won.  Most of them were just laying around.  We saw a few swimming and one starting walking on the road in front of us but the rest of them seemed almost fake.

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My new Everglades hat to replace the one I lost on Splash Mountain

Half way into the loop there’s a observation tower.  The highest natural point in the park is eight feet so from the 45 foot observation tower, you can see for miles.  The second half of the loop meanders through a swampy savannah looking area but is actually a 5o mile wide river… I really don’t understand the science behind the everglades.  We saw some more alligators throughout here and a lot of interesting birds.  I’m not a bird person but they were nice to look at from a safe distance.

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Biking through a river?

I napped/navigated and Zach drove the two hours to our campground in the southern Everglades.  We set up our tent and took (another) nap but the sun was beating down on our tent so I ended up more sweaty than rested.  We had planned on eating ramen but there was a restaurant a few miles away that we got some very cheesy pizza from.

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Struggling to wake up from a late afternoon nap

After dinner, we braved the mosquitos and attended a ranger talk about nocturnal animals in the park. Even though the bugs were biting me through my pants, the talk was very enjoyable and informative.  He talked about alligators, crocodiles (the everglades are the only place in the world where they both live), panthers, bobcats, and pythons.  Burmese pythons were introduced by pet owners who could no longer care for their quickly growing snakes and would release them into the park.  This started in the late 90’s and their population size quickly skyrocketed to an estimated 25,000-500,000 (!!!!!)  With no natural predators, they have easily taken control of the food sources in the park.  Small mammals have essentially disappeared from the southern portion of the park due to pythons eating them.  This causes trouble for native animals like the panther who also eats small mammals.  I left the talk, concerned about the  already extremely endangered panthers and worrying about finding a python in my sleeping bag.

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Didn’t see any of the elusive panthers or pythons so here’s another picture of a gator

I woke up on Sunday feeling much better than previous morning.  We set out to complete six hikes the guide book recommended.  Four were 0.4 miles, one was 0.2 and the other 0.8 and they were all either paved or boardwalked so it didn’t really feel like hiking.  As I mentioned earlier, the Everglades are very flat.  Literally a few inches of elevation is the difference between a wet slough and a hammock of trees (not entirely sure I’m using either of those words correctly).  Each hike showed a different aspect of the everglades – the cypresses, the mahoganies, the pines, the saw grass.  The final hike was the Anhinga which was by far the most popular.  There were lots of alligators here as well (see below).

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In a cypress forest –  we took a selfie at each hike but this is the only one that turned out halfway decent

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I counted at least 28 alligators laying in this area

We finished our six hikes before noon so we decided to drive to Biscayne National Park.  We had planned to go after work one day after work while in Miami but since there was time, we headed over.  From the guidebooks it had seemed like there wouldn’t be much do since we didn’t own a boat (most of the park is water and some islands 7+ miles from shore). Once there, our thoughts were confirmed. They had kayaks and paddleboards for rent but there was a waitlist for them. We stopped by the visitor’s center (so I could get my national parks passport stamped) and a there a volunteer told us about snorkeling at a state park 45 minutes away. We felt guilty about not spending any time at Biscayne since our goal is visit all of the National Parks, but headed south to John Pemmekamp Coral Reef State Park.

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Ready to snorkel!

Neither of us had been snorkeling before and we had a great time. They took us about 3 miles off shore to a reef and we saw lots of very cool fish and plants.  I followed a big fish around for a while and later found out it was a barracuda.  In my defense, it was very friendly looking fish. My favorite was the parrotfish because they were colorful, had human-like teeth and you could hear them crunching on the coral.  Unfortunately we didn’t have any sort of underwater camera so we’ll just have to rely on our memories and this picture of a parrotfish I found on google.

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Look at its teeth!

Kudos if you made it all the way through this 1200 word blog post!  I hadn’t been sure I was going to like the Everglades but I very much did!  I wish we had time for some sort of canoe/kayak/boat ride.  Zach wishes we had gone on Slough Slog (also known as a muck-about, swamp walk, or ‘the only real way to experience the Everglades’) but I’m fine keeping my feet out of gator infused waters. We’re in Miami this week before heading to Key West and Dry Tortugas this weekend.

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