Trip to Florida highlights delicate ecosystem

Snorkeling in the Florida Keys revealed another world teeming with hidden creatures. (Julie Geiss photo)

Driving toward the entrance to the Everglades, I noticed an unusual road sign. It was a yellow animal crossing sign showing that panthers frequently cross the road. The sign piqued my interest in the animals that call Everglades National Park their home.

In addition to the Florida panther, the Everglades is home to other rare and endangered animals like the American crocodile and West Indian manatee.

We started from Homestead, Florida, and entered the park near the Ernest Coe Visitor Center. From there, we drove in the park to the Royal Palm Visitor Center. Along the way, we spotted several egrets near the water, but the panthers remained elusive.

Anhinga Trail

We were interested in two short hikes because it was very hot and humid. The Anhinga Trail is just under a mile round trip but enables visitors to experience a unique ecosystem. The boardwalk led us through a sawgrass marsh.

The water was as clear as an aquarium. We watched as several species of fish swam under the lily pads and through the sawgrass. At first, we only saw fish in the water.

We shifted our focus from the water to the vegetation around us. Gumbo limbo trees stretched up out of the water. Air plants nestled among the branches, growing larger than any I have ever seen before.

As we continued, my daughter spotted a large soft-shelled turtle in the water below us. We watched as it made its way back and forth under the elevated boardwalk. Its peaceful existence held us in a trance.

large soft-shelled turtle
A large soft-shelled turtle was spotted along the Anhinga Trail at Everglades National Park in Florida. (Julie Geiss photo)

The trail was an immersive experience into the environment of the everglades. We competed with each other as to who would see an alligator first. As it turned out, we needed the assistance of a park ranger on the trail.

She pointed out a large pile of sticks and rubble. It was an alligator nest. Just behind the nest, down in the water, we could see two eyes and the snout of an alligator.

Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate for the second day of exploring the park. We missed our chance to ride bikes at Shark Valley Visitor Center. I guess it’s good motivation to return and explore again.

I now have a lifetime goal of camping at Flamingo Campground located at the southern tip of the park.

Biscayne National Park

The next national park we stopped at was Biscayne National Park just south of Miami and east of the Everglades. It is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. The park consists of 95% of water and 5% of land. The land portion is mainly a mangrove swamp.

The largest island in the park is the first of Florida’s keys. It was formed from fossilized coral reefs. We did not spend as much time as we anticipated at Biscayne due to the aquatic nature of the park.

Instead of snorkeling from the national park, we chose to snorkel along the Sombrero Reef farther south near Marathon, Florida. Sombrero Reef is the third largest barrier reef in the world. It is roughly 30 acres in size and the water depth ranges from 2-30 feet.

All along the keys, the water color was a mesmerizing shade of aquamarine. Darker spots revealed where the coral reef was located underwater. The boat ride was smooth to the Sombrero Lighthouse, a pre-civil war era historic relic. I was excitedly spotted a green turtle swimming in the water.

Then later, snorkeling revealed another world to us teeming with hidden creatures. Among schools of tropical fish, we also caught a glimpse of a resting nurse shark and a stingray. A soft clicking noise meant the brightly colored fish stopped to feed on some hardened coral. Every direction was a new sight to see.

In danger

With the excitement of experiencing beautiful sealife comes the grim understanding that the coral reef is in danger. In the past four decades, the reef has shown a steady decline with a loss of about 90% of the living corals. Urgent action is needed to protect and restore the reefs.

Scientists and organizations are working together to protect the unique marine ecosystem that depends on the coral reef. The local culture and economy also rely on the health of the coral reef.

Another environmental issue affecting the Florida Keys is the accumulation of sargassum, foul-smelling seaweed-like algae. The plague of sargassum stretches along the eastern beaches down to Zachary Taylor State Park beach in Key West. It smells like sulfur and turns the sand into the consistency of chocolate pudding.

We tried to wade through it to ultimately reach a sandbar but the smell and the biting insects were too much. We left Florida with a better understanding of the intertwining delicacy of the ecosystems.

Even as tourists, we have a responsibility to support research and organizations that preserve and protect endangered environments.

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