Touring the Florida Everglades

Will we see alligators? Apparently this is the number one question tour guides hear when they set out for tours of the Everglades. I will admit, seeing alligators is a large part of the reason I wanted to see the Everglades. But I also wanted to learn more about the area in general. I have been hearing so much about the Burmese pythons and the detrimental effects they are having on the Everglades. I wanted to discuss it with the people who live there and get their thoughts and also see the area for myself. So from Miami, we set out for the Everglades.

The trip from Miami to the Everglades itself is one I would like to soon forget. You know those moments when nothing is going right and you are on the verge of having a full fledged meltdown like a three year old? Yeah, that was me on our way to the Everglades. First of all, I wasn’t feeling well. Add to this that I was driving in an unfamiliar area, which always makes me nervous and irritable. Complete the picture with GPS directions from he!!…twice! Twice in a row, our GPS took us to a final destination that was many, many minutes from our actual desired destination. Safe to say, it was a perfect storm and I came very close to stopping the car so I could get out and stomp my feet on the ground in frustration. Lucky for me, my co-pilot Amy was an angel through it all and managed to keep her cool and finally get us to our destination. So on that day, I was most thankful for her.

We (finally!) arrived to the Everglades and set off on an airboat to explore. We used a tour company called The River of Grass Everglades Adventures. Our tour guide was Steve. I found them on Trip Advisor, where they had very good reviews.

The portion of the Everglades we visited looked nothing like I figured it would. I pictured dense trees and swampy smelling water with alligator eyes poking out of the water everywhere and pythons so plentiful they would be dropping from the trees (okay, maybe not the last part (and that’s a good thing because that would have been my worst nightmare, even worse than driving in unfamiliar areas with bad GPS)). Instead we were greeted with the landscape below.

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Don’t the photos below remind you of a field in Iowa after a hard rainfall? I almost asked when the haybine was coming. It made me nervous to be on the boat when I could barely see the water. We were going pretty fast and I was afraid we were going to hit land or a stump and go flying. But alas, the operator knew where he was going (that’s why he was driving the boat and not me I suppose).

The Everglades had received a significant amount of rain in the weeks before we were there so there was plenty of water to navigate the boat on. In fact, per our tour guide, the Everglades had received so much rain a couple of weeks before we were there that they closed the area to tours to respect the animals (such as deer) who could not get to land and were drowning.

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Below are some photos of a Florida softshell turtle we encountered on our trip. These softshell turtles have a long neck and an elongated head with a long snorkel-like nose. They are the largest softshell turtle in North America, which makes them suseptible to being eaten by alligators since they do not have hard shells to protect them. You can’t tell from the photos below but this particular turtle was missing its right front leg, likely due to an alligator attack. For a snack, this turtle enjoys cheese puffs.

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The pretty bird below is a purple gallinule. Their breeding habitat is warm swamps and marshes of the SE USA and their nest is a floating structure in a marsh. They will also come closer to a boat for cheese puffs.

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And then we spotted some alligators. First up, were the little alligators below. According to Steve, our tour guide, these particular alligators were old enough to set out on their own but refused to leave their mother’s nest. Sounds like some humans I know.

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It was pretty cool the day we were there – in the 60’s Fahrenheit – so the alligators we saw were not very active, instead conserving their energy to stay warm. The one below did keep coming closer to the boat though, likely because it could smell the Subway sandwich Amy was eating on the boat (no cheese puffs needed here). I never considered the fact that alligators can smell. Turns out, they use their sense of smell to help them catch food when their vision is impaired.

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Another “baby”…slightly bigger than the two above. There was also a tiny one swimming around but I could not get a photo of it.

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For several minutes, Amy and I were busy focusing on the alligators above, asking questions, observing their behaviors and trying to stay as far away as possible from the one who seemed like it wanted on the boat. We were not paying attention to what else was going on around us until Steve said “You two are so engrossed in the babies that you didn’t even notice the mother come up behind you on the other side of the boat.” Sure enough, we turned around and saw the alligator below. A four letter word that starts with the letter “f” (that I promised my mom I would try to eradicate from my vocabulary) flew out of my mouth as I quickly proceeded to move closer to the middle of the boat. It is safe to say I would not last 5 minutes on my own in the Everglades.

Now this is an alligator! She was calm though (again, it was cold) and just watched us from a distance. Steve said that he sees her quite a bit so she is used to his voice and the boat (if you can believe what he was saying). I didn’t think I would be scared of alligators but they freaked me out quite a lot so I was relieved when Steve restarted the boat and we moved away from this mama.

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We finished the tour by visiting another alligator nesting area. According to Steve, this nest was an example of the effects of the pythons because the pythons are killing larger female alligators. This is leading the male alligators to mate with smaller, younger, immature female alligators. The effect of this was apparent in this nesting area. The larger alligator above formed her nest in an area that always maintained an area of dry land for the babies to go sun themselves when it was cold. The younger mama alligator chose a spot that disappeared under water with all of the rain the Everglades had recently received. As a result, the babies were forced to climb branches to get out of the water to sun themselves, leaving them more exposed. Also, the babies were smaller than normal  (smaller mom = smaller babies). Because they are smaller with a smaller mom and also in an area with limited escape options, these alligators are more likely to fall victim to predators.

Below is one of the baby alligators in the younger mama’s nesting area. It was hard to get a photo of it.

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I really enjoyed this tour and recommend it. The best part being that it was private. Since it was just Amy and me, we (I) could ask tons of questions without having to worry about annoying others on the tour. One of the things that I didn’t like hearing (from the way Steve spoke about visitors and past tours) – it seems like they pay off people to prevent bad reviews of their tours. By this, I mean they give in to refund requests when people complain and threaten to leave bad reviews. Some of the reasons seemed really ridiculous (“We didn’t see enough alligators” being one). I enjoyed the tour and would leave a good review but I just wanted to throw this possible concern out there for anyone who might be interested.

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