A Unexpected Encounter in South Florida
We should not lose sight of the fact that the treasures of nature are to be found everywhere , not only in the American Southwest. A case in point is South Florida, home to the Everglades, a national park like no other, and the Florida Keys. The Everglades, which covers 1.5 million acres in southernmost Florida, is “the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States.” This singular terrain “provides important habitat for numerous rare and endangered species like the manatee, American crocodile, and the elusive Florida panther.” The Florida Keys is a string of coral islands that extends this amazing display of tropical variety and biodiversity to the southwest, dividing the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico along its 120 mile arc.
My eldest son Jeremy has long been enamored with tropical settings, much as I have been with the desert southwest. A fate would have it, in December 2018 we were visiting family in the Palm Beach area, so we took the opportunity for a father-son excursion to share an experience of the unparalleled subtropical U.S. It was a week-long swing into the Everglades and Marathon, about halfway through the Keys. We returned to Palm Beach and finished our adventure by enjoying a nearby nature preserve and beach.
As our trip approached, we watched with growing apprehension as our Everglades plan increasingly seemed to be on a collision course with the impending 2018 government shutdown (which, at 35 days, turned out to be the longest in U.S. history). After staying the night at our home base in Palm Beach, we headed south to Everglades National Park not knowing whether there would be any facilities or services available. The shutdown had started the day before, but to our relief, the visitor center was open and staffed, as were the activities we had on our agenda.
The main event was canoeing through the mangrove swamps at the south end of the park, right at the very tip of the mainland. Some people would say the 50-mile drive to get there was uninteresting and monotonous. Jeremy and I saw it differently. To us, traversing the two-lane road at a steady 45 miles per hour through the completely flat, homogenous expanse of sub-tropical swampland was a study in hypnotic minimalism.
I told Jeremy that it reminded me of driving through Death Valley, which of course, is completely different terrain. But he understood what I meant. In both cases, the uniformity of the landscape and the lack of reference points to gauge distance had a way of expanding the senses. This drive was unlike the wide-open desert, however, in that the mangrove and cypress trees encroaching on us from either side allowed only a narrow field of view into the distance ahead. This spooked our imaginations to wonder what might be lurking unseen in the dense, nearby vegetation.
When we got to Buttonwood Canal deep in the swamps we discovered a lack of tourists, probably because the government shutdown dissuaded them from coming. We rented a canoe with no problem and set out on our exploration of the Everglades. With Jeremy fore and me aft, responsible for steering, we quickly settled into a pattern of involuntarily zigging and zagging from one side of the canal to another. No matter what we tried, we couldn’t maintain a reasonably straight course. As a consequence of this we would get unnervingly close to the impenetrable mangrove thickets lining the canal. As I mentioned earlier, one could easily visualize a big gator just waiting to score an easy lunch by waiting patiently for a couple of hapless guys to pass by who couldn’t remember what they had learned about canoeing in summer camp. So what should have been roughly six miles of paddling, ended up being probably twice as long.
But it was wonderful being in the Buttonwood Canal and, eventually, seeing it open up into the expansive Coot Bay. We learned that “the … Everglades is the only place on earth in which both alligators and crocodiles coexist” but oddly, we didn’t see any gators or crocs while we were canoeing. Later we were told that this was because they were hanging out on the bottom of the canal at that time of day. Which was fine with us. Still, we did end up seeing a big croc, probably about ten feet long, at a safe distance, when we decided to take a boat tour through the same canal and then into the connected system of lakes well beyond where we had paddled.
One big benefit of being on the boat was hearing the tour guides’ wealth of Everglades knowledge. They expounded on the ecology of the swamp and the fact that the surrounding trees were five feet shorter that normal due to the extreme winds of category 4 Hurricane Irma a year earlier in 2017. They spoke passionately about the even greater damage caused by encroaching development and the over-engineering of the drainage in South Florida by the Army Corps of Engineers. But the most disturbing thing we learned was the threat that fishermen’s nets pose to the large marine creatures in the area, mainly the magnificent large sea turtles.
At this point, one of the guides told us the story of one such turtle who had its left rear flipper severed by a fishing operation. We also heard that they had named this particular turtle Lady Bradley. What’s more, we learned that it was immediately transported to a turtle hospital located in Marathon Key, where most of these cases went to be rehabilitated and eventually returned to the wild. Jeremy and I looked at each other and said in unison: “Wait a minute, that’s where we’re going next!” We knew then that we had to add another stop to our itinerary in Marathon. Amazingly, this turtle hospital happened to be right next door to our hotel.
After our adventures on the water, we watched the sun go down at the very southern-most spot on the US mainland, and then it was back to the car for a night drive on the Overseas Highway (U.S. Route 1) to our hotel in Marathon. The big event we had planned was to spend most of the next day at Dolphin Research Center in nearby Grassy Key. We were scheduled to participate in one of their educational sessions and then have a swim with the dolphins in one of the lagoons. After a similar dolphin experience years before in the Caribbean, we had become aware that some of these places treat these amazing animals abominably. So we did our research to give us comfort that this was a reputable outfit as advertised. Everything we found indicated that it was and we were not disappointed during our time there.
Naturally, the highlight of the day was getting to interact directly and swim with a pair of the dolphins. Our session was brief, lasting only about a half hour, but it was memorable. Jeremy and I were part of a group of eight guests who were hosted at the main lagoon by a dolphin trainer. After the trainer gave us some background about our two dolphins, Santini and her niece Calusa, she put them through their paces. This included incredible jumps and acrobatics as well as tasks that demonstrated their astonishing awareness of social interaction with humans. I’ve heard dolphins called the dogs of the sea, which we subsequently agreed was a pretty accurate description.
Well, there are some differences with dogs. The typical Bottlenose dolphin weighs about 500 pounds, grows to eight feet long, and cuts through the water like an insanely powerful torpedo, attaining speeds up to 20 miles per hour. We saw our dolphins jump to heights approaching 20 feet, throwing in acrobatic twists and turns just to show off, according to the trainer. I also had the disconcerting revelation that dolphins do their unique squeak-talking through the blow hole on top of their heads, not through their mouths as I had always assumed. Seeing these animals up close is really something.
Now it was time for the grand finale we had all been anticipating. Each of the eight guests got a turn with the two dolphins for a 60 second ride in a tight, small loop within the much larger lagoon. We were instructed to float on our bellies, extend our arms straight out, and allow each dolphin to approach from behind on either side and gently slip its dorsal fin under our left or right hand. Once we had a comfortable grip, the dolphins would pick up just enough speed to make the little circuit seem like a thrill ride. Which it definitely was. Who wouldn’t be thrilled being pulled around in the water by two powerful sea creatures?
Once all the other guests had their ride it was Jeremy’s turn. I watched as he floated in the prone position as instructed, and the dolphins slid under his hands. So far so good. Then, instead of going around in the small loop, like with everyone else, I saw them add a little kick to their gait and proceed in a straight line to the far end of the lagoon, which ended about 100 yards away at a barrier with the Gulf of Mexico. What the …? Was I witnessing the first-ever interspecies kidnapping of a human?
I glanced nervously at the trainer, as these guys were not following the script. She seemed more amused than alarmed. Finally, after an eternity of about five minutes, they returned Jeremy safely to the dock. When the excitement subsided, we asked the obvious question: What made our dolphins go off the reservation like that? Weren’t they impeccably trained? Well yes, the trainer said. But, they can be as willful as they are intelligent. There were other dolphins nearby in the next lagoon that they probably wanted to visit, maybe to see about some playtime later. Dogs of the sea, indeed.
During our remaining time in the Keys, Jeremy and I chilled at two lovely beaches on our itinerary: Sombrero and Curry State Park, both in Marathon. They offered a bracing contrast in styles, with Sombrero being the more typical laid-back, well-curated beach of paradise, and Curry Hammock as the natural, untamed, but gorgeous sea shore. Still, as I mentioned, there was one more important visit we had to make: to the Sea Turtle Center in Marathon.
To my surprise, the turtle hospital ended up making the biggest impression on me during our time in South Florida. We dropped in on Christmas Day, a time when most people are with their families or otherwise not working. It was a testament to the quality of the place that the people on duty that day not only offered to give us a tour of their facility, but did so with such obvious love for their mission and caring for these great creatures. They taught Jeremy and me about the different species of giant sea turtles, some of which can weigh over a thousand pounds and dive up to two thousand feet below the surface of the ocean. They also gave us disheartening information about how society’s plastic bags enter the marine ecosystem, become entangled with their bodies, and restrict their ability to swim.
Next was a tour of the expansive tank area where the big turtles were undergoing a prescribed rehab regimen intended to result in their being released once again into the wild. A turtle can lose one flipper and still be viable if it can pass through the program successfully. Then, we saw her: Lady Bradley, the reason we were there in the first place. She had her own tank and, as a recent arrival, seemed to be relatively inactive, as might be expected. In any case, Jeremy and I stood by her for a while, wishing her well. Later, we hoped fervently that she had made it back to her natural habitat.
The return drive to Palm Beach, this time during the day, was glorious. Blue-green ocean on each side, bright sunshine, tunes playing, we arrived back at our home base for a nice dinner. The remainder of our trip combined a stroll through Green Cay Nature Preserve in Boynton Beach – home to anhingas, great blue herons, and unseen alligators – with some relaxation at nearby windswept Gulfstream beach. And suddenly, it was over. We were on our way to the airport for the flight back to colder climes and the world of work. But, of course, our memories will always remain.
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