Despite a century of ecological damage, the Everglades are still blooming with beautiful landscapes and extraordinary wildlife
Despite a century of ecological damage, the Everglades harbours and photographer Mac Stone explains, researchers are working to ensure that it stays that way for the next 100 years, too
Be sure to check for alligators before you jump,” the pilot yelled over the thunderous drone of the helicopter. I stared into the murky water, looked back at his bearded grin, took a deep breath – and leaped.
The tepid water lapped at my chin as the chopper lifted off, and the low, fading hum of the rotor was quickly replaced by the gnawing trill of mosquitoes. I was left with one small boat, one oar, one camera and the blind faith that this wasn’t just an elaborate prank. It was my first day on the job in the Everglades with the National Audubon Society’s Tavernier Science Center.
Though my introduction to this vast wetland of cypress sloughs, sawgrass prairies and mangrove swamps was unusual, it sowed the seeds of a love affair. I’ve been working here ever since as a wildlife photographer and field biologist. It’s been three years, and I still haven’t had enough.
The Everglades earns its fame from the River of Grass, a slow-moving, 160km-long and 100km-wide sheet of fresh water that flows southward from Lake Okeechobee before emptying into Florida Bay. At the confluence of fresh and saltwater, a vast estuary is formed, giving refuge to America’s largest population of wading birds and the world’s largest continuous stand of mangroves.
Though a significant portion of the Everglades is protected by the US National Park System, the lifeblood of the ecosystem has been under assault for 100 years. At the turn of the 20th century pioneers set out to drain the wetlands to create land suitable for agriculture and development. By diverting freshwater flows with levees and canals, nearly two-thirds of the water was rerouted from its historical path. As a result the system experienced catastrophic shifts in its ecology, particularly at the southern end of the watershed.
The Tavernier Science Center is one of many research organisations operating in the Everglades, where I work as part of a team of eight researchers
It is the rare combination of true wildness yet total accessibility that makes the Everglades so special
that helps to provide the science that underpins conservation plans. Because of its sheer size, remote locations and diverse biomes, the ecosystem is tough to monitor. So, instead of encompassing the entire region, scientists study ‘indicator species’ that rely upon a combination of ecological factors to survive.
Our research focuses on one of the icons of south Florida: the roseate spoonbill, a bright-pink bird with a spatula-shaped bill. Visitors to the park in the dry season (November to April) have the best chance of seeing this species in great numbers, because the birds time nesting to coincide with low water levels – sometimes there are more than 1,000 birds in one pond, and the sound is deafening.
Witnessing this and other spectacles does not require a special permit or knowledge of the area. Indeed, visitors to the park can go from fresh water to estuary simply by driving the main park road, the Old Ingraham Highway. One of the first places you’ll come to after entering the park is the Anhinga Trail. Here, walking out over the blackwater pond, you are greeted by rows of bellowing alligators clamouring for prime basking real estate, and anhingas – which resemble long-necked cormorants – dodging submerged scaly masses as they hunt for prized sunfish.
Back on the road, one of the first things you’ll notice is the sky. A pancake-flat landscape, the Everglades lacks the dramatic topography of other American natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon, but in compensation you see a complete hemisphere of sky filled with candy-floss tufts of cumulus clouds. As you head south, stop at Nine Mile Pond, the quintessential freshwater dwarf-mangrove habitat of the Everglades. You can rent a kayak or canoe here, though in the dry season you may find yourself pushing alligators out of the way with the end of your paddle.
Finish your journey at Flamingo Marina, where people gather to watch the almost daily show of West Indian manatees wrestling in the murky water and American crocodiles basking on the muddy banks.
You can also see resident ospreys, which build their enormous nests just a few metres away. During the winter, visitors watch as the male brings fresh fish to his screaming chicks.
Canoe or kayak out into Florida Bay to explore the mangrove forests and tidal grass flats. At high tide, brown pelicans divebomb schools of mullet, and on the outgoing tide, lemon sharks trawl the water with their dorsal fins slicing through floating grass mats. Bottlenose dolphins also frequent this estuarine ecosystem and will sometimes swim over to check out your boat.
It is this rare combination of true wildness yet total accessibility that makes the Everglades so special. And while the research stations continue to do their work, it should remain so. I feel privileged to be involved.
Dwarf mangroves – here beside Old Ingraham Highway and photographed by the light of a full moon – rarely grow more than 1m high. They are common in Everglades National Park, but scarce elsewhere
These roseate spoonbills and snowy egrets were feeding on concentrations of fish in Eco Pond. Just before Mac took this photo, a passing bald eagle spooked the birds, and they all took off in unison BELOW LEFT This unnamed, meandering creek is one of many in the Everglades that funnel water from the River of Grass into Florida Bay BELOW RIGHT Atlantic tarpon grow up to 2.5m long – bigger than a harbour porpoise – and weigh as much as 160kg. This one is jumping for a fish ‘bait’ at Robbie’s Marina, Islamorada, where they gather to scavenge scraps from fishermen; though they can be seen leaping in Florida Bay, they mostly feed below the surface on other fish and crabs
During the winter American crocodiles seek out mud banks where they can bask – at low temperatures they become sluggish, and this allowed Mac to get very close and capture this candid shot. They are a different species to the arguably betterknown American alligators
grew up exploring the wild rivers and swamps of northern Florida. For the past years he has specialised in photographing the Everglades
It’s easy to see how the River of Grass earned its name. The rainstorm is a reminder, too, that water is the keystone of the whole ecosystem
Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are commonly seen in Florida Bay where they often ride the wakes of passing motorboats. This pod stayed with Mac for about 15 minutes
Ospreys rarely nest on the ground, but they can do this on the islands of Florida Bay because there are no land predators here. This male is returning with a fine prize from his hunt – an emerald parrotfish RIGHT
Brown pelicans can dive at speeds of 70km/h. Draining the water from their beak pouch, they throw any fish they catch into the air and swallow them headfirst
NOW YOU DO IT
Airlines that fly from Singapore to Miami, Florida
(with one stopover), include Singapore Airlines and United Airlines.
To get to Everglades National Park, rent a car at Miami International Airport.
Garl’s Coastal Kayaking runs kayaking and hiking trips within the Everglades. www.garlscoastingkayaking. com
Rent a kayak or canoe at Flamingo Marina (below). PLACES TO VISIT
Highlights include Paurotis Pond, Nine Mile Pond, Snake Bight, the Anhinga Trail, Eco Pond and Flamingo Marina. See www.nps.gov/ever/ planyourvisit/things2do.htm
Singapore citizens travelling as tourists for less than 90 days need not apply for a visa.
WHEN TO GO
Dry season is November to April. For birds and other wildlife, visit during February and March. For rare orchids visit in June and July, but don’t forget insect repellent.
Everglades National Park and the Surrounding Area by Roger L Hammer (Falcon, 9780762734320, $15.85).
A water moccasin or cottonmouth earns its name from the striking behaviour of opening its brightwhite mouth and showing its fangs when threatened.
It’s one of the few venomous snakes in the Everglades