A consolation for leaving the Keys behind April 8th is knowing we are coming back next year. As usual, moving is bittersweet. I am sad to leave one place and happy to experience the next place. This time it’s The Everglades a beautifully diverse place with lots of wildlife.
Everglades National Park
Along with some manatees, I saw my first American crocodile at Flamingo Visitor Center and Marina the first day after we set up camp. The Visitor Center was damaged in Hurricane Irma so current operations are in a temporary trailer. The damaged visitor center is surrounded in chain link fencing and just sits in sad ruins. I’m still amazed at how many places still remain damaged 2 years later.
Some cute (?) baby alligators at the Bain Visitors Center, an hour away from our campsite at the entrance of the park the next day got me excited about seeing animals. Be warned if you ever travel with me, I get so passionate about photographing animals that time stands still, at least for me!
The first trail after the visitor center, The Anhinga Trail, is known for the black vultures who attack the cars but there have been issues with vultures at nearly every busy parking area. That day, several cars were their target and a convertible was getting the brunt of it. Nearly a hundred vultures sat on the visitor center roof, in nearby trees or circled overhead – watching – waiting – hopping around with curious expressions. They are protected in the park and harassing them can garner a hefty fine! But even shooing them away was impossible because they just go to another car. It’s worse than swarming flies or yellowjackets at a salmon feed.
We covered our car with a tarp provided by the park service but we weren’t sure if the birds would go after the kayaks on top of the car, especially the bright canvas cockpit covers. We were warned that the vultures will work together to pull the tarps off if they aren’t fastened securely so we used the kayak tie-downs and our towing gear clips. The mischievous devils will pull the rubber weather-stripping from the windows and sun roofs and they love to pull window wipers blades off! No one really knows why the vultures like to tear up but not eat the rubber and vinyl parts. A ranger told us that rubber has a little fish oil in it and vultures keen sense of smell drives them to go after it. They sure seemed to be having fun and the more dominant ones would chase off others to get the best spots.
Suddenly, the vultures all took off at once and headed into the trees – a few seconds later, the sky open up and it poured monsoon level rain, instantly flooding the parking lot by the bookstore where we took cover. Our favorite weather app, “Dark Sky” indicated no relief from the rain for a while, so we decided to try to outrun the storm and head back toward camp. By the time we untied and unclipped the tarp from the car, we were drenched. Guess we should have consulted the app beforehand. It would have been nice to have rain gear for ourselves and the cameras!
The rain didn’t let up during the hour ride back to the marina near our campsite but I convinced Bruce to look for manatees there again. A lucky surprise awaited because the manatees were very active and the rain stopped. The manatees love to drink fresh water and they gather wherever the fresh rainwater ran off the marina walls. We were treated by 6-8 manatees up very close with their heads up out of the water. They were so animated, even sticking their tongues out to catch the water! A typical sighting would be large grey blobs floating around with just their noses sticking up periodically to get s breath. That rainstorm turned out to be a great adventure, and it was heaven for these photographers!
Manatee Fun Facts:
- Elephants are their closest but distant relative.
- A warm water environment is needed because they have a low metabolic rate and very little body fat. They just look fat, averaging 800-1,200 pounds.
- They easily move from salt water to fresh water and LOVE drinking fresh water.
- Their eyes close like a camera in a twisting circular motion and their nose has flaps that close.
- Heavy bones help them submerge to feed.
- They use the same five senses as humans – sight, sound, taste, touch, smell.
- Boats, fishing line and red tide are the biggest threats. They average about 5 miles per hour and cannot move away from boats fast enough to avoid collision. Nearly every manatee we saw here had horrible propeller scars.
- Alligators move out of the way for manatees, if they don’t do it fast enough, the manatee will nudge the alligator.
Biscayne National Park
Day two was a sailing and paddle boarding day trip from our campsite in Everglades National Park to Biscayne National Park an hour and a half away and it was worth the drive!
Biscayne National Park is about 98% under water so access to most of the park is only by boat. We chose a sailboat tour rather than the regular power-catamaran tour boat so we could snorkel. The sailing vessel was operated by the Biscayne National Park Institute and it had seen better days. On this day, both options went to Boca Chita Key which was originally owned by the wealthy Honeywell family and used to entertain their famous guests in the late 30’s. The sailboat normally maxes out at six passengers, but we had only four aboard. Boca Chita Key has some original buildings including an ornamental lighthouse style observation tower that provides a nice view.
The wind wasn’t strong enough to sail on the way over so we slowly motored over to the Key and then the wind started up just as we were trying to paddle board for the first time! To get to the snorkeling area. we paddled of the protected marina around the lighthouse to tie up and snorkel near some sunken pilings. By the time we ate our picnic lunch and got over to the snorkeling area, we had less than half an hour for snorkeling! Then the workout (against the wind) to return to the marina. The wind was whipping the water up into waves that reverberated off the marina walls at the entrance so it was like crossing an ocean bar as the waves sprayed up and over the top of the boards. The funny part was, I never saw a single fish!
The sails went up for a few minutes on the way back to the Visitor Center before the wind completely died. We really enjoyed being out on the water and hearing our guide, Bryce’s stories. Our first paddle boarding would have been better in a more calm area but it was certainly another adventure! We were missing our sleek kayaks that would have cut through those waves and given us more time for snorkeling, but getting in and out of our boats would have been pretty challenging there! I’m not sure I’d choose paddle boarding here again but it was probably easier to navigate in the wind than the blow-up kayak option!
After a day of business, (yes, we have to file taxes just like everyone else), we returned to the Anhinga trail at the entrance to the park. The vultures were even more active this time. They were in the trees, on the roof of the gift shop, and going after cars just like the first day, but in larger numbers. Nothing seemed to stop them. Parking in the sun or parking in the shade didn’t make any difference and they were even working together to pull tarps off the cars. They seemed to be enjoying themselves and squabbling over the best spots. We waited for a tarp to become available as people departed and we tied and clipped it to our car very securely.
The trail was well worth the extra time to cover the car as it wound around next to a pond and onto a boardwalk with wonderful animal sightings. Alligators were everywhere, even right next to the trail where people didn’t even see them. There were lots of waterbirds and huge fish swimming around the lily pads in the clear water and at one overlook, I counted nine alligators sunning themselves! I had so much fun seeing the animals that I almost forgot to worry about those vultures! Our car survived and we moved on.
The rest of the trails were more about the beautiful trees, like dwarf cypress, than animals. Dragonflies and birds are always favorites. We were on the lookout for spoonbills or flamingo but didn’t see them – this time.
As always, we left The Everglades wanting to stay longer but it was time to move Northward.