A thriving ecosystem filled with rare species, the everglades has lost approximately 50% of its land due to agriculture and urban development. Dwindling water levels and pollution have severely compromised what remains. The number of bird species has fallen by 93%, and many of the fish that remain show high mercury levels.
There’s nothing else like it on the planet: a vast marshy river that’s 40 miles (64km) wide but rarely more than knee deep. Endangered species such as manatees, hawksbill turtles, panthers, American crocodiles, roseate spoonbills, snowy egrets, great egrets, wood storks, snail kites, the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, and the big black Anhinga bird thrive in its murky backwaters. It’s the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles live side by side.
An estimated half of the Everglades has already disappeared over the past
century, as land is filled in for farms and residential developments for booming south Florida. The natural flow of water into the wetlands is diverted for drinking water, sewers, and irrigation, and what water does flow in is often contaminated. Though $8 billion was appropriated in 2000 to build new reservoirs, filter marshes, and dismantle disruptive canals, most of those engineering projects are stalled. The state has failed to enforce pollution limits; to date only half the acreage earmarked for preservation has been acquired.
In this unique ecosystem, even a slight water-level drop in the winter dry season radically alters the topography of this shallow plain, affecting nesting areas and food supply. Cattails aggressively root in the marshlands, clogging waterways when the rains return; the balance between saltwater and freshwater in the park’s southern estuaries gets out of whack, killing the seagrass that shelters so many marine species.
Still, though, you can explore this delicate ecosystem in a variety of ways. Hikers and bird-watchers strike out on boardwalk trails from the Flamingo Visitor Center, which lead through mangrove swamps, coastal prairies shaded by buttonwood trees, and around freshwater ponds. Trails from the Gulf Coast Visitor Center explore saw-grass marsh, forests of pines and palmettos, and hammocks of tropical hardwood trees such as mahogany and gumbo-limbo. From the Shark Valley Visitor Center, there’s excellent cycling through the saw-grass prairie, as well as tram tours.
But to my mind, the best way to experience the Everglades is on the water—and no, not on one of those heavily promoted Everglades tours on noisy powered air-boats that operate outside the park limits. The national park’s longest “trails” are designed for canoe travel, where you can really feel the gentle surging of the park’s waters. You can rent canoes at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City or the Flamingo Lodge by the Flamingo Visitor Center. Better yet, book a guided canoe tour; contact Everglades National Park Boat Tours at the Parks Docks on Chokoloskee Causeway (Hwy. 29) in Everglades City, or North American Canoe Tours at the Ivey House . With a guide in the prow of your canoe, you’ll know just where to look to uncover the secrets of this amazing terrain.