Saturday, July 19, 2014

Somewhere New December: Everglades and Keys and Alligators, Oh My!

Florida is nowhere new for me really but in every place there are nooks and crannies left unexplored and waiting for discovery. It turns out that I had left about 1,500,00+ acres unexplored. 
The Everglades are a wild and winding beast, shifting with the tides and aptly referred to as "a river of grass flowing imperceptibly from the hinterland into the sea."
The name Everglades is said to have come from the explorers to the area but the indigenous cultures would have called it Pa-hay-Okee, meaning grassy water. 

Whatever you call it, it's immense.

Just outside the boundaries of the National Park are little locally run airboat companies that give tours of the grasslands. We hemmed and hawed and read a lot of reviews giving opposing opinions about taking a tour, but at the recommendation of our host Justin we decided to do it after all. 

Airboats have been around since the early 1900's when Alexander Graham Bell got tired of inventing telephones and moved to hydrofoils and aeronautics. The first airboat to be registered in the US was right here in Florida in 1920. So if you're going to ride an airboat anywhere, here is where you should ride it. 

 "Now I'm from this area," our barrelchested boat captain growled into his headset mic,
 "lived not twenty miles from here my whole life."
He passed out cotton balls for us to gingerly manuever into our ear canals as he fired up the 15 foot fan behind him. The blades swooshed to life and we slowly eased forward into the dense canals that lead out to the grasses. 

"Now keep your hands and feet in the boat and hopefully you'll still have them when we get back," he cackled as he pushed the throttle, excellerating us towards a wall of tall grass. I panicked, he turned sharply and the underside of the boat floated out from underneath us, tilting us towards the soupy water as we slid around the bend. 

Phil laughed and unpried my fingers from his leg. 
"You were in the bathroom when he warned us that there would be some sliding involved."
"Oh good because I thought we were just dying already," I replied with a little angry nudge at Phil for not passing said warning along.  

Boattailed Grackle joining the tour 

After some more acrobatics and some high speed touring, little islands of densely matted ferns and trees appearing and disappearing as we wound deeper into the maze, we slowed down to a purr and entered a thin channel. 

"Here Nubs. Where you at Nubby?" 
The captain cut the engine and we floated in silence. 

"We've got a couple a males that live round here," he explained as he slapped the boat hull with a stick and called out to Nubby. "Now males are real territorial. Sometimes they'll take up acres and acres of land and all the females in that area are his and he'll drive out the other males, even his sons. Our little Nubby here was stubborn and got in a tangle with Bubba, the dominant male here. And that's how he got his name, because he's missing the end of his tail." 


Just as we were getting ready to push off in search of another alligator to ogle, Nubby swam out of the grasses towards us, swinging his petit tail in slow arcs. 

"You would think these guys are indestructible and I guess if you aren't another gator they kinda are. This here is called a scoot, its what's under those plates that run down the gators back," he said, passing us a little square piece of bone that could more easily been mistaken for a piece of coral. 

After visiting Bubba, who hissed at us from his grassy sunbathing mat we ended the tour by visiting some of the babies in captivity and the alligators who had become so hurt or mangled that they were kept in enclosed pools. 
As a rule I don't really like zoos and aquariums and even ecotours, which often proclaim their respect for the natural scenes and animals on display, can set my morality meter swaying.
I can't say if it was in the best interest of these animals to be in captivity or even to be accustomed to humans the way Nubby obviously was, but I chose to engage in the tour and just remain mindful of how I was feeling and let that guide my future interactions with nature. 
According to our tour guides alligators live anywhere from 30 to 50 years. As babies for the first few years of their lives they are susceptible to poaching by large birds and other alligators and spend most of their time hiding in the grasses, or in this case pools, until they are large enough to find their own territories to dominate.

The little guy that we held was over two years old, and still so tiny! Having held one baby alligator, who really I was tempted to cradle but had to follow instructions on how to hold it "properly," I don't see much need to do it again. It was an interesting experience though to come skin to skin with one of those predators that men fear. 
Humbling, even as a vulnerable infant. 

The next day we headed down past Key Largo with Justin to snorkel and live the good life by the ocean. The water in December is definitely brisk and a wetsuit was welcome as we spent the afternoon floating past waving purple sea fans and brightly tinged sea whips and star coral and little clusters of pufferfish and clownfish. 
I heard tell there was a barracuda but I didn't see it. 

On the way back Justin insisted we had to stop in Islamorada to feed the tarpons and check out the artist shacks of painted driftwood, cheesy tourist postcards and straw hats. 

Robbie's is where you belly up to the bar, order your bucket of french fries and then a bucket of tiny fish so you can walk down to the end of the dock and hold them out for the sport of feeding the bigger fish. The tarpon don't have teeth but they DO jump almost completely out of the water and wrap their gummy lips around your hand in an attempt to swallow the minnows you offer. 
I screamed a lot of course. 

On another day we visited Niki at work at the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden
And pretty much died and went to heaven. 

I was so absorbed in the Rainbow Eucalyptus, and Beobab, the Sausage Tree and all the amazing flowers and plants that I actually didn't even take pictures, I just soaked it in. I've been learning trees for over a year now but this expansive living museum taught me I have a long way to go as Fairchild is the host to one of the world's largest collection of palms and cycads

We took the tram tour around the grounds with the most amazing tour guide. Well actually to anyone else on the tram he might have been the very worst tour guide but we found his monotone humor and creaky old man jokes so endearing.

I did take one picture of the butterflies enjoying their tropical treats. 

Thanks to Niki, Justin and his mother for sharing their lovely house and pool so we could come to Florida for a warm weekend in December!

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