Restoration projects breathe new life into southern Florida’s captivating national parks.
It’s hard to tell which group of mammals is having more fun – the ones on the sailboat, or the ones under the limpid waters of Florida’s Biscayne Bay. For the humans aboard the Soul Adventure, the chance to interact with a pod of playful bottlenose dolphins rounds off a perfect day.
“I like to think the dolphins recognise the boat,” says Hans Bockelman, Florida native and the Soul Adventure’s long-time captain. “It always seems to be the same pod which comes to say hello. They’re like my Biscayne welcome committee.”
Situated a few kilometres south of Miami, where it encompasses all but the northernmost part of Biscayne Bay, Biscayne National Park (BNP) is the largest marine national park in the United States. Visitors and locals are drawn here by the opportunity to dive, snorkel, and kayak, and witness signature species such as the manatee, American crocodile, and green turtle.
The BNP is also the only place in the world where a living tropical reef exists right on the doorstep of a major city.
For those who have never visited, the Everglades may bring to mind images of a mosquito-infested swamp. In reality, this unique ecosystem is incredibly diverse. Narrow waterways divide swathes of dense, razor-sharp sawgrass, with a scattering of tree islands rising dome-like above the grass and water. Nearer the coast, vast forests of mangroves rise up from the brackish mud on a mass of spindly roots.
“Imagine a vast, slow-moving river, 100 kilometres wide, 30 centimetres deep, and mostly filled with grass,” says Jack Roark, a National Park Service volunteer and Everglades veteran. “This is the Everglades. Unfortunately, thanks to man, much of this river has dried up.”
Standing in the streets of downtown Miami, it’s hard to believe that most of southern Florida was once covered by the Everglades. Yet a labyrinthine network of canals and levees, which have re-routed water away from its natural course, mean this giant wetland is now a fraction of its former size.
“More than half of the original land mass and 70 per cent of the historic water flow to the Everglades has now been lost,” says Cara Capp, Everglades restoration program manager with the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).
But times are slowly changing. Thanks to the efforts of conservationists and a broad coalition of other stakeholders, the Everglades is now witnessing the largest ecosystem restoration effort ever attempted. With an estimated timeline of 50 years and a €9.3 billion ($10 billion) price tag, the overriding aim of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) is to give this wetland back the water it so desperately needs.
The most headline-grabbing triumph of the CERP to date came in April 2016. For the first time in decades, water began flowing south from Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades, under a new bridge on the Tamiami Trail. The highway, completed in 1928 to connect Tampa with Miami, had previously acted as a dam. A second, longer bridge is now under construction.
At the Shark Valley area of the Everglades National Park, around 65 kilometres west of Miami, Phillip Greenwalt is overjoyed at the sight of higher water levels.
“Alligators have died here in recent years due to a lack of water,” says Greenwalt, a local ranger.
Healthier, more abundant wildlife is good news for those who make it out to the Shark Valley Visitor Centre, from where rental bikes and tram tours give nature lovers the chance to explore the local Everglades environment.
More freshwater flowing naturally through the Everglades is also good news for the BNP, where the irregular discharge of polluted water through man-made waterways has increased contamination, salinity, and the incidence of destructive algal blooms.
Despite their degradation, today Biscayne Bay and the Everglades are still best described in superlatives. The latter remains the largest protected wilderness east of the Mississippi, and the biggest subtropical wetland in North America. With the various projects of the CERP now bearing fruit, Florida will hopefully remain the best place for wildlife watching in the southeastern United States for years to come.
The best time to visit is in the dry season, from December to April, which means cooler temperatures, more wildlife, and less mosquitoes. The main entrance to the Everglades National Park (the Ernest Coe Visitor Centre) is located in Homestead (a one-hour drive southwest of Miami), with opportunities for hiking, fishing, canoeing, camping, and boat tours. The Shark Valley Visitor Centre (a one-hour drive west of Miami) offers bike rental, boardwalks, tram tours, and an observation tower. Those looking to explore Biscayne National Park should head for the Dante Fascell Visitor Centre in Homestead (a one-hour drive south of Miami). From here visitors can rent canoes and kayaks, and take daily boat tours. Biscayne Bay Sailing Tours offer activities such as snorkeling, paddle boarding, and kayaking.
Text and photos by Daniel Allen
This article is published in the January 2017 issue of Blue Wings.