It was late morning on Sunday, April 12. After visiting Anhinga Trail and Pa-Hay-Okee Overlook, my parents, Sean, and I were on the pontoon boat, The Sawfish, waiting to depart Flamingo Marina for the concessionaire-operated Backcountry Tour of Everglades National Park.
The tour would give us just a taste of the Park’s vast mangrove estuaries, where the freshwater of the Everglades spills into the saltwater of the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay, creating a fertile nursery for fish, invertebrates, reptiles, and birds. The tour travels the first ten miles of the ninety-nine-mile Wilderness Waterway, a marked paddling trail that stretches from Flamingo to Everglades City.
It happened that Cedric was our First Mate, just as he had been on our tour of Florida Bay the previous evening.
Almost as soon as the boat left the dock, the captain spotted a crocodile swimming in the canal, but I wasn’t able to capture a decent photo. Happily, we’d see others.
We headed north into Buttonwood Canal, which was dug in the 1950s by the National Park Service to connect Flamingo more easily to Coot Bay and Whitewater Bay in the backcountry. Unfortunately, the canal allowed too much freshwater into Florida Bay at low tide and too much saltwater into Coot Bay at high tide, so the Park Service had to install a barrier wall dividing the Harbor into two to keep the bodies of water separate.
Not far up the canal, the captain spotted the first of three baby crocodiles that we’d see on the cruise. It was sunning itself on the bank. Unlike alligators, which are excellent parents, crocodiles are liable to eat their young after a certain point. So the mother crocodile will carry her young away from her usual haunts and let them fend for themselves so she won’t be tempted to eat them.
No one was sitting in the sunny front of the boat, so the four of us staked our claim. They really were the best seats even if there was no shade.
First Mate Cedric spotted an adult female crocodile near the shore. She was very likely guarding her nest of eggs on the bank. Crocodiles live in saltwater or brackish water, while alligators live in freshwater. Since crocodiles do not live farther north in the United States than the southern edge of Everglades National Park, the Park is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles coexist.
The canal is largely bordered by Red Mangroves, like many of the other shorelines in the park. But because it is an artificial waterway, it does cut near to other tree species that are usually farther inland. The captain stopped the boat to point out a spot where all three mangrove species in the park are visible. Red Mangrove, White Mangrove, and Black Mangrove, they are differentiated by the color of their bark, not their leaves.
Because the canal is artificial, if the Park Service did not cut back the Red Mangroves along the shore, they would spread across the water and block the canal.
A bit farther along, the captain pointed out the Manchineel, called the deadliest tree in the world.
The end of the dry season is the brief time when the Manchineel drops its leaves, so the one we were looking at on the shore was almost bare. Standing beneath the tree during a rainfall and allowing the water running from the tree to touch you can cause extreme blistering. Eating its fruit can cause hemorrhage and shock, and possibly be fatal. Burning the tree can cause blindness if the smoke gets in your eyes.
Native Americans used the sap of the tree as a poison and often applied it to the tips of arrows. In fact, Ponce de Leon, the first Spaniard to visit Florida, was killed when he was shot by a Native Floridian with an arrow laced with Manchineel sap. The wound was a non-fatal blow to his leg, and he returned to Havana to recover, but instead died in agony as the poison worked its way through his body.
For all that, we spotted a tree snail contentedly sitting on the Manchineel, its trail of slime protecting it.
We reached the end of Buttonwood Canal and entered Coot Bay, a shallow natural lake named after the flocks of American Coots that call it home.
Video: Brandon Hayes
After crossing Coot Bay, we entered Tarpon Creek, a natural passage leading north.
The natural flow through Tarpon Creek causes the water to be more oxygenated than in Buttonwood Canal, allowing mollusks like oysters to thrive on the lower reaches of the mangrove roots. They are exposed to the air at low tide.
The natural ebb and flow of the tides through the creek also prevents the mangroves from marching across the channel as they would in Buttonwood Canal. Once, Tarpon Creek had a dense canopy of mangrove branches that stretched across the creek, although the trees themselves did not. The canopy was destroyed by Hurricane Donna in 1960.
We reached the northern end of Tarpon Creek and entered Whitewater Bay, the second-largest inland body of water in Florida after Lake Okeechobee. What appeared to be the opposite shore was actually a maze of mangrove keys in the bay.
The Sawfish made a wide semi-circular right turn in Whitewater Bay and returned to Tarpon Creek.
The captain’s narration ended at Whitewater Bay, and the return to Flamingo was fairly swift. First Mate Cedric pointed out on nautical charts where we had traveled.
And we just sat and enjoyed being on the water in the south Florida sunshine.
Back in Flamingo, we walked out on the barrier wall dividing the canal from Florida Bay to see if we could spot any more crocodiles or any manatees, which we didn’t. But we did get to see a magnificent Osprey nest festooned with Spanish moss and the bare, dead trunk of a palm that was now home to Red-Bellied Woodpeckers, who made nesting holes in the trunk, and European Starlings, who used the nesting holes in the trunk.