On what was to be our first glimpse into this intriguing land known as the Everglades, we loaded up our bikes before the light of day and were on our way to Shark Valley, an interesting name for a valley whose watery depths average 3-4 feet, with not a shark to be seen. The Shark Valley Slough runs through this terrain, supplying much of the water to the Everglades, and feeding into the Shark River. It was at this river where early settlers saw the fins of bull sharks, hence the name.
Shark Valley can be experienced in several ways, a two-hour tram ride, on bikes, or a leisurely stroll. We opted to bike, allowing us to traverse the 15-mile loop at our leisure, making plenty of stops to see yet another bird species or an alligator lazing upon the canal bank.
An observation tower at mile seven provides a 360º view of nothing but Glades.
Visiting Shark Valley at first light gave us the chance to share its quiet beauty with just a few avid birding photographers (at least for a short time). As the sun welcomed the day, the mist rose off the marshlands, the air refreshingly cool. The bellows of unseen alligators mingled with the calls of wading birds, a lyrical yet eerie chorus.
Nicknamed the “River of Grass” for the sawgrass prairies that tower six feet above the land, the Everglades stretch 100 miles from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico. Woven throughout her vast watery plains lies a symbiotic mosaic of nine distinct ecosystems. It is home to 36 protected animal species, has the largest mangrove ecosystem in the western hemisphere and boasts the most meaningful breeding ground for tropical wading birds in North America. Shark Valley is a beautiful embodiment of this montage.
Prior to visiting the Glades, my mind conjured up images of swampy bug and reptile-infested waters but the Everglades is ever so much more. This National Park was created, not for its unique topographical features, but rather to protect a fragile ecosystem, one that has suffered greatly by human hands in our never-ending quest for development. This region’s only source of water is the rain that falls on it and the extensive canal systems that have been put into place to support the explosive population growth in South Florida have redirected these crucial life-giving waters away from the Everglades. The natural habitats of many species are being threatened to the point of extinction. We can only hope that the 30-year Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) put into plan in 2000 will revive a dying ecosystem and allow this natural wonder to heal.
We have just scratched the surface of the Everglades and have a future stop planned later this month in Flamingo, at the southern end of the park, where we hear the mosquitoes are as large as some of the wading birds and quite the voracious little eaters too!
Just a few pics from a pole-boat tour taken in Big Cypress National Preserve: