Alligators in the Wild

DSC_0914Everglades National Park – Shark Valley. U.S. 41 (Tamiami Trail) 25 miles west of the Florida Turnpike from exit 25 (S.W. 8th St.). Phone: 305-221-877. Hours: 8:30am – 5:00pm, 365 days a year.

I’ve lived in South Florida for over five years now. You would think that I’d be pretty familiar with all the appropriate sites and scenes in the area after all that time. Every month, however, I realize I’ve only just scratched the surface. With a slew of relatives in town this past holiday weekend, and tired of repeating the same rounds of standard tourist areas, I found another great place to go: Shark Valley.

We live, literally, right on the edge of the Everglades. Our home is Weston, Florida, which abuts Everglades National Park. And our housing development is the last one before the Everglades begin. When we exit our development (Isles of Weston, if you’re curious), you can only make a left or right turn. A right turn takes you to Manitee Bay Elementary, and later to Weston proper. A left turn takes you to Highway 27, which runs all along the Everglades. When I walk my dog, I can walk out of our gate, cross the street, and I’m standing in Everglades National Park.

Living as close as we do, we’re pretty familiar with the various fauna. We’ve had most of the large birds visit our swimming pool and back yard many times: Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias), Green Herons (Butorides virescens), Kingfishers (Ceryle alcyon), Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus), White Ibis (Eudocimus albus), and the ever-present Great Egret (Ardea alba). (Side note: I have a T-shirt that says “Egrets? I’ve had a few.”). Two iguanas have taken up permanent residence amidst our hedges, various snakes make occasional appearances, and raccoons frequently wash their food in our pool. We’ve had to fish a snapping turtle out of the pool once as well (it was not happy).

We’ve never had an alligator actually in our back yard, but there have been a few in the pond / lake / canal behind our house. And we’ve seen them on occasion swimming in the canals, or just off the road as we drive on Highway 27 or across Alligator Alley on our way to Naples.

Usually, when friends or family visit us and want to see gators, we take them either to Billie Swamp Safari (long drive, but worth it – it’s a very nice, well-run place on the Seminole Indian reservation) or to Everglades Holiday Park (only 5 minutes from our house, but it’s a nasty, dirty, tourist trap and all the animals look a bit ill). The decision as to which one we go to usually depends on the robustness of the visitor in question, and the age of the children accompanying us.

For this Christmas vacation, however, we had Frank’s nephew (my nephew-in-law) Don Norton (the famous Flight 1549 passenger who has appeared on many, many talk shows and is one of the contributors to the new book Brace for Impact: Miracle on the Hudson Survivors Share Their Stories of Near Death and Hope for New Life), his wife Elizabeth, and their 3-year-old son Ethan. We also had Frank’s sister (my sister-in-law) Darlene Baron and her fiancé Russ Kuspinsky. All five of our visitors had already been to both of the above-mentioned alligator locations, and we’d also already taken them to all of the standard visitor places in greater Fort Lauderdale on previous visits as well.

We were initially planning to head down to the Keys, maybe Key Largo or Marathon, but Ethan, although a well-behaved and mobile 3-year-old boy, is still, nevertheless, a 3-year-old boy, and we decided that 3 hours in the car for all seven of us might be a bit much.

Frank did some research, and found Shark Valley. Shark Valley is a part of Everglades National Park that has a 15-mile-long paved trail that winds a long loop through the Shark River Valley, in the prime southern part of the Everglades. It also includes several shorter connecting trails, and there’s an observation tower at the far end of the loop that lets you look out over the Everglades for miles in all directions. Best of all, however, the park has allowed a concession company to run a tram tour along the entire trail. So, we figured, we could drive out there, buy ourselves a bunch of tram tickets, and tour the entire park Lion Country Safari style, with Ethan safely sitting on our laps.

One hour later, as we tried to park at the Shark Valley Visitor Center, we discovered a little problem in our plan. It was the 26th of December, the day after Christmas. And apparently every other family in South Florida had the same idea. The parking lot was full, cars were parked along the highway for at least a mile in either direction, and the tram tours were sold out for the entire day.

But we’d come all this way, and I was not going to just turn around. Besides, we all had to pee.

So, I dropped off everyone else (including Ethan’s stroller) at the park entrance, and then drove a mile down the highway to find a place to park. By the time I trudged back to the entrance, everyone else was already inside gawking. Frank had cleverly purchased a $10 “one car” admittance to the park, convincing the rangers that just because we weren’t actually in the car at the moment, we were nevertheless “one car load”.

Since the tram tours were sold out, we decided to walk just the first mile or so of the trail and see what we could see. And I immediately discovered the first wonder of the Shark Valley paved trail: it is bicycle friendly. Very bike friendly. So friendly they rent bikes by the hour right at the park entrance. And they encourage everyone to bring their bikes.

That was why all the cars were parked so far up and down the highway. It turns out that Shark Valley is an incredibly popular weekend spot for all bike trail lovers in South Florida. They even sell year-long passes to the park for people who come almost every weekend to bike the trails.

Bikes meandered by us in both directions, pausing and stopping often to view the wildlife. The wildlife! Because that turned out to be the huge surprise of Shark Valley. Every single animal that lives in the Everglades seems to converge on Shark Valley, and they’re completely blasé about people being around them.

Alligators were all over the trail. Resting in the sun just off the trails. Crawling across the trail to plop into the water than ran on either side (the paved trail is basically just a limestone dyke rising up out of the surrounding Everglades). Swimming in the water. Baby alligator sunning themselves on little stone outcroppings of the trail, ready to race off if you got closer than 3 feet to them.

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(My entire Flickr gallery, including pictures of all of us with various animals, is here)

And the birds! Every kind of Everglades bird strutted around, not afraid to hunt and eat right in front of you. We saw all 3 types of herons swimming under water, catching fish. I videotaped a Great Blue Heron as it snagged a baby turtle, crunching the shell this way and that until it was mangled enough for it to swallow whole.

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We walked about a mile down the main trail, and Russ and I walked one of the small offshoot trails to view the limestone caves that otters live in (alas, we saw no otters). As we left the otter trail to re-enter the main paved trail, there was an extremely large (about 10 feet long) alligator sunning itself right on the trail.

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Russ looked up and down. There was no one else visible on the park trail. “You see any rangers?” he asked me. “Get your video camera going”. “What are you going to do”, I asked, camera up and ready. “I just wanna see what its tail feels like”, he said. “He looks pretty asleep to me”.

Slowly Russ leaned down and touched the gator’s tail. Almost immediately, the big reptile’s head jerked up, its eyes opened, and its jaws parted ever so slightly. “Whoa!”, we both said at the same time. “That was really stupid, Russ”, I added. The gator hissed a loud and very clear warning. We backed off several dozen feet. It glared at us for a second, then slowly closed its eyes and resumed its sunning.

As we walked back to rejoin the rest of our group, we passed a sign we had seen earlier: “Warning Wild Alligators Do Not Feed or Molest“. I guess Russ has a different understanding of the word “molest” than I do. But at least I got his idiocy on camera, and neither man nor beast was hurt. Nevertheless: Do not try this.

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We rejoined the rest of our group. Just about 100 yards away from the end of the trail, and within site of the visitor’s center, a Blue Heron walked out of the water right in front of us. Its feathers were dripping – and it had a small, wiggling bass fish speared on its beak.

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We all squatted down to watch. The bird shook the fish off its beak, and then stabbed at it repeatedly. Every time the fish wiggled a little, the heron would grab it and toss it up into the air, letting it fall back onto the ground. Finally the fish stopped wriggling (“I think you can stop, bird. It’s dead!” Don said to it) and it picked it up carefully.

We wondered how the bird was going to eat the fish. We assumed it would rip it apart. We hadn’t noticed, but a park ranger had joined our little huddle as the bird played with the fish. She began to narrate what was going on for our benefit.

“Now she has to position it at just the right angle so she can swallow it”, the ranger said. “She knows it has to be just so, or else the scales on the fish will catch against her throat and she’ll have to cough it back up. And she wants to eat it pretty quick before one of the other park residents sees the fresh meat and maybe decides to take it away from her”.

Elizabeth was annoyed at that. “That’s not fair! The bird did all the work of catching the fish!” The ranger said not to worry, the herons very rarely gave up their food. Right on cue, the heron got the fish at just the right angle. From a mere four feet away, I videotaped as the large bird expanded its throat, and, in a series of gulps, swallowed the fish whole. And then took a few dainty sips of water to wash it down.

We all clapped. It had been a wonderful end to a wonderful day. Russ pronounced our visit to Shark Valley the best day of the entire vacation, and that was including the 10-day cruise they had all just been on.

As we left the park, I talked to a group of rangers. Park rangers are just about the friendliest people on Earth, and man do they know their stuff. I asked why the park was named “Shark Valley”, and got a long description of the Shark River, its mouth 35 miles further south, and the long wide valley carved by the river all the way up into the Everglades. “Obviously, in the end, it’s just a name”, the ranger finished. “There are no sharks here. Just alligators, crocodiles, pumas, and bobcats. And sometimes bears”.

All the way home we talked about Shark Valley. Don was amazed at how close the animals were. “I never in a million years thought you could walk right up to an alligator”, he said. “Yeah, well Russ actually did, ” I said. I passed the video camera around the car, and everyone kept re-watching Russ’ gator encounter until the battery died. “Now I know for sure I’m living with an idiot”, Darlene said.

We arrived home a bit footsore, slightly sunburned, and very happy. There is nothing like a hike out in nature to bring out the best in everyone. No matter what kind of mood you may start out in, you’ll be smiling at the end. How can you not?

I kept the ticket we’d bought, which was good for 10 days after purchase. I plan on returning to Shark Valley with my bike in the hatchback, and I’m going to bike the entire 15 mile trail. I promise not to molest any wildlife, to bring plenty of liquids, a lunch, and both a video and a still camera.

The alligators are waiting, and apparently they are very patient.

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