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Natural Places

Wildlife Central
in Southwest Florida

If there is one place in the whole gulf region (or in all of the lower 48 states) to experience a primeval environment, Southwest Florida is it. The cypress and mangrove swamps along the state's Gulf Coast offer a wonderful opportunity to see the land and the wildlife that existed here long before even the earliest Native Americans arrived after their long trek from Siberia. Whether exploring the Everglades, or the swamps that lie just north of the River of Grass, the visitor is overwhelmed by a feeling that this is a timeless natural environment, where life is as it should be: a cooperative ecosystem where interrelated worlds are like a finely-tuned orchestra, all in perfect pitch and guided by the wizardly composer and conductor who have collaborated to produce as perfect a natural system as exists anywhere in the world.

Because there is no continuous history of human habitation in the area, the real natives are the ancient cypreess, twisted mangroves, palmettos, and sedges, along with the alligators, crocodiles, herons, snakes, manatees, and turtles, all of which been here from the beginning of recorded time.

Swamps and Islands

For anyone who has not experienced the perfection of a well-made swamp, the very word causes shudders. Swamps reek, and the fetid waters harbor dangerous animals like alligators and crocodiles. Warm swamps have lots of mosquitoes, and it's hard to hike through swampy places. Because the wildlife is mostly hiding in the water, muck, and thick vegetation, birds and animals are sometimes hard to spot. There are lots of plausible reasons for avoiding these difficult places. Swamps are not for the faint of heart, nor are they particularly useful to those who have only a limited amount of time for exploration. At least, that's what we tend to believe.

But with the proper attitude, and a reasonable amount of time spent in looking under the odoriferous and murky exterior, Florida's southern swamps become wonderlands of life that offer superb recreational opportunities and life-affirming adventure.

While you can read about Everglades National Park, there are five other natural places, close to the southwestern tip of Florida, that must be seen for one to truly appreciate the dichotomy between the timeless, unchanging natural environment of the South Florida swamps and the transient nature of the barrier islands.

Big Cypress National Preserve

is part of the Big Cypress Swamp, a northward extension of the Everglades. It is a landscape characterized by slowly moving and still water, and slightly-raised cypress hammocks. For details, see below.

Collier-Seminole State Park

where the Tamiami Trail curves northward, is a relatively small protected area of the same swamp, offering hiking and camping, as well as boating and canoeing access to the coast and the Ten Thousand Islands.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

contains the nation's largest stand of virgin bald cypress. Located due east of Marco Island, owned by the National Audubon Society, the sanctuary occupies 11,000 acres of the Big Cypress Swamp, with trees estimated to be as old as 700 years and growing to a height of 130 feet. A boardwalk leads through the swamp, providing access to more than 700 species of plants and animals.

Sanibel & Captiva Islands

lie to the northwest, near Cape Coral and Fort Myers, sheltering the quiet waters of Pine Island Sound from the Gulf of Mexico. While significant portions of Sanibel and Captiva have been developed for tourism over the past 50 years, important parts of these superb "Shell Coast" islands have been preserved within J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, and a smaller but just as impressive natural area operated by the Sanibel and Captiva Conservation Foundation.

Pine Island

and several "out islands" offer a rustic vacation experience, away from the deluxe resorts of Marco and Sanibel islands. Boats take day-trippers to outlying barrier islands, including the superb Cayo Costa, the location of a state island preserve and the scene of superb sunsets. Dolphins frolic in the boats' wakes, and passengers visit the islands to find shells and observe the relationship between the sea, sand, and plant life on the glistening dunes.

Big Cypress National Preserve

South of Lake Okeechobee and north of Everglades National Park sits the Big Cypress Swamp, covering more than 2,400 square miles of South Florida. The swamp is a large part of the watery ecosystem that includes the Everglades.

Of the total swamp region, 740,000 acres lie within Big Cypress National Preserve, a partially protected tract that is closed to most commercial activity but doesn't have all of the restrictions of a national park. Hunting is allowed, a few homeowners and cattle grazers occupy property within the boundaries, and oil exploration continues. While airboats are banned in Everglades National Park, they are permitted to run through the preserve, providing employment for the Miccosukee and Seminole natives who live near the edges of the preserve and offer swamp tours to visitors.

The swamp area has, like the Everglades, been a target for development since the proclamation of statehood. Most of this activity has gone on in the western portion of the swamp, close to the Gulf Coast and the Tamiami Trail highway. Land developers have made several attempts to plan subdivisions in the western swamplands, but to little avail. While some of the swamp near the town of Belle Meade has been cleared for home building, large tracts sit idle, victims of the basic swamp environment: too much water to clear, and the projects too expensive to justify their completion.

Swamp Ecology

Lying just north and west of the glades, the Big Cypress swamp differs from the Everglades in its sligtly raised terrain, and also by the standing water that covers much of the area -- unlike the Everglades' slowly-moving flow. The same crumbly limestone bedrock which underlies the glades, also provides a base for the cypress and hardwood hammocks of the swamp. Hammocks are a Florida phenomenon. These are areas of land ever so slightly raised above the water level, providing a base for trees that cannot put their roots directly in standing water, encouraging forest understory vegetation, and making a home for dryland species of animals and birds. Most of the swamp's hammocks are raised only a few feet above the stagnant water. Between the hammocks are vast reaches of sawgrass and dwarf pond cypress, with the higher land holding groves of royal palms, orchids, and air plants. Fresh water does move through the swamp, mainly in three major sloughs in the southwestern section -- Lostmans, Disons, and Gum -- allowing a flow of water from the western Lake Okeechobee area to filter down to the Gulf through Everglades National Park.

The swamp gets its name not from the size of the trees, but for its enormous area. Giant (bald) cypress grew throughout the swamp until the 20th century when lumbering operations cut down all but a few. These are now seen in isolated groves, including the Bear Island area in the northwestern portion of the preserve. The dwarf cypress, not suitable for housebuilding, remains to cover about one-third of the swamp area, found along the edges of the wet prairies and on cypress domes.

During the wet season, abundant rains fall (almost daily) to flood the swamp; the sloughs are high as water begins its slow flow towards the Everglades. When most tourists arrive, during the dry season (May to November), much of the water evaporates or flows slowly downstream, leaving pools in the depressions and some water in the sloughs. Congregating in these low spots are the varied wildlife species: egrets, herons, ibis, and wood storks, among the water birds; red cockaded woodpeckers and turkeys; plus alligators, deer, and mink. Bald eagles are overhead throughout the year. The dry period serves to concentrate wildlife next to the accessible water.

As a result of the building of the Tamiami Trail, from the 1920s, and in a more concentrated way from the 1960s, development efforts reduced the flow of water through and from the swamp, and environmental concerns heated to the point that portions of Big Cypress were protected, including the federal preserve and the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve which lies to the west of the federal lands. Collier Seminole State Park is a smaller piece of land linking the Gulf of Mexico to the far western portion of the main swamp.

By far the largest and most important of the environmental protection projects is the Big Cypress National Preserve, open for some commercial activities, but banning large-scale development of the type that has taken place on the eastern and far-western sides of the swamp. Current water restoration projects will eventually bring back much of the flow of water deemed necessary for the swamp and the Everglades to recover.

How to Get There

Two major highways run east to west across the Big Cypress preserve: the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) that runs across the southern part of the swamp; and Interstate 75 (Alligator Alley), leading across the northern portion. The Tamiami Trail provides access to most of the preserve's attractions and services, including the main visitor center and roadside parks that offer picnicking and short nature trails, in addition to four car campgrounds located within the preserve boundaries. The Tamiami Trail is the more southerly route across the peninsula, running from Miami to Naples. Interstate 75 leads from the Fort Lauderdale area and the Atlantic Coast to the Naples area and Fort Myers. Route 839 is a gravel road running north to south through the western side of the preserve. Our favored access route is the Tamiami Trail, not only offering access to the Biog Cypress Preserve visitor center, but to the nearby Shark Valley site in Everglades National Park.

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