When folks come to visit Southwest Florida, their first thoughts are the beautiful beaches, accommodations and shopping that can be found here. Once settled in, the mindset can become a bit broader and our guests will start looking for adventure. Eco-tours, shelling excursions, dolphin adventures and jet skis seem to be the first forms of entertainment popping into the minds of visitors. Many have heard of the Everglades, but only a few are aware that they are only 25 minutes away from Marco Island.
The western Everglades, the “Gateway” to the Everglades, begins at Port of the Islands on U.S. 41 just 6 miles south of San Marco Road. This is where you can get your first look at gators, manatees, local and migrating birds and lots of good fishing. The waters of the Faka-Union canal are fresh and join with the saltwater here to form an amazing estuary. After this initial, important stop, folks can continue east on 41 to discover even more interesting sights.
Florida’s Everglades environment is home to more than 300 species of fish, 40 different mammals and 50 cold–blooded reptile species. This magnificent area is comprised of 2 million acres of sawgrass marshes, hardwood hammocks and mangrove forests, all of which are dominated by unique wetlands. When people think of the Everglades, their thoughts drift to alligators, snakes and the elusive Florida Panther. However, with such a wide variety of terrains, there are a great number of animals that call this part of the world their home.
In the lower wetland areas, mammals like manatees, otters and bottlenose dolphins thrive in the three environments of freshwater, saltwater and brackish water. The dolphins can be found in the saltwater habitat and the mudflats that encompass them. Manatees can be found in the fresh and brackish waters.
They need warm water to survive so they will move from the shallow gulf areas and saltwater rivers to where an estuary will provide the warmth and food supply to survive the winters. Manatees are called “Sea Cows” because of the way they graze for underwater seagrass. Being vegetarians, they can eat up to 10% of their body every day in aquatic plants.
River otters are semiaquatic and spend the majority of their day in freshwater. They sleep in dens, on land, at night and are talented hunters.
A variety of birds will nest where the freshwater meets saltwater, many making their homes in the mangrove islands that dot the coastline. Roseate Spoonbills, with their pink feathers are a beautiful sight to see at any time. Snowy egrets and Great egrets, Great blue herons and Tri-color Herons are also seen on a regular basis.
Of all the birds found in the Everglades, the most magnificent would be the Bald Eagle. Nesting very high, and usually in a cypress tree, these voracious hunters will be nesting very soon, with new chicks expected around the first of the year. Keep an eye to the sky and look for that white head and white tail feathers soaring gracefully in the air.
Ospreys, the most abundant raptors around the planet, live here too. Like the eagles, they are great hunters with one major difference—when an eagle snatches a fish, it will fly with its prey in line with its body. An osprey has a claw–like our thumb called an opposable toe so they can actually turn that fish in line with their body making a lot less wind resistance to get that prey home.
There are gators and crocodiles in the ‘Glades as well. Only about 2-3,000 crocs call this area home, while 1.2 million gators can be found throughout Florida. Gators prefer freshwater habitats while crocs prefer saltwater. Gators don’t have a gland to secrete salt like a croc does. However, I have seen gators and crocs sharing the same habitat just a few miles from Port of the Islands.
The list can go on to include panthers, bobcats, a variety of snakes and even more birds such as wood storks, ibis, owls, hawks and many, many more.
Whether you’re local or visiting, make plans to expand your horizons and visit the Everglades. Your best first stop should be Port of the Islands where you can find gators, manatees, dolphins, birds and shells on some of the islands not seen by most visitors. Don’t miss this opportunity to see more and learn a lot more about this unique variety of ecosystems not too far from home!
Bob is a Naturalist on board the dolphin study vessel Dolphin Explorer. He is also an owner of Wild Florida Ecotours at Port of the Islands. He is an author of two books and an award-winning columnist for Coastal Breeze News. Bob loves his wife very much!