The Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. The national park spans across 1.5 million acres and provides an important habitat for numerous rare and endangered species, such as the manatee, American crocodile and Florida panther. It was established as a national park in 1947 in order to preserve a portion of the vast wildlife ecosystem as wildlife habitat and is the third largest national park in the lower 48 states, behind Yellowstone National Park and Death Valley National Park. It is also a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve, a Wetland of International Importance, a specially protected area under the Cartagena Treaty and has even been touted as one of the great biological wonders of the world.
The animal that many visitors hope to see is the American alligator, which can be found throughout the southeastern United States. Those that live in the Everglades exist at the southern extreme of their range. The alligators primarily inhabit freshwater swamps and marshes although they can also be found in rivers, lakes and smaller bodies of water.
The Everglades Safari Park has been in existence for over 40 years and prides itself on being ‘one of the largest and most complete attractions in the heart of the Florida Everglades National Park’. The park offers airboat trips through the marshland in search of American alligators.
We board the airboat and are given earplugs and a quick safety briefing. Our pilot starts the engine and we set off into the unknown. We glide across the marshland for a few minutes before the pilot cuts the engine and directs our attention to some reeds on the starboard side of the airboat. We peer into them but see nothing other sawgrass and mud. The pilot, who is also our guide tells us that he saw some young alligators living here earlier. Suddenly we see them and wonder how we could have not noticed them before. “Their mother is probably nearby and won’t be too happy about us being so close” says our guide, “we will be OK at this distance, but if we got any closer she might feel threatened”. He then tells us that if the mother decided to attack that she would be able to without much difficulty before reaching for a broom and lowering the stick into the water to demonstrate that it is only around 15 or 20 centimetres deep.
The young alligators’ mother would have built a nest above the water level. It would have been around a metre high and two metres wide and she would have laid between 20 and 50 eggs. She would have stayed near the nest throughout the incubation period, returning to protect the eggs when she sensed any danger. When the eggs hatched, the hatchlings would have begun to call and the mother, on hearing this, would have opened the nest. Those hatchlings that were born from eggs incubated at between 32 and 33 degrees celsius would have hatched as males, while those born from eggs incubated at between 28 and 30 degrees would have hatched as females. Eggs that were incubated at intermediate temperature would have hatched as a mix of males and females. Once she had opened the nest the mother would have carried the hatchlings, eight to ten at a time, down to the water in her mouth. On reaching the water she would have opened her mouth and gently shook her head from side to side, encouraging the hatchlings to swim out. These young gators would have aggregated in pods, which may have included hatchlings from other nests, and would stay close to their mother for at least one year. Their mother would protect them, responding to their calls when in danger. Sadly, the hatchlings will have many predators including racoons, large fish, birds and even other alligators and few will survive.
We continue on our quest and reach a narrow passage, covered with spatterdock (yellow pond-lilly). Suddenly the pilot stops and shouts ‘gator to the left!’. We turn and see a huge gator swimming past us. A moment later the pilot stops again and shouts ‘gator to the right!’. As we continue through the everglades the shouts from the pilot become more frequent. By the time we head back to the dock we are spotting alligators every few metres. The last alligator that we see before arriving at the dock is so perfectly posed and so still that we almost think it is a statue.