Everglades Gators On Parade: What Are We So Scared Of?

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Heading out to the open waters of the Florida Everglades. Noreen Kompanik photos.
Heading out to the open waters of the Florida Everglades. Noreen Kompanik photos.

Up close with Gators in the Florida Everglades

By Noreen Kompanik
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

Cannibal the alligator at the park.
Cannibal the alligator at the park.

I admit it. Alligators and crocodiles scare the heck out of me. It’s not like I’ve had a bad experience with them. But then, I’m not looking for one either.

Each time I’ve flown over the Florida Everglades on my way to the Caribbean, I close my window shade and cringe to think of how many gators live down there in that primordial ooze.

I remember the Eastern Airlines plane crash there in the 70s with survivors trapped in the alligator-infested waters of the Everglades.

No Swamp Tours for Her

I’ve avoided taking swamp tours for this very reason despite relatives in Southern Florida highly recommending them. Gators to me are frightening, cold-blooded denizens of the swamp, and something I have avoided no matter where my travels have taken me. But then something changed on a recent Florida visit that reshaped my entire perspective.

On the last day of a 5-night Caribbean cruise, I found myself with almost a full day to spend in the Miami area with nothing to do until my flight departure. My intrepid and adventurous daughter suggested an excursion she thought was intriguing.

Airboat Riders
Airboat Riders on a Thrilling Trip Through the Everglades. There are three authorized airboat businesses that offer professional airboat tours inside Everglades National Park

This adventure package included an insider tour of Sawgrass Recreation Park’s outdoor exhibit featuring over 100 adopted and rescued reptiles and mammals. The tour included a guided thrilling airboat ride through the “dreaded” Florida Everglades.

Learning More About the Everglades

During our 45-minute bus ride to Sawgrass Recreation Park from the cruise terminal, our guide did an excellent job educating our small-tour group on the history and culture of the Florida Everglades.

 

The largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, the Florida Everglades, declared a UNESCO Heritage Site, spans almost two million acres across Central and South Florida. It’s actually the third-largest national park in the lower 48 states.

During the wet season, Lake Okeechobee overflows from the immense rainfall, releasing water into a very slow-moving shallow river dominated by sawgrass marsh—aptly dubbed the “river of grass.” The water flows southward, passing through diverse habitats, including cypress swamps, wet prairie, and mangroves, until it reaches Everglades National Park and eventually the Florida Bay. The massive body of water however is only nine feet at its deepest point.

360 Bird Species and Lots of Gators

In Everglades National Park, more than 360 different species of birds have been sighted
In Everglades National Park, more than 360 different species of birds have been sighted

The Everglades has long been renowned for its extraordinary wildlife. More than 360 bird species can be found in the Everglades National Park alone, many of these threatened or endangered.

The Everglades’ most endangered animal is the elusive Florida panther. Unfortunately, fewer than 100 of these beautiful big cats now survive. Other well-known Everglades’ mammals include the West Indian manatee, which is also endangered, and surprisingly, the bottlenose dolphin.

I was surprised to learn that both alligators and crocodiles live in the Everglades—the only place in the world where they co-exist. American alligators like deep, freshwater channels of water called sloughs and wet prairie, where they dig out ponds for nesting.

The American crocodile prefers the salty coastal mangroves and Florida Bay. In addition to these reptilian residents, Everglades National Park plays host to over 27 kinds of snakes.

The diversity of the Everglades’ habitats allows for a great variety of plant life. In wetland prairies and marshes, vegetation ranges from salt-loving sawgrass and bladderwort to mangrove and towering cypress. Pine trees and hardwoods thrive on “tree islands” and hardwood hammocks. Surprisingly, the Everglades is also home to a high diversity of exotic and fragile orchids.

Sawgrass Recreation Park in the Everglades.
Sawgrass Recreation Park in the Everglades.

About Sawgrass Recreation Park

Located in Broward County’s town of Weston, a mere stone’s throw from Fort Lauderdale, Sawgrass Recreation Park began as a fish camp in the mid-1950s. Over the next 30 years, it grew into an Everglades airboat excursion attraction and one of South Florida’s top destinations for visitors in the new millennium.

Senior Travel Writer Noreen Kompanik is no longer so afraid of alligators.
Senior Travel Writer Noreen Kompanik is no longer so afraid of alligators.

Today, visitors can also explore the park by hiking, biking, or boating. Birding is extremely popular here due to the number of species located throughout this region.Media

Shortly after Hurricane Wilma leveled the park in 2005, the Soverns family acquired the property. 12 years later, Hurricane Irma devastated the region once again. Since then, however, the park has experienced tremendous resilience and recovery and its exhibit areas have been expanded to support the adoption and rescue of even more of the Everglade’s reptiles and mammals. Eco initiatives became an even stronger focus for the owners as well.

While most visitors expect the Florida Everglades to be a large swamp teeming with alligators and snakes and reptiles of every kind, like me, they find so much more. This gift of nature is a mosaic made up of many forms of wildlife, plants, and birds, all thriving in their natural habitat.

Learning More about the Alligators

Sawgrass exhibits feature over 100 reptiles and mammals that have been rescued and adopted including turtles, iguanas, monitors, exotic snakes, and gators. The oldest inhabitant is a 1,000-pound (yes, 1,000-pound) gator known as Cannibal.

It was interesting to learn that alligators date back to the Cretaceous Period, an extremely difficult period to survive in.

Two gators very close to our airboat in the Everglades.
Two gators very close to our airboat in the Everglades.

At that time the land was shifting, temperatures were sizzling, and sea levels were rising. Many things stood in the way of the alligator’s survival. Yet they did throughout the eons, and remain a strong species today.

Our Sawgrass guide actually climbed into the fenced exhibit to interact with this frighteningly huge gator and another smaller female. His purpose was to make the point that while many humans fear these Everglades inhabitants, they’re actually less aggressive than many think, and are actually quite shy.

If gators are not feeling threatened or desperate for food, they’re not likely to attack as many view humans too large for suitable prey. While they can reach speeds of up to 35 miles per hour on land, they tire quickly and need to conserve energy as they do not feed that often.

A Gator’s Lifespan: 35

An alligator’s lifespan averages between 35 to 50 years. And they can grow as large as 11 to 15 feet. Females however tend to be smaller. Gator diets consist mainly of fish, birds, snails, frogs, small mammals, and turtles.

Alligator numbers were once plentiful but dwindled drastically in the early 20th– century due to over-hunting and were actually considered an endangered species. It was an absolute shock to learn that today, Florida actually has over 1.3 million alligators statewide.

With Florida reporting over 20 million people

The author petting a baby alligator held by our expert guide.
The author petting a baby alligator held by our expert guide.

and this large number of gators, it’s surprising that only five attacks occur every year. With humans living in close proximity, and the number of irresponsible people, the few attacks from these run-ins is a blessing.

Gators arrive at the Sawgrass Recreation Park by several methods and once here they are forever part of the family. Gators and other animals have been dropped off at the park, brought in by Florida Fish & Game wardens due to injury or their confiscation during illegal exotic pet shipping.

Unfortunately, once out of the wild, they can never be returned. They may have also been identified as “nuisance alligators” or relocated as they have the tendency to return to their captured site.

Meeting a Baby Alligator

One of the best parts of the Sawgrass exhibit tour was actually getting to pet a baby alligator. I admit being quite hesitant at first. The expert Rastafarian wildlife handler explained he’d gently tape the baby’s snout as these hatchlings can and will bite employing a mouthful of razor blade sharp teeth, 60 to 80 to be exact.

Beautiful snowy egret in the Florida Everglades. The diet of the snowy egret primarily consists of shrimp, small fish, and small invertebrates.
Beautiful snowy egret in the Florida Everglades. The diet of the snowy egret primarily consists of shrimp, small fish, and small invertebrates.

Interestingly enough, hatchlings are not considered adults until they reach about 10 years old or six feet in length. Baby gators are quite vocal, letting out high-pitched squeals like a puppy even during the hatching stage. They are about 10 inches long but weigh less than two ounces at birth.

So, what do these colorful bright-eyed baby reptilians feel like? Their skin is leathery and bumpy with a long spiky tail. Surprisingly, the hatchling didn’t even flinch when I touched his head and neck area with my two fingers. I have to say, the word “cute” came to mind.

Air Boating Through the Swamps

Sawgrass Recreation Park owns the largest fleet of airboats in the U.S.  These flat-bottomed watercraft are powered by a caged aircraft propeller coupled to an aircraft or automotive engine, depending on their size.

And they are ideal at cutting through the shallows of marshes and swamplands of the sawgrass prairies that sprout in these waters. Surprisingly, these airboats have been in use since the 1920s.

Sawgrass Recreation Park Land in the Florida Everglades.
Sawgrass Recreation Park Land in the Florida Everglades.

After boarding the airboat, our expert guide perched high above the seating area passed out earplugs (yes, you need these as the noise is a bit deafening) and provided a safety demonstration. His number one advice is “don’t fall into the water.” “Oh geez,” I thought, “now why did he have to say that?”

Once we headed out to the open water, however, the incredible scenery and wind whipping through my hair as we sped through the sawgrass swamp was exhilarating. I was getting to experience one of Florida’s most remarkable treasures—the awe-inspiring Everglades. A place I’d always feared.

Protecting this Rare Eco-System

A gator swimming toward our airboat
A gator swimming toward the airboat.

As one of the rare subtropical ecosystems consisting of nine different habitats, the Everglades holds spectacular mysteries. In 1934, Congress wisely passed legislation to designate this a national park.

In 1947, American journalist and conservationist Margory Stoneman Douglas described the Everglades as a “magnificent river of grass.” Her staunch defense of the Everglades railed against continual efforts to drain the swampland and reclaim land for development despite its national park status.

As she explained “There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they always have been, one of the unique regions of the earth; remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them.”

This development would not only have erased the beauty of this magnificently unparalleled landscape forever, it would tragically impact the abundant wildlife that inhabits its waters, banks, trees, and other indigenous plants.

Gators Coming At Us

Turtle spotted during our airboat ride in the Everglades. There are five species of turtles who live there: Atlantic Loggerhead, Atlantic Hawksbill, Florida Box Turtle, Florida Red-Bellied Cooter.
Turtle spotted during our airboat ride in the Everglades. There are five species of turtles who live there: Atlantic Loggerhead, Atlantic Hawksbill, Florida Box Turtle, Florida Red-Bellied Cooter.

As we took a sharp turn to the right, the airboat slowed down, then came to a stop. Just to the side of the boat, there they were. Two alligators swimming in our direction. Somehow seeing them in their natural habitat was pivotal. Their snouts would rise a bit out of the water, eyes scoping out the situation, then they’d dip back underwater.

“Oh my gosh,” I exclaimed. “They’re beautiful.” Words I never thought I’d utter. But I saw them, close enough to touch, and I couldn’t help but want to see them again.

We did see more gators that day, along with turtles, multiple bird species, and even an osprey protecting her nest. As the boat was heading back to the dock, I and my other riders experienced the same sense of disappointment. Our Everglades experience on the water was about to end. And we wanted more. A lot more.

My adventurous entrepreneur brother Duane Miller once said “It’s ok to feel the fear. But you have to do it anyway.”

I went to the Florida Everglades and experienced the incredible beauty of its waters. I got up close and personal with the gators I’d always feared. Of course, I have enough respect not to put myself in a dangerous situation with these fascinating timeless creatures. But I saw them in a much different way.

Often, we fear that which we don’t fully understand. That’s the importance of educating ourselves, separating fact from fiction, and challenging ourselves to embrace the beautiful, magnificent world we live in. My experience of overcoming fear ended up being extraordinarily delightful. The dread is gone, and it’s an adventure I’ll never forget.