FLORIDA: Wildlife spotting in the Everglades

On their way to the Florida Keys, Bev Fearis and family stop off in the Everglades to check out more of Florida’s wildlife, but it’s not the alligators they’ve come to see…

Most people who come to the Everglades do an airboat tour to see alligators, but we’ve come to see a more rare, gentle and endearing animal – the manatee. We drove an hour south of Fort Myers to the Port of the Islands Marina, near Naples, to meet with our guide from See Manatees, a company which runs year-round boat tours and guarantees that you’ll see manatees or you don’t have to pay. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see other wildlife too.

We arrived early so decided to have a bite to eat on the dockside. Before we’d even unpacked our sandwiches, the young man on the next table casually pointed into the water and there, a few feet away, was an alligator nonchalantly floating by. Things were looking promising.

Spot the alligator..

Our guide was Captain Dave, who welcomed us on board and immediately handed us sunglasses, insisting we put ours away and wore these instead. I thought perhaps we were going to be watching a 3D film, but it transpired that these glasses were polarised perfectly for underwater viewing. We’d only been going about five minutes, and hadn’t even left the marina, when Captain Dave stopped the engine and began to look intently into the water. We looked too, and saw nothing, but Captain Dave encouraged us to stand up at the front of the boat and, sure enough, we began to make out enormous golden shadowy shapes slowly emerging, hovering just underneath the surface of the water. Manatee.

On Captain Dave’s instructions, we sat silently and still and waited for the manatees to properly reveal themselves. Gradually, more came to the surface, their snout-like noses poking up above the water, their massive torpedo-shaped bodies followed by paddle-like tails. Manatees are most closely related to elephants and the average adult is 10 to 14 feet long and weighs 1,500 to 1,800 pounds. These gentle giants don’t have any predators and don’t do much more than eat seaweed and rest, so it’s not surprising they live to around 60 years old.

Captain Dave shared all these facts and more with us as we sat in awe. Unfortunately, Freddie (aged 3) didn’t appreciate what all the fuss was about and was more interested in showing Captain Dave his collection of miniature dinosaurs and asking him questions about Captain Hook. “Captain, Captain, do you know Captain Hook? Captain, Captain, do you know Captain Hook’s Crocodile?”
Thankfully, Captain Dave was a kind and patient man and played along.

Once we’d learnt all about the manatee and felt like we’d seen enough, we did a quick ride down through the mangroves to see what else we could find. Captain Dave said he’d seen a rare sight earlier that day and wanted to see if it was still there. And it was – a saltwater crocodile, just chilling out in the water, less than 50 ft from the marina homes. Captain Dave told Freddie it was Captain Hook’s crocodile and Freddie was ecstatic.

From here, the drive to Islamorada in the Florida Keys, our next destination, would normally take 2hrs 30mins, but it took us considerably longer due to Warren wanting to stop and take pictures every few miles. He loves wild and eerie looking landscapes so the everglades were right up his street. There were some roadworks too, which didn’t help. We skirted round Miami and then got on to Old Highway to the Keys, which takes you all the way from Key Largo in the north to Key West, the most southerly tip of Florida and continental US. We arrived just before sunset.

We were staying three nights at Pine and Palms, a small and idyllic oceanfront resort with 25 little low-rise bungalows, all painted in pretty pastel blues and purples. It had a heated pool, a quiet little bar, and a beach, of sorts. The Florida Keys don’t have the vast sandy beaches that you find on the West Coast but instead the resorts have created their own little private artificial beaches with little fishing docks over the turquoise water. This one had a dozen or so blue sunbeds and a hammock, which Freddie loved (once he was sure he wouldn’t wobble off).

You can hire kayaks from the resort to explore the islands, or bikes. Within walking distance are a few restaurants, cafes, galleries and shops but most things here in the Keys are a drive away. Luckily, it’s easy to find your way around as there is only one main road that goes from Key Largo at the top to Key West at the bottom. Road markers start at zero in Key West and rise. We gave our Hertz Neverlost a well-earned rest.

In our room was a list, put together by Jim, the Pine and Palms owner, with his favourite local eateries. We opted for Lazy Days but to be honest, it was a bit overpriced and one of the less memorable meals of our trip. On the plus side, there was a table of friendly kids next door and Freddie had great fun with them, folding the children’s menus into paper aeroplanes and generally causing mayhem.