BY KC HUMPHRIES
DOUBLE CRESTED CORMORANTS
The word “Cormorant” is a combination of two Latin words that mean “Sea Raven”. These are diving birds. They swim underwater to depths of 30 feet (10 meters) and hold their breath for several minutes while they chase fish, eels, and water snakes.
The solid black ones are the males and the two toned are the females. Cormorants don’t have oil glands like most waterfowl. When they come up out of the water, they are soaking wet and must dry out before they can take flight. You will often find them with their wings spread out as they dry in the sun.
The Everglades was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1979 and encompasses 4,300 square miles (11,137 square kilometers). These sites are designated as having “outstanding universal value”.
The Everglades originally encompassed 11,000 square miles (28,490 square kilometers) but, more than half has been drained for agricultural purposes and urban development. Most of this development has occurred in the last 140 years.
Our tour today goes through the Everglades and Francis Taylor Wildlife Management Area and is patrolled by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The Everglades National Park Sanctuary begins 30 miles south of us and covers the entire southwestern portion of the state and is the largest subtropical wilderness left in the United States.
THE CANALS AND THE ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS
Many canals have been dredged throughout the Everglades totaling more than 1800 miles. Dredging began back in 1881 in the Lake Okachobee area to create dry land for farms and cattle ranches. A steam engine dredger was introduced in 1906 and another one was added in 1907. But, the draining was not going as planned. Major hurricanes and flooding in 1927 killed over 3000 people, which led to more canals. The Army Corps of Engineers got involved in 1947 and continued dredging into the 1960’s. What everyone failed to realize is that the Everglades is not a swamp. It is one of the largest and slowest flowing rivers in the world. Some parts of the Everglades only flow 3 feet per day. Other parts have a flow rate of ¼ mile per day. But, it takes the main body 6 months to flow from the north to the south end. The everglades is also one of the widest rivers in the world at 50 miles wide and one of the shortest at 100 miles long.
Most of the canals have a chain of islands down one or both sides. This is a by-product of the dredging process. The islands consist of overturned limestone, coral, and dirt. Seeds and vegetation blown around in seasonal winds and hurricanes have planted themselves on the islands and now serve as lush habitats for many species of birds, mammals, and reptiles.
NATURAL FILTRATION OF THE EVERGLADES
Most of the grass throughout the tour is Cattail Grass. This grass is just one element in a natural multi-level filtration system in the Everglades. The Cattails filter out a lot of the fertilizers and chemical runoff from the urban areas. The water may appear dark and murky but that is just a reflection of the peat and silt bottom. Below the peat and silt is a layer of limestone and below that there is a layer of coral. Millions of years ago, this was all a saltwater ocean.
Today, the Everglades is a fresh water wetland and the main source of water is rain. When the rain has a chance to filter through all of those layers, it reaches an aquifer below the coral and that is the main source of tap water for almost 8 million people living in South Florida.
As we round the bend after the first speed trail we are entering Vulture Island, named for the vultures that roost in these trees. We have two types of vultures; Turkey Vultures and the North American Black Vultures.
Turkey Vultures are identified by their red featherless heads and white feathers along the back underside of their wingspan.
North American Black Vultures are identified by their grey featherless heads and white feathers at the tips of their wingspans.
Both species are raptures but mostly feed on carrion and garbage. They are not picky eaters. One of their defense mechanisms is to projectile vomit on their aggressor. They are, however, among the cleanest birds in the Everglades. They will take 3 to 6 baths a day to lower their body temperature. At dusk, several hundred vultures will come back to roost on these islands.
Depending on the time of year, the islands are home to several other bird species such as Ospreys, Limpkins, White Ibis, Cattle Egrets, Great White Heron, Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, Purple Gallinule, and Anhingas.
You may also see Green Iguanas basking on the tree limbs over or near the water. Don’t let the name fool you. Some of the mature males are bright orange.
Green Iguanas are not native to Florida and are invasive. We have a feral population of iguanas throughout South Florida that reek havoc on landscaping and the infrastructure. Iguanas will burrow into the ground which can cause sidewalks to collapse and damage underground power and cable lines.
The can grow up to 6 feet long and weigh up to 20 pounds. Juveniles stay in groups for the first year of their lives. Male iguanas in these groups often use their own bodies to protect the females from predators and appear to be the only species of reptile that does this.
THE SHINER HOLE
The Shiner hole is named for the Moonshiners, Bootleggers, and Rum Runners that used to use the Everglades to move their product. This is a popular spot for alligators. We sometimes find them basking in the grass or swimming right out in the middle.
The canal cut through the grasses on the northwest edge of the Shiner Hole is called Jessie’s Trail. This canal was dug out by hand in the 1920’s by rum runners during prohibition. It connects to an entire network of canals creating a road map throughout the Everglades. You can make your way west to Ft. Meyers and North to Lake Okochobee using the canal system. Along the way, you will pass the old homestead of an outlaw by the name of Edgar J. Watson. He was known to hire people to work on his sugar cane farm but they would mysteriously die before pay day. After the death of a young woman who had been working on his farm in 1910, Mr. Watson was shot by several members of the community and his farm burned to the ground a few years later.
MATING SEASON/ NESTING FACTS
A little bit of history.
15,000 years ago, this region was a dry and arid landscape. Arawak Indians from the Caribbean and South America migrated up to this area and would later form the Calusa and the Tequesta Indian tribes. The pre-historic tribes adapted as the environment changed. 7,000 years ago, it began to get a bit muddy and 4,000 years ago, it began to flood into the wetlands we have today. The Arawak adapted and split into several tribes over thousands of years. The two largest tribes were the Calusa and Tequesta. They were highly civilized and advanced cultures with settlements at the mouths of the rivers leading into the Everglades.
Ponce de Leon and the Calusa Tribe: In The Eyes Of The "Fierce People"
In the 1500’s, Spanish explorers would spell the demise of the indigenous tribes through disease, war, and slavery. As the tribes began to dwindle in number, they retreated farther into the Everglades.
In the 1700’s, the Upper and Lower Creek Indians of Alabama and Georgia would also migrate south as they were pushed from their lands by European settlements. The Creeks along with stragglers from the Calusa and Tequesta and runaway Slaves would band together and form what we know today as the Seminole Indian Nation. Seminole means wild or runaway.
From 1816 to 1858, there would be three Seminole Wars fought between the Seminole Nation and the U.S. Army. Ask a Seminole, and they will tell you it was one war that lasted 40 years. Their population numbered over 6,000 but after the wars, there were less than 200 Seminole left. These survivors went deep into the Everglades and evaded the US military. Through their tenacity, they managed to maintain their culture, identity, and their freedom.
They established relations with the U.S. Government in 1930 and reorganized their government gaining Federal recognition in 1957. They are the ‘Unconquered Nation’ and today have a population of 4,000 in Florida. They are the only Native American Nation to have never signed a peace treaty with the U.S. Government.
Cattail grass is a flat two-sided blade and smooth on both sides. The indigenous tribes had several uses for cattail. It is very strong and they would braid it into ropes and weave it into mats and baskets. It is also edible. The base of the grass is white and tastes like a mild celery. The center of the grass is fibrous and gauze like. They would use it to pack wounds and wrap injuries. Cattail does not root in the soil but has a free floating root system. Tufts or small islands of grass will separate from the main body and be repositioned by the wind.
Saw Grass is found throughout the Everglades. Saw grass is a three sided blade of grass with serrated edges on each side just like a knife. If you run your fingers up the length of the grass you can feel the teeth. But, if you run your fingers down the length of grass, the serrated edges can cut you to the bone. The grass has an oily surface. When the oils get into a cut, it burns and stings and is impossible to wash out.
This grass is part of the bamboo family. It is very strong. Indigenous tribes used the grass to make arrow shafts, splint injuries, and when the grass grows to a length of 25 feet, makes an excellent fishing pole.
The entire plant is edible. The purple part of the stalk if filled with seeds that can be eaten raw or ground into a flour. The greens can be eaten raw like a salad or cooked like spinach.
The water lilies you see all around us are called Spatterdock or Cow Lilies. This is a very important plant out here in the Everglades. Spatterdock produces a yellow flower that is packed full of seeds and provide food for many animals including birds, otters, muskrats, raccoons, and deer just to name a few. Indigenous tribes would eat the roots of the Spatterdock and grind the seeds into flour for bread. The pulp of the stems and leaves can be used as an antiseptic. And, the stem of the Spatterdock can be used as a filtering straw to drink the water in the Everglades. As water is sucked through the stem, it will filter out most of the parasites and bacteria making the water safer to drink in an emergency.
Spatterdock grows to 6 feet in length so, when you see Spatterdock on top of the water then the depth must be 6 feet or less. But, the average depth of the Everglades is only 3.5 – 4 feet.
Where are all the animals?
Burmese Pythons were first spotted in the Everglades in the 1980’s. It is suspected that irresponsible pet owners let their snakes loose into the Everglades. A study was released in 2017 in which 400 Burmese pythons were collected from all 9 ecosystems throughout the Everglades and their DNA compared. They were found to all be 1st and 2nd cousins. This suggests that almost all the Burmese pythons in the Everglades come from one breeding pair.
In 1992, Hurricane Andrew caused many fisheries to overflow and businesses and neighborhoods to flood releasing many species of fish as well as pets from homes and pet stores to find their way into the Everglades. Many of the species died out in the Everglades inhospitable conditions but some species are finding it rather to their liking. Since then, there has been an explosion in the invasive snake population. We now have over 500,000 Burmese Pythons, Reticulated Pythons, Red Tail Boa Constrictors, and Anacondas. They grow to extreme lengths and have no natural predators in the Everglades. They are eating everything in sight.
These snakes are decimating many species of birds, small mammals, deer, wild boar, and alligators.
From time to time Snake Round Ups occur. These events attract about 1500 hunters and usually catch between 60 and 150 snakes. That is not per hunter but for the entire event. They don't make a dent in the population but they do raise awareness and revenue for research.
The researchers capture about 150 snakes a month, genetically modify them and place trackers in them and then release them back to the wild. When these snakes mate, they produce sterile offspring. The trackers help discover where the snakes are traveling and congregating so that they can increase their monthly numbers. The program hopes to establish positive control over the invasive snake population in the next 20 to 30 years.
FISHING IN THE EVERGLADES
Nearly 300different species of fish are known to inhabit the freshwater marshes and marine coastline of Everglades National Park. Throughout our tour, you may see Bluegills, Mayan Cichlids, Large Mouth Bass and Peacock Bass, Spotted Garr, Snakehead Fish, and Oscars. The chart above is a placeholder while I gather my own fish photos.
The Everglades has freshwater, salt water, and brackish water. So, we have something for every type of fisherman.
ALLIGATORS AND CROCODILES
The Everglades is the only environment in the US where the American Alligator and the American Crocodile co-exist. Alligators don’t have salt glands and can only survive in the fresh water areas of the Everglades. Crocodiles do have salt glands and can be found in the marshy, brackish waters and the coastal areas of the Everglades. There are areas where the fresh water turns brackish and both the Alligator and the Crocodile can be spotted.
Alligators are black in color and have wide snouts. Only the top row of teeth can be seen when their mouths are closed. Crocodiles are light grey in color, have a v-shaped narrow snout and all of their teeth, top and bottom, can be seen when their mouths are closed.
Crocodiles grow larger than alligators. Males can grow up to 20 feet and 2,000 lbs. Females grow up to 12 feet.
LIGHTNING IN THE EVERGLADES
Florida is known as the Lightning State. As you've seen on the tour, we have no shortage of Cattail Grass. When the Cattails dry out and decay, they produce methane gas. When lightning strikes in the Everglades, it can ignite the methane causing wide spread brush fires. This is nature’s way of keeping balance. Cattail grass can quickly spread and choke out waterways. The fires help control the Cattails and return nutrients back to the water.
SWAMP APPLE TREES
The trees growing straight up from the water are called Swamp Apple Trees. These trees produce a fruit six months out of the year but it is highly toxic and full of arsenic. The last month, the fruit ripens to a golden brown with dark spots. At this time it is safe for human consumption but it is a very bitter fruit. People who harvest the fruit usually make it into jams and jellies.
Indigenous tribes had several uses for the fruit. They would heat the pulp into a paste and apply it to open wounds. As the paste cooled and dried it would harden and seal the wound from infection. They would also use sauté the apple seeds in coconut oil, grind them into a paste and use this to treat head lice.
Today, pharmaceutical companies are investigating the properties of the seeds for cancer treatment.
GUMBO LIMBO TREES
The tall trees just beyond the apple trees are
Gumbo Limbo trees. If you are stranded in the
Everglades and looking for dry, solid ground,
look for these trees. That is the only place they
If you happen upon some saw grass, poison ivy,
or anything else that burns, stings, or irritates,
strip the bark from the Gumbo Limbo and scrape
the back of the bark. Use this to make a paste and
apply to the affected skin. This will sooth the irritation.
PUMP STATIONS AND WATER MANAGEMENT
The white building at the end of the channel
is a pump station. We have 200 pump stations
spread throughout the Everglades. They regulate
the water levels in the waterways and canals
throughout South Florida and can pump up to
100,000,000 gallons of water per hour.
THANK YOU, AGAIN
It is a privilege to be an Airboat Captain in the Everglades and I thoroughly enjoy sharing this amazing environment with my passengers. Hopefully, you had a fun, informative, and exciting time. But, I also invite constructive criticism. I have tried my best to check my facts but if you have any information to add or correct, I would appreciate your input. Just click the contact button.
Don’t forget to check in on social media and share your pictures. Please tag us in your post. We love to see and hear about our guests’ experiences. If you leave a review on Yelp or Trip Advisor, don’t forget to mention me, Captain KC.
I am a military spouse of 26 years and grew
up with a mother who worked for the Navy.
I have spent my entire life moving around the
world. When my husband retired from the
US Marine Corps, we settled in South Florida
with our two children. This is my 25th
household move and my first permanent home.
Don't ask me where I'm from. I really don't
know. I have a degree in Historic Preservation
and I love animals, history, and the outdoors.
I've been a Captain since 2018 with over 1000
hours on the water.
The following information follows my airboat tour through the Everglades. I may or may not have included various subjects during the tour depending on what we may have seen and what I had time to cover.
I want to thank you for taking my tour. I would love to hear about your experience so, please feel free to contact me. If you haven't taken my tour, then I hope to see you soon.
BY KC HUMPHRIES