Momma is not happy. She opens her cavernous mouth, bares her teeth and emits a hissing sound that should haunt the nightmares of anyone who hears it forever more.
“Wow. She’s angry. Keep your arms inside,” says Nick, the national park ranger leading a trundling tram through the gloopy mess of the Florida Everglades.
Next to momma are four or five baby alligators, and she’s prepared to protect them with everything she’s got. Such parental devotion is rare among reptiles, but this is one of nature’s great survivors. The crocodilians were around before the dinosaurs, and survived the catastrophic events of 65 million years ago that killed the dinosaurs off.
In all that time, alligators haven’t changed all that much. But they’re more than just the top of the food chain in these parts — they’re the keystone species that the rest of the wildlife throngs around in this fragile, complex ecosystem.
Southern Florida is so exceptionally, unrelentingly flat that any depression or elevation becomes a big deal. It can only be called ‘land’ in the most dubious terms, as the Everglades is a giant river — albeit one that flows so imperceptibly slowly that it’s often erroneously billed as a swamp.
During the wet season, the deluges fill the lakes of central Florida, and the water goes where gravity sends it. But the slope gradient is so feeble — the elevation drops just 18ft in over 100 miles from Lake Okeechobee to the sea — that the water takes months to drain.
Yet, given the near absence of rain during the dry season, the slumbering river parches itself into a virtual prairie. Sandbar islands dry out first, and that means the seeds dropped on them by migrating birds have a better chance of growing. These become the hammocks of mahogany and other tropical hardwood trees dotting the otherwise sheet-flat landscape.
It stands to reason the lowest-lying areas lose the water last, and this is where the alligators come in. They dig out gator holes with excavational swishes of their thundering, weaponised tails. Hence when the rest of the Everglades is parched, all life comes to these last remaining pools. The birds need the water to drink and the fish to eat, while the fish need the birds and alligators to disturb the water enough to preserve their oxygen supply.
These congregations make for remarkable viewing — with sunny, relatively chilly winter days being prime time to see the creatures of the Everglades gather in one place. Unfortunately, not all of the Everglades’ inhabitants belong there. “There are 367 invasive and exotic species living here,” says Nick. “And humans are at fault for bringing them in.”
Of these, by far the most notorious is the Burmese python, which is the apex predator in its Southeast Asian homeland and has nothing that’ll treat it as prey in Florida. “Around 98% of the mammals in the Everglades have gone,” Nick explains. “And the python is the suspected culprit.”
In the 1980s and ’90s, Americans bought all manner of exotic species from pet stores. Then they released them into the wild when they could no longer be bothered to look after them. This happened all over the country, but cold winters further north prevented breeding populations from establishing themselves. But the Gulf Stream creates a pseudo-tropical climate in subtropical South Florida.
“Anything you can buy in a pet store can survive here,” says Nick. “Unfortunately, pythons quickly grow very large. They’re great pets for roughly a year, then they start to urinate and defecate like a horse. Zoos stopped taking unwanted pythons in, so people started releasing them in the Everglades. Now there’s a breeding population, and we’ve found full-grown deer and extremely endangered Florida panthers inside the ones we’ve captured and cut open.”
But whatever havoc the pythons wreak, they’re not going to cause as much damage as humans have. Heavy development along Southern Florida’s east coast has changed the way the Everglades flows. And the more that’s done to protect Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach from rising sea levels, the worse it gets.
Even in the less-developed areas, human interference has had a devastating effect. In a region where the tiniest change in elevation makes an enormous difference, digging canals then building roads on artificially raised land to prevent flooding throws nature haywire. The sad truth is that a good number of the more prominent gator ‘holes’ have been manmade in the canals and therefore haven’t been thwacked out by gator tails as nature intended.
The Everglades isn’t the only natural ecosystem in Southern Florida, however. The coast is flanked by the world’s third-largest barrier reef, and the bulk of it runs alongside the Florida Keys island chain. The archipelago dribbles from Florida’s tip into the Gulf of Mexico, and the best diving and snorkelling is generally found around Key Largo.
The largest of the Keys, and the first to be encountered after hopping over the bridge from the mainland, Key Largo doesn’t quite conjure up the romance that the 1948 Bacall and Bogart film hints at. From the road, it feels disappointingly like a suburban extension of Miami. But from a glass-bottomed boat, it takes on an entirely different character.
The Key Largo Princess II inches its way out from its moorings to open sea through a maze of showy pool- and yacht-adorned waterside homes, and past rowdy brown pelicans. It’s then a 45-minute chunter to the Molasses Reef, where the darting, stripy sergeant major fish form a welcoming committee. They give way to an utterly spellbinding world of coral-chomping parrotfish, torpedo-esque barracudas, predatory nurse sharks and enormous stingrays, half burying themselves in the sand.
The sense of entering something completely different also strikes when driving further down the Keys. The 127.5-mile Overseas Highway connecting Miami to Key West at the end of the chain is one of the most glorious drives in the US — or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. The road stretches along a series of increasingly ambitious bridges, which jut out like roller coaster tracks above a shallow turquoise sea.
It’s not all about the scenery, though. From around Islamorada onwards, bright colours are splashed increasingly shamelessly and a woozy silliness begins to dominate. It’s something best seen in the roadside letterboxes. They start off functional, then get increasingly absurd, taking the shape of surfboards, dolphins, groupers and grinning manatees. Then the manatees start getting dressed up in sun hats, Hawaiian shirts and Betty Boop-esque red lipstick.
What starts as a tense, uptight navigation of Miami’s multi-lane freeways ends in the sort of relaxed, slouchy driving that by rights should see the passenger’s feet sticking out of the open window and the driver using a giant straw to slurp milk out of the coconut on his lap.
But venture off the Overseas Highway, and the human touch can seem surprisingly far away. From Big Pine Key, it’s a short paddle over to No Name Key, where mangroves rather than man hold sway. Big Pine Kayak Adventures guide, Kasey Fey, says the mangroves are the key to a fragile ecosystem.
“Around 40% of the commercial fish we eat grow up in a mangrove. And about 90% of the fish depend on a mangrove at some point during their lives,” she says.
They also filter out up to 90% of the salt in freshwater, and absorb much of the energy from storm surges, which gives the islands a certain degree of hurricane-proofing.
On a purely practical basis, however, they create a seemingly impenetrable obstacle course. A narrow gap is, apparently, the entrance to a channel. But conventional kayaking rules falls by the wayside in the tangled, spiky mess. One end of the paddle is detached, while the other is occasionally used for punting, but navigating the channel is largely a case of tugging on mangrove branches as if they’re specially installed overhead handrails. Some creatures don’t find the maze as tricky to get through as the lumbering, kayak-bound humans, however. A clattering noise turns heads towards two Key deer. These tiny cuties — a subspecies of the white-tailed deer — are endangered and found only in the Keys. Bulldozing through the mangroves is as good a way of avoiding being run over by a car as any.
After about 20 minutes of being jabbed, poked and scratched by malevolent rogue tendrils, the channel finally opens out into a serene inland lake, throbbing with birdlife. A blue heron flies over, then drops a twig to disturb the water. It’s a cunning hunting tactic. The fish are spooked, and burst into movement, making them easy prey for the heron, which glides in and spears one with its supersized beak.
The most glorious wildlife viewing in the Keys, however, comes at the end of the road. Key West bottles up the archipelago’s playful sense of the absurd, then sprays it like a Formula One driver at the end of his maiden Grand Prix win.
The soundtrack to Key West is happy drunks singing as they sway arm-in-arm down the street. Specifically, Duval Street, the in equal parts tacky and delightful backbone of the town’s sozzled, eccentric, end-of-the-line mentality. In Key West, it’s perfectly acceptable to have two daiquiris for breakfast, top up on frozen cocktails throughout the day, then spend an evening perched at a bar systematically sampling aged rums from around the Americas. It can get rowdy, certainly, but it always seems on the silly, boisterous and good-natured side of the fence. Everybody is too busy having a good time to dip into the territory of aggression.
The cornerstone of this rambunctiously daft vibe is a remarkable egalitarianism. The well-libated chap in tatty shorts and a garish shirt on the bar stool next to you could well be the local ‘character’. But he could just as easily be a Dutch tourist, sightseeing boat captain, jobbing musician, bestselling novelist or billionaire CEO. Status is something you leave behind further up the island chain. Everyone is on the same level in Key West, it seems, and no one could give a stuff about how haphazardly or unstylishly you’re dressed.
But the appeal is broader than just guilt-free boozing. Key West has a knack of looking gorgeous too. Main streets are flanked by handsome, Southern-style homes with dainty balconies and verandas; side streets are lined with pastel-painted Bahamian-style clapboard houses. Palm trees fight for space among a kaleidoscopic panoply of blossoms, and the defiantly yellow key limes get a brief spell in the sun before being picked to form the core of the ubiquitous local pie.
There’s also a heritage completely absent from most holiday towns — and it’s one that’s often entertainingly roguish. The town’s large but occasionally tacky collection of museums and attractions delve into subjects such as piracy, treasure salvage from shipwrecks and rum-running. But the best-known one has a more literary bent. Key West’s most famous resident was Ernest Hemingway, who lived in a mansion on Whitehead Street from 1931 to 1940. The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum now has permanent queues outside it, with visitors equally split between their interest in the writer and fascination with the hordes of six-toed cats that roam the grounds. They’re said to be the descendants of Hemingway’s pet, and there’s no telling them they don’t own the place.
Arguably more gripping is the biannual home of temporary Key West resident, Harry S Truman. The 33rd US president took 11 working holidays in Key West, after his doctor first ordered him to go somewhere warm to relax in 1947. A former Naval commandant’s house was transformed into what became known as the Little White House. It was more than a holiday home, too, as presidential operations would essentially decamp here from Washington DC.
It may have proved a logistical nightmare to get all the paperwork, staffing and communications links set up, but Truman insisted on coming down every November and March. Every morning, he’d have a ‘heart starter’ shot of bourbon at breakfast, and he got a phone line wired up to his beachside cabana. He also stuck to his ‘Key West uniform’. Out went the suits and ties, in came the tropical shirts.
The Little White House offers nugget after nugget of unexpected detail about both the man and the era he oversaw. And the specially commissioned mahogany poker table he played at almost every night still has pride of place in the corner of an otherwise surprisingly austere home. Newer buildings block the views of the sunsets Truman once had at the end of the line. Although Key West has never truly been the end. A two-and-a-quarter-hour ferry ride west from the marina brings the real tail tip of Southern Florida into sight.
The Dry Tortugas are a collection of sandy cays with no freshwater and plenty of birdlife. Were it not for one rather unmissable man-made addition, they’d feel like the sort of desert islands you could be shipwrecked on with no hope of discovery. But it’s hard to ignore the overwhelmingly disproportionate, gigantic presence of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. It’s ludicrously out of place, yet somehow magnificently so. Construction began in 1846 — the theory being that it could defend trade routes across the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River.
The hexagonal monster contains around 16 million bricks, making it the largest masonry structure in the Southern Hemisphere. It was built to support 450 guns and garrison 1,500 men, despite all their supplies having to be shipped in. A ridiculous level of effort went into something that became obsolete almost instantly. Construction work was abandoned in 1875, and now it stands with the mesmeric draw of a Mayan temple complex or excavated ancient Roman city.
The surreal situation is topped off by the island’s only permanent resident. Looking down from the bridge over the moat, any inclination to swim is quickly extinguished. Swimming merrily is a lone American crocodile. No one knows where he came from, no one knows why he’s here, and no one knows why he doesn’t go away to find other crocs to hang out with. But in this part of the world, the eccentrics are left to do their own thing in peace.
Ideally, you want a car (major car hire companies are at Miami airport). Keys Shuttle offers transfers from the airport to major destinations. Greyhound buses also operate from the airport down to Key West.
When to go
June-November is humid, with hurricanes most likely in August and September. December-May is cooler with temperatures around 25C, but pricier as it’s peak season.
Need to know
Visas: UK citizens need to apply for the ESTA before travel. $14 (£8.98).
Currency: US dollar ($). £1 = $1.48.
International dial code: 00 1.
Time: GMT -5 (Nov-Mar); -4 (Mar-Nov).
Florida Keys tourism.
Everglades National Park.
Dry Tortugas National Park.
Lonely Planet’s Miami & the Keys. RRP: £14.99.
Fodor’s In Focus Florida Keys. RRP: £9.24.
How to do it
My America Holiday has three nights in Miami, two in Key Largo and two in Key West, with hotel accommodation and Virgin Atlantic flights from Heathrow, from £1,165 per person.
Virgin Holidays offers 14 nights in South Florida, split between Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Key Largo and Key West with three- to four star, room-only accommodation. From £1,399 per person, including car hire and return Virgin Atlantic flights from Heathrow.
Published in the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)