Temperature: Max 26oC
We set off towards the Loop Road scenic drive cuts through 24 miles of the Big Cypress National preserve running paralell to the Tamiami trail. The preserve is compiled of 720,000 acres of predominantly cypress swamps but also mangroves and sawgrass prairies.
History of Big Cypress National Preserve
The area has had a history of exploitation with Early European settlers hunting herons and egrets for plume. American alligators and Crocodiles were also hunted near to extinction. The area had also been exploited by the timber industry with parts cleared for farming.
In 1974 the preserve became one of the first in the United States National Park system. The preserve was historically occupied by Native Americans and is still occupied by descendants. These descendants have rights to occupy and exploit land on the preserve and so differing from the Everglades National Park.
The preserve is currently used by hunters and for recreational activities including; camping, walking and various scenic trails such as the Loop Road we used.
We drove onto the trail and stopped to stretch our legs near to a sawgrass prairie. What I found particularly interesting was the abundance of epiphytes, in particular the cardinal airplant (Tillandsia fasciculata) which seemed to be everywhere. As we continued along the road we came across a just as appropriately named species, the brightly coloured Northern cardinal bird (Cardinalis cardinalis).
The trail offered some close views of some rather large alligators which were basking along the side of the road, seemingly unbothered by our presence. At one point we witnessed two alligators together and a few of the herpetology students noticed that one was holding its offspring in its mouth.
As we continued along the trail we came across many plant species we had not come across beforehand, the most interesting being the resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides). This plant can lose up to 97% of its water content during an extreme drought, shrivelling up to a brown clump of leaves (how we saw it on the trail). When the plant comes into contact with water it will become green again, hence the name ‘resurrection’ fern.
After completing the trail we drove to the Coopertown Airboat Tour. As we entered we came across some alligators in what could only be described as a fish tank. Unfortunately this was the theme of the visitor centre.
Taking the airboat ride gave us a chance to get amongst the open sawgrass and needle grass which we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to otherwise. The ride then took us alongside a hardwood hammock, or an elevated area that is higher than the surrounding wetland. This area showed a differing habitat to that of the open wetland including pond-apple (Annona glabra) and a variety of fern species. Most interestingly a species that I didn’t expect to see: the whisk fern (Psilotum nudum).
As we travelled alongside the hammock the guide pointed out alligators, at one point he whistled to call them. Our group were unsure if this was part of the routine or if he was calling the alligators. This would likely mean that the people working at the airboat rides had been feeding the alligators in the area (which is illegal).
We then had a short “educational” talk where we were told about some of the alligators kept in the enclosures around the site. One alligator having been caught from the wild as it had become a nuisance alligator due to humans feeding it. The majority of the group were more than happy to leave feeling a little bewildered by the conditions in which the alligators were kept.