The Great National Park that is Florida

While National Parks are relatively few on the East Coast (only seven east of the Mississippi), there are three in Florida alone. The recent storms and devastation along the Florida coast highlight the high human habitation in the area, but in our weeks there we were amazed at the wildness and wildlife concentrated at America’s southern tip, so alive it felt like a fight against encroaching mankind.

Fort Jefferson, capstone of the Dry Tortugas National Park

The three parks–the Florida Triangle as we call it–initially seem completely different: the Everglades cover the swamp lands on the Western side, Biscayne protects the sea and reef off the East coast near Miami, and Dry Tortugas is a minuscule, lonely island dominated by an enormous fort and lies closer to Cuba than America.  But in exploring these parks, you start to understand more about this fascinating tip of the country, and see how the three parks demarcate the corners of a vast intertwined ecological system. The triangle is formed on one side by the world’s third largest barrier reef–running from Miami all the way south along the shallow waters of the Keys and out another 90 miles to Dry Tortugas. This formidable reef separates the deep Atlantic seas from the Gulf of Mexico, and the ocean and freshwater mixing here create the unique ecology of the Everglades.

Miami’s art scene speaks the truth.

Though the landscapes varied wildly in this triangle, from white beaches to mangrove forests to cypress swamps and the bright lights of Key West’s piers, what amazed us most about Florida was the fecundity of wildlife.

One of the dozens of alligators enjoying life in the Everglades

On our first walk in the Everglades, within half a mile we’d seen over a dozen alligators (including one squatting in the middle of the trail), a dozen species of birds including a majestic owl keeping a watchful eye over a small pool bubbling over with 200 yellow frogs, and more insects than I’d seen in the 3 months of travel prior. Along the coast there were numerous ospreys and their massive nests on display, and dolphins frolicked behind our boat and we saw a massive crocodile found sunning on the pier. That was all in our first day.

Fort Jefferson, the most amazing manmade structure in the National Parks (IMHO)

On the waters off the reef, we scubaed with a number of reef sharks and a goliath grouper, a 500+ pound beast that took up nearly the whole shadow under the dive boat. We saw many sea turtles surfacing on our journey out to Dry Tortugas, and there snorkeled with schools of silvery needlefish off the ancient piers. Off Biscayne, we paddle-boarded above bonnethead sharks, and snorkeled among the too-rare sight of live, brightly colored coral–a sight which, despite 20 years of diving, I’ve seen too seldom.

The famous flamingos of Florida.

Back on shore, there were flamingos doing mating dances, and hundreds of butterflies and massive moths flying about in the oddly charming Butterfly Museum. Our last day, I had an adorable endemic Keys deer sneak up to share the delectables off my bread plate during our dinner on the beach while I was distracted by a manatee swimming not 20ft from us off shore. It was all a bright, rainbow-colored moveable feast of wild creatures and flame-colored ocean sunsets, topped with a daily slice of Key Lime pie.

Equally famous Key West sunset

The selling point for some of the National Parks is there biodiversity showcases three parks in one (e.g. Big Bend’s three distinct ecosystems).  In Florida, it’s the opposite.  There’s so much diversity and life that the massive ecosystem of the Florida Triangle is split into three National Parks.  I can’t wait to go back.

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