Pa-hay-okee: The River of Grass a.k.a Everglades

The natives who inhabited South Florida for many centuries, the Calusa Indians, certainly understood and grasped the beauty of the blessing we now call Everglades. They called it “Pa-hay-okee” which means “grassy waters” / “river of grass”, a most apt description for this complex wetland and forest ecosystem dominated by expanses of sawgrass through the slow moving Shark River. So slow is the movement of water that it appears still and could be mistaken as stagnant water to the uninitiated.

Sawgrass stretches dotted by Cypress trees
Sawgrass stretches dotted by Cypress trees

The original inhabitants had a lifestyle based on estuarine fisheries rather than agriculture, which was in tune with the natural ecosystem, thus conserving it for centuries before the 20th century pressures of agriculture and urbanization hit. Only ~20% remains of the original expanse remains conserved in the Everglades National Park, now declared as an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site, and a Wetland of International Importance, one of only three locations in the world to be covered under all three conservation lists. We learnt from the rangers of the park how the damming & channeling of water of the Okeechobee lake following hurricanes and flooding in the late 1920s, resulted in cutting-off of the life blood of the Everglades (the slow moving fresh water from Central Florida), and the $8+ billion dollar plan now in place to reverse engineer and restore the natural flow of water to the extent possible.

We explored this beautiful area that hosts a myriad of habitats – mangrove forests, prairies, hardwood forests and pine forests – starting from its western fringes on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

IMG_1416A boat tour of the mangroves was a visual treat with both large expanses of water and narrow canals with the rich mangrove forests all around.

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We looked at shell mounds built by the Calusas and learnt about their unique fishing technique using the tidal highs & lows to trap fish in the shallows created by the mounds! A brown pelican flew by as we watched.

Shell Mound

Brown Pelican

We got to see some more birds though it was midday – an egret, a double-crested cormorant and a beautiful pair of Osprey in their nest.

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Double Crested Cormorant

Osprey

The real treats were sightings of two endangered species – a sawfish (critically endangered) and a manatee (vulnerable). In the below pics we were able to capture the fins of the sawfish (you should be able to see 3) and the nostrils of the manatee as it surfaced for air.

Saw Fish

Manatee

Satisfied, we headed onto explore of the Big Cypress National Preserve on the scenic Loop Road with fingers crossed to find some American alligators in the wild. Pretty soon Manish spotted the first one, right beside the gravel track! See the beautiful eye through the leaves?

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Mika was thrilled, her wish was to see 10 alligators and her counter had started! Hovering around this fascinating creature, we soon realised there was a another alligator in the water with only its eyes visible. Over the next hour we found a dozen alligators (Manish has mastered the art of identifying spots to find them!), most of them snoozing in the shallow fresh water streams and some basking in the sun on rocks.

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IMG_20160423_153928They appeared blissful in their beautiful environs. The water was so clear, we could see many different shades of red, yellow, brown and green. With cypress trees on both sides of the streams and their reflection in the water, it was a mesmerising scene!

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We also spotted this majestic heron, later identified as a Little Blue Heron.

Little Blue Heron

As we drove on, the scenery changed with different colours on the two sides of the road – almost like fall & spring at the same time!

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On our way out from the Loop Road to join the Tamiami Trail, we came across many houses of the Miccosukkee, a surviving tribe of natives, who came to inhabit the area when they were driven south by the European invaders.

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As we headed towards Homestead, our base to explore the area, we were amidst the large farms and nurseries on land which may have once been part of the Everglades. Coming from Orlando, we found the place had a very different look and feel to it, almost as if we had left the US and entered Mexico or Cuba!

The next part of the Everglades we explored was the eastern side that begins with the Ernest Coe Visitor Center, named after the gentleman who worked had to have a national park setup to preserve the Everglades. There were four trails that we covered here, starting with the Anhinga Trail which derives its name from the American darter birds that are commonly found here.

IMG_1488There was more water than usual for this time of year we were told due to the higher than normal rainfall in Nov-Dec 2015 due to the El Nino effect. So the expected congregation of wildlife around waterholes wasn’t really there. We did not see any Anhingas unfortunately but got to see beautiful views, a lot of fish, IMG_1496quite a few turtles, an alligator, a cormorant, dragonflies, butterflies, a very bright coloured insect, a swamp-hen and a bird with bright red on its wings. This we learnt is the Red-winged Blackbird, also called locally as the “warrior of the Everglades” due its fearless nature in chasing away larger birds.

Redwinged Blackbird - Warrior of Everglades
Warrior of the Everglades – the Red-winged Blackbird

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Dragonfly

Butterfly

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Swamp Hen – the American Purple Gallinule

Next was the Gumbo Limbo trail, a hardwood hammock (a shady, closed canopy forest), that derives its name from the Gumbo Limbo tree, a native of the region. The tree which is extremely useful for its medicinal properties is comically referred to as the “tourist tree” because it’s bark is red and peeling, like the skin of sunburnt tourists!

Gumbo Limbo Tree
Gumbo Limbo Tree

This is a different habitat – no water here, it is at a slightly higher elevation than the adjacent Anhinga trail area though this is imperceptible. We learnt how very small changes in ground elevation result in different habitats each with its own types of flora and fauna in the Everglades. After the trails, we attended a ranger-led session on alligators and crocodiles and learnt how to differentiate between these two often confused reptiles. We learnt that the alligator is the only reptile in the animal kingdom that cares for its young starting with aiding the hatch and going on for 2-3 years! We also learnt that the Everglades is the only region in the world where the ranges of the American alligator (which lives in fresh water) and the American crocodile (which prefers brackish / salty water) overlap.

On our third trail we explored another hardwood hammock, the Mahogany Hammock and then headed to the Pa-hay-okee Outlook which provided us with a vantage viewing point for the defining expanse of sawgrass that gives the region its name.

All of the activities for the day got Mika interested in becoming a Junior Ranger of the Everglades and started her preparation to receive a badge and certificate by the time we completed our Everglades exploration!

The last part we covered on another day was the Shark Valley, in some senses the heart of the park, named so as it is a valley (again imperceptible) situated in the Shark river between the slightly elevated areas of the Big Cypress on the west and the hammocks on the east.

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We took the tram tour on which we learnt interesting facts such as the origin of the river Shark’s name, the lone incident of a human injury by an alligator in an “accident” in the park’s entire history, as well as some disturbing facts of how humans are endangering the Everglades in more than one way. A very real danger for the flora and fauna of the region comes from “exotic” and invasive species that have been released / introduced into the national park by people. The biggest of these threats is the Burmese Python, which some people kept as an exotic pet and when any became unwanted, the easiest way to dispose them was to release them into the wild. While the Burmese Python is itself classified as a vulnerable species in its native habitat of South & South-eastern Asia, in the Everglades they have overrun the endemic species of the region. It is reported that over 90% of the mammals in the park – white-tailed deer, rabbits, opossums, raccoons, Florida panther – have disappeared over the past decade or two. A number of captured pythons have had these in their stomachs. Attempts to capture the pythons have met with very little success and it is estimated that over a 1000 remain in the park, continue to multiply and pose a threat to the native species.

Back to the interesting sightings we had on this two-and-a-half hour tour. Baby alligators to begin with – they have yellow stripes for camouflage to help with their survival to adulthood.

Congregation of baby alligators
Congregation of baby alligators – how many can you spot?

We came upon a Green Heron, a Great Egret, a Great Blue Heron, a Red-shouldered Hawk, Black Vultures and finally an Anhinga!!

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Anhinga – American Darter

A soft-shelled turtle bearing the marks of a recent alligator encounter was spotted right next to the track.

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But the best was saved for the last – an alligator (a mother as we figured later) with a kill of a smaller alligator and getting defensive of her food. We learnt that adult alligators are cannibals. While watching this rare sight, we observed 4 to 5 baby alligators that kept swimming and surfacing near the adult and that was how we figured the adult was a mother.

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Thus ended our rendezvous with American alligators, creatures that we learnt are fairly shy and unlike the often believed notion of being human attackers, only ever consider humans as food when humans start feeding them! The park has warning signs all over that feeding animals in the park is illegal and carries a fine!

With all this learning and park activities done, Mika qualified as a Junior Park Ranger!

IMG_20160426_122524In between our Everglades exploration, we took a day to drive down to the Florida Keys to see the picturesque view of the Atlantic ocean all around on the Seven-Mile Bridge and stopped at Key Largo to visit the John Pennakemp Coral Reef State Park. Manish and Mika went snorkelling but I chickened out as the water was choppy & called for strong swimmers. I caught up with some of the local inhabitants meanwhile 🙂

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IMG_20160425_124808Next destination was Miami and its famed South Beach.

Thanks for reading. We look forward to your feedback.

We are privileged to be posting this article on a rich ecosystem from the mega-diverse Ecuador, the most biologically-diverse country on the planet – the subject of another post!

Please do read Mika’s blogpost on Everglades – http://www.iammihika.com/index.php/2016/04/28/everglades/.

To the Moon & Beyond: The Kennedy Space Center

On the bright sunny Florida morning of Earth Day 2016 (22nd April) we set out on our maiden drive on the “other side” to the Kennedy Space Center. A few navigational hiccups and acclimatisation with the “other side” later, we were comfortably cruising down FL-528 E (state road/highway 528 heading East) towards our destination.

As we entered the NASA Causeway, it was a breathtaking view of shimmering water of the lagoon Indian River on both sides of the road. We crossed over to the NASA Parkway and were delighted by our first sighting of an American alligator in the adjoining stream! We later were told by our guides that the Space Center prides itself for being a haven for the resident fauna comprising alligators, bald eagles and many others, including some endangered species.

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We started with the bus tour that took us around the massive facility to see some of the massive equipment used to move the rockets and shuttles for launch and the rocket assembly building, before taking us to one of the major highlights – the Apollo/Saturn V Center.

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Here we were invited into the actual Command Center that was used for the launch of the Apollo 8 to view a film on the history of the NASA space program from its start until Neil Armstrong’s small step that was a giant leap for mankind.

The Apollo 8 Command Center
The Apollo 8 Command Center

It was so overwhelming to sit there and watch history unfold, we were close to tears. The insecurity of the US at Russia’s launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 (which triggered the establishment of NASA) followed by the successful space mission of Yuri Gagarin in 1961 at the height of the cold war, the challenge of “We choose to go the moon” set by President John F Kennedy, the tragedy of Apollo 1 and the perseverance of so many people in the years that followed leading to the success of multiple Apollo missions until Apollo 11 landed on the moon on 20th July 1969.

As we stepped out of the command center, we came face to face with the massive 363-foot Saturn V rocket, the largest ever made, used to launch the Apollo vehicles and others over a 20-year period. Simply awesome!

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We then walked around admiring all the memorabilia from the Apollo missions that are exhibited here – lunar rock samples (one of which can be touched), a moon buggy, space suits of various astronauts including Alan Shepard (the second human & first American in space), Kitty Hawk (the shuttle/command module) of the Apollo 14 mission

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We learnt that the shuttles were named by the commanders of the mission, so Kitty Hawk was Alan Shepard’s choice for the Apollo 14 command module and Neil Armstrong had christened the Apollo 11 command module as Columbia. The lunar modules which detached from the command module and actually landed on the moon had their own names too – “Eagle” was the first one. We watched a simulation of the tense moments preceding the landing of the Eagle on the moon when communication was lost with the Houston Mission Control (which takes over from the Kennedy Center after launch and manages NASA missions until reentry back into the Earth’s atmosphere when Kennedy takes over again) and Eagle had to change course and choose a different landing spot from the originally planned one. Eagle ran into a low-fuel situation and all mission controllers could do was hold their breath and cross their fingers until they heard Neil Armstrong say “the Eagle has landed“! Heart-stopping!

After all this excitement, we headed back to the bus to get back to the main visitor’s complex to see the next highlight for the day – the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit. On the way our lady guide (& driver) pointed out the huge nest of a bald eagle that has been an inhabitant of many years. A huge fuel tank (a real one) with solid rocket booster replicas make for a dramatic entrance to the exhibit that covers 30 years of space shuttle missions from 1981 – 2011.

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We were introduced to how the concept of a space shuttle orbiter that can take-off and land back like a plane evolved with many iterations on feasible design and years of hard work of multiple teams of engineers. Reuse was also a major consideration and so came the reusable solid rocket boosters that were separate from the fuel tank and retrieved after each launch for reuse. We learnt that the space shuttle does not take off vertically, rather it launches into a trajectory and reaches a velocity that lets it escape being pulled down by gravity but then orbit the Earth, much like the moon. After the introduction, its curtains-up and we gasped at the real space shuttle Atlantis that was suspended right in front of us!

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All around it are the facts and figures as well as some simulators to help us get a feel for what the controls of a shuttle look like and what it could be like for astronauts to work in space.

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But the best of all was the chance to actually experience the Space Shuttle Launch Simulator to get a feel for what it would be like to be inside a space shuttle during its launch! We got to experience being vertical in the shuttle for launch position and then “zero G” in just a few moments as the shuttle accelerates from 0 to 17,500 mph (28,175 kmph) in 8 minutes!! Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, could be more than once for my daughter though!

We were fortunate to have the opportunity to hear from and meet an astronaut, Bob Cenker, about his actual experience of being in space. He spoke about the physical challenges and his own experience of “space adaptation” and “re-adaptation” which is often termed as “space sickness” by the media.  His most beautiful memories he said are of “going through a rainbow” every sunrise and sunset, which happen once every 90 minutes while they orbit the earth!

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Mihika with Astronaut Bob Cenker, Mission Specialist 1986

Mihika had been asking us if astronauts got paid a lot and soon enough she had her answer when the question was posed to Bob who answered in the negative and explained how there were a huge number of applicants for the position of astronauts making it very competitive. Manish asked what disciplines should aspiring youngsters pursue if they wished to one day make it to space and happily for us his answer reinforced the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering & medicine).

In very interesting 3D features, we learnt of the Hubble telescope repairs, the beautiful and intriguing images it has been sending, the discovery of galaxies, the setup of the International Space Station and the latest mission of NASA called “Orion” to send humans to Mars. That will be one lonesome mission for those who go – three years away from Earth, family, friends …..

Wondering if space travel will indeed become a reality in our lifetime, we wandered into the Rocket Garden to see the impressive display there before calling it a day. And what a day!!

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Thanks for reading!

Next up will be a most wonderful experience of nature’s wonders at the Everglades National Park in South Florida.