Friday, January 27, 2012

Our First Encounter with an Alligator: Big Cypress Bend, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park

Alfred Hitchcock once said, "a good film should start with an earthquake and be followed by rising tension."

Well, our adventure with alligators was quite like that: the very first alligator that we saw in Florida was lying in the middle of our hiking path, and from then onwards we would see alligators everywhere, all the time.

That there were so many of them, and that we could spot them so easily, came as a big surprise to us. In fact, when we set out for our first Florida hike in Big Cypress Bend, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, we laughed our heads off upon seeing a sign warning us that "alligators have been seen laying on the trail." (BTW: The sign should say “lying” not “laying.”)

Beware: Alligators have been seen laying on the trail

We assumed that it's another one of those crazy things that Americans sometimes say to avoid any potential liability in the odd case of an alligator on the trail.

How wrong we were!

Just a few minutes later, and not more than 150-200 meters into our hike, there was a big alligator lying on the trail, OUR trail. It was blocking at least half of the path, and it was observing us with its mouth slightly open, displaying its big teeth. The way it was looking at us made me think that trying to pass it would not be the best of the ideas. My husband, however, was eager to go further. He was convinced that we would be fine, and that­–in the worst case scenario–we might lose a leg. It was not a risk I was willing to take (I guess men and women are different that way), so I convinced my husband that we didn't have to complete this hike, as we could easily find another trail nearby. This reasoning worked, and we turned around and retraced our steps back to the car.

An alligator on our path!

There, another pleasant surprise was waiting for us: a beautiful great blue heron was sitting on a fence just a few meters away from our car. It didn't seem to be bothered by our presence, and even let me get as close as one-and-a-half meters.

The Great Blue Heron

When I tried to get closer, the heron wouldn’t fly away, but instead would slowly walk in the opposite direction. To me its behavior shows that the animals in the Everglades National Park/Big Cypress National Preserve area are accustomed to and not afraid of people.

Look how gracefully it moves!

A few hours later we revisited the park, curious to see if the alligator would still be lying on the path. It wasn’t, so we were able to complete the hike. We followed a 600-meter (2,000-foot) long boardwalk through the cypress swamp to an observation platform, where we spent about half an hour patiently waiting to see if any animals would show up. But except for one anhinga, a few pretty butterflies, and a white egret looking for dinner, we didn't see any.

The Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk

A swamp near the observation platform

White Egret hunting dinner

A butterfly

A strangler fig

We were not too disappointed about it: seeing an alligator on our path a few hours later made us believe that the park was indeed full of the wildlife it promised on its webpage. (The webpage promises a chance of seeing: American crocodiles, Florida panthers, Florida black bears, West Indian manatees, Eastern indigo snakes, Everglades minks, diamondback terrapins, white-tailed deer, bald eagles, barred owls, pileated woodpeckers, swallow-tailed kites, raccoons, opossums, red-shouldered hawks, turkeys, vultures, sand hill cranes, roseate spoonbills, eagles, ospreys, ducks, and wading and shore birds.) Next time we are in Florida, we’ll for sure revisit this park and try to spend more time there.

When we saw this alligator warning sign on our way of the park, we were not laughing anymore

Another great blue heron

The Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park is located on the north side of the Tamiami Trail (Highway 41), about 7.1 miles west from the intersection with SR 29.