A different kind of wild

The Florida Everglades are a unique and diverse ecosystem coined by wetlands, forests and rivers that connect Lake Okeechobee with Florida Bay. But beyond its beautiful facade lies a dark truth: it is dying.

Words and photographs by Luca Martinez

05.30am. My dad and I park outside the gates of Shark Valley, a 15-mile paved road meandering through the heart of the Everglades. Keeping left, we start down the trail illuminated by our headlamps. With visibility of no more than 20 feet, our steps are measured. In the far distance, the faint reddish horizon delicately reveals itself. Cicadas screech, pig frogs croak, and a sea of sawgrass sways in the morning breeze. Nature’s symphony is in full surround sound, made all the clearer against the early morning darkness. As the sun rises, it gradually shows a world remarkably different from the uninspired version in my mind. Tens of thousands of tree islands sit on a boundless river of seagrass spotted by mirror-like pools of fresh water. The magnitude and elegance before me takes my breath away. This is the moment my love affair with Florida’s wetlands begins…

My favourite mornings are those scattered with sheets of early fog that fill the emptiness in between. I search for native land where cypress turns to pond apple and pop ash. I seek the sloughs, low-lying areas of earth that channel water through the Everglades. It’s in these sloughs, waist-deep in the black water, where I see and feel most. With no control over the environment surrounding me, immense trust is formed. Where else in this digital world do we feel such vulnerability? It’s a privilege to film and share an ecosystem known to so few where nature conceals countless untold tales. Perhaps that is the beauty of the sloughs.

Life here exists in mystical layers. Beneath the water- lined surface, disguised as a stick or a log, the Florida gars glide silently. Alligators lay motionless as if posing beyond the lights of my underwater camera rig. Every footstep depresses the lemon bacopa lining on the peat bottom. Breaking the moment’s gravity, a rare pair of playful otters twist, turn, and splash. Following the tentacled roots of flora unrecognised, I look up, the inhalation lasting several unintentional seconds. The ghost orchid, the world’s rarest, looks back at me with soulful wisdom as it dances, hovering over the duckweed.

I’ve spent the last three years exploring South Florida’s wilderness and learning about its history. This ecological community is misunderstood, and many consider it a second-class ecosystem. As a result, the human impact is undeniable; beyond its beautiful facade lies the reality that this place is dying. In my travels to and from these pristine sloughs, I’ve realised that the impending danger comes from the things we no longer see.

A variety of mammal species have been lost. A nine-year study was conducted and published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study gathered information about Everglades National Park’s mammal populations through surveys of park roads between 2003-2011. The team compared the results against the data from the 1990s before the arrival of the burmese python, an invasive species in the region that has slowly but surely changed the ecosystem. The numbers were astonishing. In areas adopted by python populations, racoons declined by 99.3%, opossums by 98.9%, and bobcats by 87.5%. Marsh rabbits and foxes completely disappeared. The loss of these species has had profound repercussions throughout the food chain. Looking into the culverts on the side of the road it’s clear that mammals aren’t the only species that have been affected. Fish like the jaguar guapote and Mayan cichlids fill the culverts and clear water ponds. Rarely do I see an abundance of native largemouth bass or bluegill. Invasive cichlids occupy almost every body of water in the Everglades and feed on native grasses and small creatures. The issue of invasives is complex and the problems stem from a lack of education about the wetland’s fragile balance. We need to understand our Florida home to properly live within it, respect it and care for it.

“Water is life” is a truth found deep within the soul of the Florida wetlands. Water flows north to south, sustaining life throughout. Historically, the Everglades watershed arose from the northernmost tip of the Kissimmee lakes. And as the summer rains fell, sweetwater drifted south into Lake Okeechobee, overflowing its banks, the runoff drifting slowly southward, guided by the topography. Ultimately, the water flowed into the river of grass and prairies before penetrating the sloughs. It moved further south into mangrove forests and finally made its way out to Florida Bay, the great 850-square-mile estuary. Besides being home to sea turtles, dolphins and manatees, Florida Bay is rich with life, hosting pink shrimp, spiny lobsters, and spotted sea trout, to mention a few. Sport fishing alone is a $1.2 billion per year industry, according to the Everglades Foundation.

Florida Bay houses the largest seagrass meadow in the world, and its health is critically important to the state’s ecology and economy. Freshwater inputs nurture life and make this ecosystem unique. Unfortunately, over the last 70 years, we have drained, dredged, and dammed the Everglades so unrecognisably that only one-third of the water makes it out to the bay today. The lack of fresh water has led to over-salination, resulting in massive seagrass die offs. Freshwater starvation is a chronic problem, especially in the southern Everglades, Biscayne Bay, and Florida Bay. This permanent drought, created by northern drainage and development patterns, is man-made. The waters that once flowed south to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean have been cut off.

Much of the water has been rerouted for agricultural use, which has also caused algae blooms fed by nutrient-rich, fertilizer-heavy Lake Okeechobee waters. With drastically depleting water supplies, Florida Bay is hyper-salinated, this plays a major role in seagrass die-offs. The Everglades ecosystem is severely out of balance. Along with the impacts of climate change, South Florida finds itself in grave danger. Since 2015, 40,000 acres of seagrass have died. Without seagrass, most of the biodiversity in Florida Bay would be lost. Getting more freshwater into the Bay would be a huge step in restoring seagrass and avoiding further harm to plants and animals, as supported by the mission of Captains for Clean Water, a grassroots non-profit organisation. Founded by fishing guides who witnessed the consequences of Florida’s water mismanagement, they fight to restore and protect Florida’s water resources.

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Issue 28
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This feature appears in ISSUE 28: SEA FORESTS of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 28
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