Like nowhere I had seen before – The Florida and Georgia Wetlands
Everyone seems to rave about Florida. Not me, and I’ve been there too. Now, I admit to no longer being a youngster, so I am not ‘into’ theme parks, over-crowded beaches or built environments. Yup, I am an old grouchy! But, give me a pristine wildlife site and I feel forty years old again. The same, plus a snake = thirty!
Most of Florida was instantly forgettable. It is nearly flat, is virtually history-free and full of people. Not so some of its north-west watery fringes, and certainly not the eastern parts of the neighbouring state of Georgia.
I went there early in 2019 for a three-week investigation, touring from Orlando north to the delightful city of Savannah in Georgia.
With limited human access to the Everglades, and the wildlife decimated by Burmese pythons, we gave that a miss, instead adding the stunning Okefenokee Swamps – a world class location.
A short drive east of Orlando is Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. 140 000 acres of sub-tropical grassland, scrub and wetlands that sit alongside the NASA Kennedy Space Centre and the technological wonderland of the Visitor Centre.
If we ever return to Florida, we would give Merrett Island three days. Sea turtles nest on its 43 mile long barrier islands, inside this chain manatees co-exist alongside the inevitable powerboats, while elsewhere there are 350 bird species and 31 mammal types. Add in the 68 reptiles and amphibians, 117 species of fish and one obtains some feel for the biodiversity. As everywhere, alligators are common.
Across the state border into Georgia, it feels unworldly. Miles and miles of treed wetlands bordered the route. Living there looked mentally demanding and the residents poor. We shot north to the urban gem, Savannah and returned to Okefenokee – just north-west of Jacksonville.
A big word of warning: accommodation is not easily found next to Okefenokee. Especially near its main (east) entrance. You will need to explore your options well ahead of time. Also, try to obtain: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Okefenokee Swamp by Taylor Schoettle that cost us $25. It is 160 A4 pages of quality information.
The Okefenokee Swamp is close to 700 square miles (3.5 times bigger than the New Forest) of a flooded depression surrounded by pine flatwoods. Most of the swamp is covered by water no deeper than about 2 feet (60 cm).
Now, access is difficult to the area. Boat trips are minimal and roads almost non-existent. It is possible to hire a boat and a guide, and canoe trips are possible. With four entrances, each offering different facilities, my advice would be to visit them all. We had only time to visit the main (eastern) entrance.
We visited when water levels were high (February), so the grassy prairies (8% area) were flooded with emergent carnivorous plants everywhere. Bladderworts were in vast mats and pitcher plants reached high above water level. Swamp cypress trees were clothed in Spanish moss (a bromeliad, and nothing like a moss!) and the swamp forests make up nearly 60% land area. There is 30% scrub, while small ‘islands’ and lakes make up the rest. Some of the islands were once farmed and the trees logged – but neither were long-term viable, and the swamp is now human-free.
With nutrient-poor soils, regular flooding and a lack of human pressure the place is a biological and ecological wonderland. Alternation of hot, mostly dry, summers and wet winters also will put ecological pressure on the wildlife, which as evolved to often be unique. It also has to also cope with the lightning-induced summer fires.
I will leave the images to provide a feel to the place.
On the western edge of North Florida, adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico, are a chain of wildlife sites – State parks and wildlife refuges. These offer the chance, especially in winter, to see manatees. But vultures, alligators and water snakes are around in numbers too. We stayed in Cedar keys, Manatee Springs State Park and around Crystal River.
For a touch of inland Florida, try Eustis and the pretty Mount Dora – both close to the Ocala National Forest and touching distance of the airport at Orlando.
All my own photographs. We did see a single wild manatee, but it was too difficult to photograph. The colder the weather the more likely to view manatees in the warm springs.
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