I drive up to the 101.9 mile marker of Key Largo, Florida
I see a myriad of bright flags waving in the wind and
welcoming me to Dolphin Cove, the home of Captain Sterlings
Everglades Eco-Tours and my first journey through the
untouched beauty of the Florida Bay.
I see the comfortable looking
pontoon boats and people gathered on the far boat off
to my right and know I am in the right place. Heading
to the office I am welcomed by the office manager Jennifer
and directed to the newest of the boats, the Palm
Beach, nesting in the dock next to another of
Captain Sterlings boats.
Captain Sterling Kennedy smiles
and greets me with introductions all around to Captain
John and Captain Jake who will also be directing the
Everglades Tour and to Joy who works in the office helping
set up tours and maintain daily activities for Everglades
Eco-Tours and Dolphin Cove. Armed with a video camera,
Joy says she hopes to catch some wild dolphins or manatees
on film during our journey.
As we are seated with Captain
John at the helm, the engine starts and we head out
to the most amazing display of Florida nature I could
ever imagine. The early morning sun reflects shades
of coral and pink on the water as the luscious green
of the island mangroves lures us into this unspoiled
We float into what feels like
a different planet, devoid of buildings, roads, people
and noise and are instantly surrounded by grassy, shallow
water separating small islands of trees and vines. There
are mullet swimming carelessly beside us and prehistoric
looking birds only Captain Sterling could name diving
into the water for their breakfast and flying high to
try again. This is earth at her purest and most divine
and I feel blessed to be present for this unique glimpse.
sit at the front of the boat with Captain Sterling and
ask him about the types of wildlife we can expect to
see on our tour. Typically we will see a lot in
the way of bird life, he says. We will likely
see osprey, white pelicans, spoonbills, egrets, great
blue herons, anhinga and others. He explains that
the bird life in the Florida Bay is most prevalent during
the snow bird migration of the winter months, with birds
nearly lining the shores of the bay.
When we reach Flamingo
south (where we plan to make a stop), we may see the
American alligator and the American crocodile,
shares Captain Sterling. He refers to a commonly unknown
fact that the Everglades National Park is the only environment
on the planet where alligators and crocodiles can be
seen together, as the alligators need for fresh
water and a subtropical climate and the crocodiles
need for saltwater and a tropical environment are both
water is surprisingly shallow in the Florida Bay with
an average depth of 3 _ feet. In some places the water
gets as low as nearly a foot, making it a curious endeavor
for Captain John to keep us from dragging the propeller
on the floor of the bay. I comment on the grassy, shallow
water and ask more about the skill necessary to navigate
this area. You really have to know what you are
doing out here, shares Captain Sterling. There
are some shallow areas where you have to hit the route
dead on or you could be in trouble.
I am directed to the tall,
vertical wooden posts ahead of us protruding out of
the water and topped with smaller, reflector laden planks
that seem to point in one direction or another. Those
are our road signs out here, explains Captain
Sterling. These markers guide us through the shallow
areas so we dont go off course and get stuck or
make unnecessary tracks.
It is called prop
dragging, explains retired pilot and part
time eco-tour guide Captain Jake. When you run
enough boats through one place, you create a path that
it makes sense to follow. When boats fail to pay attention
and dont follow the path, the dragging propellers
dig into the bay floor and cause damage to the eco-system.
The post markers also seem to be a well utilized stopping
point for the birds of the area as a different species
of bird seems to top virtually every post on our path.
As we pass a friendly pelican
posing for his close-up, I am told that we are about
40 miles due west of the Gulf of Mexico and well on
our way to the Flamingo Visitor Center on the southwestern
coast of Everglades National Park. I pause to take in
the remoteness of our surroundings as Captain Sterling
points to a small island of mangrove and mentions that
everything we are seeing has remained virtually untouched
by human beings for thousands of years.
John slows our boat as we are approached by the first
fellow boaters we have seen all morning. The small fishing
boat Gypsy is guided by Joe and Dolly, friends
of Captain Sterling who planned to meet us early in
the tour and follow our boat through the difficult to
navigate Florida Bay. As I look through my camera lens
in the boats direction, I see a smiling rubber
alligator in the front seat and a telephoto camera lens
topped with a sharp safari hat in the drivers
seat looking back at me, assuring me that this was not
the couples first trip through the Everglades National Park.
When we reach the half way
point of our journey, we will be about 20 miles from
civilization and our starting point at Key Largo. As
we look behind us, I am told of the tower near Dolphin
Cove that serves as a marker for the return journey
home. It is especially helpful at night since
it is lighted, says Captain Sterling. He proceeds
to tell me of his other Everglades Eco-Tours including
the private night time crocodile tour and mangrove tunnel
tour where any guiding light besides the lights from
the boat, the moon and stars and the glow of crocodile
eyes is a welcome sight. The night tours are exciting
and can be a little eerie, shares Captain Sterling.
When it is that dark out, you cant tell
where the sky stops and the water begins.
come upon a crooked line of post markers called the
Crocodile Drag-over, named for the back
and forth motion it requires of a boat, reminiscent
of the side to side motion of a swimming crocodile.
I settle again into the front seat comfort of the boat
as Captain Sterling explains more about the birds we
are seeing and their distinguishing characteristics.
The spoonbill is rare and has a unique flattened bill
and long skinny legs. The anhinga is sometimes called
the snakebird as it often swims through
the water with only its thin neck showing. The white
and brown pelican can be distinguished by their color,
with the brown pelican diving head first into the water
to catch its prey.
I ask Captain Sterling if he
often sees dolphins in the bay and he laughs, telling
me of a particularly humorous encounter with a determined
dolphin who was fishing while swimming on his back because
the water was too shallow for him to fish swimming right
side up. Just then, Joy calls out, I see dolphins!
and we all rush to her side of the boat.
There they were, four of them
swimming together and seemingly conducting a little
show for us as one would do the occasional jump and
dive. So much for the idea of jumping not being
a natural dolphin behavior! exclaims Captain Sterling.
John steers the boat in their direction and attempts
to create a wake with the boat that will entice them
to come and play. And play they do as they are swimming
along side our boat in no time, dancing with us and
watching us take pictures of them. They break off from
us as we swing the boat around again. The good-natured
dolphins race past us to the front of the boat and frolic
together, crossing over and under each other and acting
as curious about us as we are of them.
As they disappear once more,
we see them cavorting next to the Gypsy
boat close behind us. We all get our cameras ready and
bustle with excitement as Captain John swings around
for one last encounter before we head back to our route.
The wild dolphins were so beautiful
and sleek, graceful and cunning. I was utterly amazed
and wide-eyed with childs wonder at the amazing
creatures that had allowed us this precious look into
their lives. I was concerned at first that we would
harm them with the boat, but was eased when Captain
Sterling pointed out how much faster and more adept
at moving in the water they were than us. And
that concludes our dolphin show for today, joked
Captain Sterling. Already this trip had turned out to
be more than I ever could have expected.
we see the tower at Flamingo in the distance and Dump
Key off to our right, I take note of all the animals
we have seen so far today. As I am making notes, I see
another stingray jump and someone else catch a look
at a passing bull shark. I missed the shark but was
told that the way to tell a shark from a dolphin is
to look for two fins, as the sharks dorsal fin
rises above the water while the dolphins dorsal
is hidden below.
Captain John slows the boat
to pass through a narrow water bridge through two closely
set mangroves. From the Gypsy, we hear shouts
of bald eagle sightings. We saw two large nests atop
dead trees by the edge of the North mangrove and slowed
to look for the eagles our friends were speaking of.
We did not see the eagles and left on our way as Captain
Sterling pointed to a small island to our right where
all the vegetation had died off nearly eight years ago.
It was now almost fully re-grown. I see a wooden box
standing on raised legs off to our left in the distance
and am told by Captain Jake that it houses a small data
collection apparatus that tracks tides and currents
in the bay.
see a few more small boats guided by local fisherman,
no doubt working on their catch of the day and the engine
block of an old boat that had likely drifted in from
the ocean during heavy tides in years past. As we near
Flamingo, Captain Sterling points out the blue expanse
before us where the islands seem to have drifted apart.
That is the end of the world over there, the Gulf
of Mexico, he said.
There is a lone alligator floating
by the shore as we pull into the Flamingo docks to fuel
up and stop for lunch. He would have to get out of the
water and cross over on land to get his next drink,
as the alligators fresh water home was on the
other side of the small dam that separated his Everglades
environment from the ocean.
At Flamingo, we stopped for
lunch and took a look around the park. There is a museum
and restaurant near the visitors center and plenty
of Everglades National Park maps and souvenirs to help you remember
On our return trip to Key Largo,
we did see the eagles we were looking for. We also saw
a group of about 12 wild dolphins and plenty more birds
any Everglades Eco-Tour, remember to bring your sunscreen,
hat and sunglasses, your camera with a telephoto lens
for wild life close-ups, a set of binoculars if you
have them and some mosquito repellant if you stop along
Captain Sterling and his crew
are available for a variety of tours and can set up
you and your and party of 6 or less with a variety of
morning, daytime, sunset and night time rides to give
you the ultimate Everglades Eco-Tour experience.
This will be one trip
to South Florida you will never forget.
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