We had tickets for the sunset tour of Florida Bay on Saturday evening, April 11 at 6pm. From our hotel in Homestead, the park entrance was about a twenty-minute drive. Flamingo, where the marina was located, was another thirty-eight miles away at the end of the park road. We didn’t want to be late, so after we’d dropped our bags at the hotel, used the restroom, and refilled our water bottles, we set out toward Everglades National Park.
We passed the southern terminus of the Florida Turnpike at Florida City and turned west through an underserved community and past a prison. The terrain approaching the entrance opened up into defiantly flat agricultural fields. The thunderstorms continued to roll across the peninsula to the north and west. The sky was bright to the south, so we crossed our fingers for nice weather for the boat tour.
As we arrived, Sean, per tradition, did the honors of snapping the photo of the sign. As we watched him taking it, I remarked to my parents, “He will turn around and take a photo of us in the car.” There was a moment as he walked back that it appeared he wouldn’t, then he stepped deftly to the right and lifted the camera. Snap!
Our first stop was the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center near the Park’s entrance.
We stamped our passports and briefly looked at the interpretive displays.
We departed the visitor center and passed through the entrance station, making use of my parents’ Golden Passes, lifetime admission to the Parks for seniors.
The drive to Flamingo took about forty-five minutes, passing through sloughs, patches of prairie, clumps of hardwood hammocks, and bald cypress groves. We didn’t stop because we knew we’d have more time next day for leisurely exploration. On some level, it felt bizarre to be moving swiftly through the visitor center and the park. I had to keep reminding myself that we’d be back the next day to linger.
Flamingo boasts a marina and a very Florida, very retro visitor center, painted pale pink. The lodge, restaurant, and cabins that had once been at Flamingo were destroyed by the double punch of Hurricane Wilma and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There is a campground at Flamingo, but no other lodging in the Park save the backcountry campsites.
The destroyed restaurant was replaced by the Buttonwood Cafe, a food truck positioned adjacent to a screened-in patio on the ground floor of one of the wings of the visitor center. It is humble, although the burgers were tasty and the fries were excellent (which is saying something coming from me). The limited menu was in part due to this being the very end of the season. The cafe would close for the summer only five days later on April 16.
The best part of Buttonwood Cafe is, of course, the southerly view across the expanse of Florida Bay.
By the time we finished eating, it was already a quarter to six. I fetched the car while the others used the restroom. We parked near the pontoon boat, the Pelican, which had already attracted a small group of passengers.
I trotted into the marina to see if I needed to check in with my confirmation print out there or what. The girl at the counter said, “Oh I pretty much thought you weren’t coming,” but she gave me my receipt/ticket. I was irritated with Xanterra, which is the Park’s concessionaire and runs the boat tours. On the website, the sunset tour is scheduled to depart anywhere from 4:30 – 6pm depending on the sunset. Nothing in my confirmation indicated when our particular trip would launch. I finally learned it was 6pm by phoning the Flamingo Visitor Center because Xanterra never responded to my e-mails or voice messages. Step it up, Xanterra.
Moments later we were settled on the Pelican, First Mate Cedric was casting us off, and Captain Jim was beginning his narration.
It was approaching high tide, and birds were clustered on a sandbar that was the shallowest spot near the marina.
Florida Bay, which is about 850 square miles, stretches from the southern tip of mainland Florida to the Florida Keys. The vast majority of the expanse is part of Everglades National Park. Near the Keys, it is part of the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary. It is a shallow, channeled body of water with rich seagrass beds and is dotted with mangrove keys.
The mangrove keys are formed by a fully germinated seeding which drops into the water from a mature mangrove. It floats until it is able to take root in the shallows. Over time, a small island is formed by other mangrove seeds catching hold of the original pioneer. After hundreds of years, the mangrove keys can grow to be quite large.
Not far from the marina was a single mangrove which had formed its own, lone island. It had blown over the year before, destroying the osprey nest it had held. Now it was a perch for cormorants as they took a break to dry their wings after diving for fish.
Florida Bay boasts a healthy osprey population, and we saw many nests in addition to adults and juveniles fishing, eating, diving, resting, and soaring.
First Mate Cedric helped to spot wildlife, including a bottle-nosed dolphin in the distance as we moved farther into the bay. Unfortunately, it was the only dolphin we saw on the tour.
We headed west toward the Gulf of Mexico. In the far distance, Captain Jim pointed out a low, large key, Sandy Key, near the border between the Bay and the Gulf. Sandy Key, which is just inside the park’s boundaries, was the location of the home and studio of John James Audubon during his years studying and painting the birds of southern Florida. Due to the tricks of light and water, it seemed to hover over the horizon.
We turned east and headed slowly back into the heart of the Bay.
Many of the keys had rugged habitations or retreats when Everglades National Park was established in 1947. The National Park Service did not evict or remove these pre-existing camps, but the owners were forbidden from adding to or improving them. Over time, as the owners died or moved away, the keys returned to nature. The park manages the keys as wilderness area, reserved for birds and wildlife, save for two which have primitive campsites for canoeists and kayakers.
The sun was dropping in earnest. We’d avoided rain. In fact, although multiple storms had crossed the peninsula north of Flamingo…indeed one was doing so as we watched from the boat…it had not rained at Flamingo in three weeks.
To the east, opposite the sunset, the sky turned violet. A marine layer over the Gulf of Mexico robbed us of a view of the sun dipping below the horizon, but it gave us instead a beautiful painting of clouds in the dying light.
We returned to Flamingo as night settled over the southern tip of Florida.
As we drove the good hour back through the park and to the hotel, the darkness deepened. About half way through the park, we reached a truly dark moment when the sun had gone entirely. Shortly after that, however, as we continued northeast, the light pollution of Miami illuminated the sky with a pale orange glow.
As we drove, Dad remarked that my planned itinerary had us leaving the hotel at 8:30am. He suggested we leave earlier so that we have more time in the Park. I was thrilled with that idea, but I left it to the group. We agreed to aim to head out the next morning as early as possible after having some breakfast at the hotel.
Back in Homestead, we unwound in our room. I was wrecked, both from the long drive and from severe allergies. I clawed my itchy contacts out of my face and then lay there with a sore throat from the combination of sinus draining and air conditioning.
Nevertheless, it had been a great day.