By Jerry Ginsberg
In these days of COVID-19, very little seems normal. Our daily routines have been drastically altered. That certainly includes travel and photography. Had this been a normal year, I would have traveled to both Switzerland and Argentine Patagonia. Under the circumstances neither country was about to allow entry to foreign tourists. After tolerating cabin fever for just so long, I had to at least get in the car and go someplace where I could photograph some natural beauty.
The national park and, by far, greatest nature preserve closest to my home is Everglades at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. Since I hadn’t been there in several years (as a species, we frequently seem to avoid the easiest options), it seemed like the obvious choice. So, in early December I packed up and headed south. Once finding a convenient and presumably sanitized motel in nearby Florida City, I began cruising through this very familiar more than one million-acre wilderness of avian and reptile life, swampy prairie, and slow moving river of grass.
In this natural and very tranquil environment just a stone’s throw from crowded and frenetic Miami, I began my week-long stay, searching for compositions and hoping for good light.
Sign of the Times
Being long accustomed to working around throngs of visitors in national parks, it was a real surprise to see how empty Everglades National Park seemed. In more normal times, one would expect to hear a cacophony of other languages here, now eerily absent.
I suppose that this scarcity of tourists can be chalked up to the pandemic, though other parks have been mobbed. It’s a bit counter-intuitive, since this seems to be the ideal place to trade a crowded urban environment for a little much needed breathing room, mask wearing aside.
Not only were the people few in number, but the normally abundant bird life was conspicuously sparse. Where one would normally see many groups of five or six brown pelicans and nine or ten ibis, during my visit just the occasional great white heron or egret were easily observable. It is my hope that, rather than a drastic decrease in the avian population, this scarcity of feathered creatures was caused, at least primarily, by the unusually high water levels for this time of year which were present throughout the area. In most years, the dry season would be in full swing by December with water levels dropping, causing all wildlife to congregate at the diminished watering holes and therefore, appear to be more numerous.
Not so in 2020, when some areas of the park were actually flooded and inaccessible.
It takes a certain level of patience and really deep seeing to make winning images in this park.
While the majority of the national parks of the west are filled with apex fauna, dramatic mountains, thundering waterfalls, rock arches and even geysers, Everglades National Park offers a far more subtle and monochromatic experience.
The vast flat grass prairie with its scattered slightly elevated islands of trees called ‘hammocks’ doesn’t provide the drama of Yosemite’s granite domes. The many palm trees, slash pines and mangroves remain green under the Florida sun 365 days a year.
This means that you will have to slow down and work a bit harder to find really good subjects and discover compositions. The often-dramatic skies with their intricate cloud formations can be a big help here. As a huge fan of reflections, I am often on the shores of Everglades’ many lakes and ponds searching for those skies mirrored in their placid waters.
Think black and white, too, and practice those skills. Everglades National Park is a great place to make sparkling B&W images. If you have the desire and the opportunity to visit the Everglades, don’t miss out on that photographic treatment.
Some of the most productive spots in the park and my own favorites include the following seven locations. These are listed in order, north to south. Explore and discover your own favorites.
- The Anhinga Trail
- Mahogany Hammock
- Paurotis Pond
- Nine Mile Lake
- West Lake
- Mrazk Pond
- Eco Pond
Don’t forget about Shark Valley, a 15.5 mile paved loop located along US Route 41 about an hour’s drive from the park’s main entrance near Homestead. (Don’t worry. It’s just a catchy name. Lots of bird life, but no sharks.) Shark Valley is great for walking and biking. Cars are not allowed, but a tram ride is offered. It’s more suited to tourism than photography, though. Years ago, I rented a bike and very enjoyably pedaled my way through the entire loop around sunrise. Access was recently closed due to flooding caused by the unseasonable rains, so check conditions before you go.
The many bird species found here include herons, egrets, ibis, pelicans, osprey, anhinga, cormorants and wood storks. In the more heavily visited areas, many are so habituated to people that they will pose for you. Elsewhere, these fragile creatures are more timid and quickly flee, taking the “fight or flight” axiom literally.
Beware! Besides our feathered friends, there are lots of reptiles. Both American alligators and crocodiles both make their homes in the Everglades, one of the few, if not the only place where their ranges narrowly overlap.
Crocodiles even hang out in and around the marina at Flamingo seeking sunshine and an easy meal. Alligators may seem slow and lethargic, but can move very quickly over short distances, so keep your distance. Even though they may feed only about once a week, you never know what day it is for the one in your viewfinder. These are both very ancient species, going back scores of millions of years who have successfully practiced the art of survival.
Those two are indigenous to the area. Far more problematic is the recent invasion of deadly Burmese pythons. These creatures are multiplying like, well, snakes, which is to say rapidly. They can grow to twenty feet long and are decimating the populations of rodents as well as even deer. Authorities periodically sponsor hunters to come in and bag these invasive predators in exchange for some healthy bounties.
Everglades National Park is roughly in the center of several large tracts of protected natural lands that cover most of the southernmost tip of the Florida mainland. East of Homestead you’ll find 173,000 acre Biscayne National Park . That number may be a bit misleading considering that only about 5% of the park’s territory is land. The rest is underwater. After arriving at the visitor center at Convoy Point, you will need a boat, either that of a park concessionaire or a private owner, to get to enjoy the undersea wonders of the bay and its half dozen or so small islands.
Contiguous to Everglades on its west side is Big Cypress National Preserve. While mostly open and completely natural, two unpaved roads and several trails make the preserve accessible.
At over 1,100 square miles, Big Cypress boasts large areas of tropical and often swampy forest as well as wide open grass prairie lands.
Further west of Big Cypress and stretching toward Florida’s west coast are Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and several state preserves. All of these units exhibit their own uniqueness and are worth taking in if time permits.
If arriving in South Florida by air, note that Miami International is the airport closest to Everglades National Park. Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood is only slightly further and may offer more convenient schedules.
Renting any vehicle of your choice will be just fine.
Lodging choices are too numerous to count. Motels are lined up back-to-back along US Route 1 in Florida City and Homestead. In addition to practically every national chain, there are several local independents. Many are fine establishments offering good value. One or two are favorably located so as to minimize your time in local traffic. Feel free to email me for specifics.
Dining options are similar to those for hotels: every national name is represented. After those, you will find several locally owned eateries, offering mostly Mexican with a sprinkling of Asian choices.
Jerry Ginsberg is an award-winning and widely-published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 62 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks.
His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.
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