A wildlife odyssey through Florida's Everglades and Key West

Performance is part of the everyday in Florida — and not just in its theme parks and glamorous major cities. The state’s attention-grabbing wildlife, including turtles, dolphins and one of the world’s rarest plants, demand centre stage, too.

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

“Are you ready, people?” the man cries out. The onlookers around him in Mallory Square stamp their feet and clap their hands. He’s shirtless and lean, and he’s got them hooked. “Remember, I’m 65 years old, but I’m gonna dive through that hoop straight onto the hard concrete!” A lady he’s selected from the crowd stands with the hoop at the end of her outstretched arms. “And guess what you all gonna do?,” the street performer continues with gusto, patrolling like a ringmaster. “You gonna put money in this bucket!” He selects another victim and shakes a red bucket playfully under his nose. “Don’t worry if you ain’t got a 20-buck note, mister. Two tens will do!”

There’s performance everywhere in Florida, from street artists ducking and diving as the sun sets over Key West to giant cartoon characters congo-dancing their way around the Disney castle in the Magic Kingdom. Drive south from Miami into the Keys and you enter a hall of mirrors, the world stretched and magnified into something familiar but different. 

Roll up, roll up and test your stamina at the Home of the Stone Crab Eating Contest! Stop for the Best Roadside BBQ on the Planet, drink the Coldest Beer in the US, watch the Greatest Show on Earth. Head to Mattheessen’s on Duval Street for a cookie that weighs half a pound. Everything is bigger, better, colder, faster. “Don’t worry about calories,” the lady at Mattheessen’s will reassure you as she wraps up your cookie. “We burn them off before we sell ’em.” Immerse yourself, forget yourself, come and jump right in. Out here, the show never stops — that’s why we love it.

We love it, too, for the theatres of life away from the boulevards and theme parks: those sucking swathes of Everglades swamp and copper-coloured waterways where manatees loll and fart among the mangroves. Of course, you take your chances in the wild places because there’s no choreography to their drama, no roadside billboards or advertised start times — nature only jumps hoops when it wants to. But some people know where nature’s shows might happen. People like biologist Jaclyn Doody. “There, look!” she says urgently, from behind a pair of binoculars after collecting me from Key West Bight Marina the following morning. “It’s Batman, I’m sure it is! That’s great news — we’ve not seen her for a while.” 

Batman disappears, but we point our boat, the Squid, in the dolphin’s direction. All is quiet again, six miles out to sea. A ballyhoo fish skips across the glass-flat surface like a world champion’s skimming stone. “It has incredibly fast twitch-fibres in its tail,” explains Jaclyn as I watch. Then, without warning, Batman leaps out of the water a few metres from our boat — a slightly clumsy leap that ends in a messy splash. “Well, well, you’re lucky,” says Jaclyn. “The dolphins don’t jump much round here. It’s not like in Tampa — the Tampa ones are the jumpiest I know.”

Out beyond the reef that stretches along the Florida Keys, the seabed plunges into the Gulf of Mexico, but the waters of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge are typically just 10 feet deep and, in places where seagrass grows on the sand bar, the clearance is little more than a foot. “Boats often get stuck and then abandoned,” says our pilot, Katie Walker, pointing to a shiny yacht lying skewwhiff in the distance, its mast jutting at 45 degrees. “What a beauty — if I had the money, I’d love to salvage that.”

The shallows are also free of big predators and full of food, which make them perfect nursery grounds for Atlantic bottlenose dolphins like Batman. “We named her that because her dorsal fin looks like the Batman insignia,” explains Jaclyn, who’s studied dolphins all over the world. “That was before we knew she wasn’t a he,” Katie chips in. Dorsal fins get scarred when dolphins fight or play, becoming unique identifiers; Jaclyn has recorded 130 dolphins in the resident population while running trips for Honest Eco tours aboard Key West’s first electric charter boat. “If I stare long enough, I swear I can recognise a dolphin from its face, too,” she says.

Right on cue, as if the other half of a double act, a face emerges, with a gentle ‘phush’ from its blowhole. The dolphin hangs in the water, nodding in our direction and clicking like a Star Wars robot. Jaclyn cocks her head before declaring with confidence that it’s Top Hat. “He’s scanning us with his X-ray vision, sending echo waves from that great melon of a forehead. You know, he can actually see your bones and internal organs.” I hug my arms to my chest, feeling strangely exposed. X-ray vision strikes me as quite a show-stopper; if Top Hat had a bucket, I’d throw in a coin.


The next day I’m in an emergency room in Marathon surrounded by X-rays of the more conventional kind. “He’ll pull through,” says Mary Elizabeth Shaffer, nodding towards the patient on the operating table — a grinning cuddly toy used for demos during tours of The Turtle Hospital. Sea turtles seem to run quite the gauntlet; since opening in 1986, the hospital has rehabilitated and released over 3,000 of them. They face the jaws of sharks, aerial assaults from frigate birds, and a pernicious virus called fibropapillomatosis, which causes cauliflower-shaped tumours to sprout on their skin. Then there’s Bubble-Butt Syndrome. 

“When a turtle is hit by a boat propellor, air bubbles can form under its shell,” explains Mary Elizabeth, who’s worked as an assistant at the hospital for two years. “The bubbles make it tough for the turtle to dive so we attach little weights to the shell. Can you see them on Rebel there?” We’ve moved outside to a tank in which a hefty loggerhead makes lazy circles. Rebel swims over to where I stand, stretching up his bald, grandfatherly head, before — quite deliberately — spanking the surface with a flipper and splashing water in my face. “Yes, watch out, he does that sometimes to say hello,” comes Mary Elizabeth’s belated warning from a few steps back.  

Another enclosure has tanks of hatchlings and juveniles, and a main pool where 20 adults glide effortlessly across each other like aircraft at a show. There are green turtles and hawksbills, and even a couple of highly endangered Kemp’s Ridleys, known as ghost turtles because of their pale colour. We scatter food pellets and the turtles come gulping to the top — Jessica, Mac ’n’ Cheese, April and the rest. “That’s not very ladylike, Tulip!” says Mary Elizabeth frowning, as a greenish cloud billows behind one of the turtles. Tulip was brought here after being chomped by a shark. “What kind of shark?” asks another visitor. “A nasty one” is the expert reply. 

Mary Elizabeth is a font of turtle trivia. I learn that a turtle has a brain the size of a pea and a bite that can crush a conch shell, that green turtles are named after their diet of green seagrass, that leatherbacks can weigh 2,000lbs and dive to almost 4,000 feet. I learn that a turtle won’t be doomed to swim in circles if it loses a front flipper. But it’s not until later that I learn the underwater hand signal for a turtle. 

“Place one hand on top of the other and wiggle your thumbs, like this,” says dive instructor Erica Naugle, as our catamaran thrums northwards from Robbie’s Marina on Islamorada Key towards Cheeca Rock, a small part of the chain of 1,700 tropical islands that make up the Florida Keys. Behind her, crew member Connor Harmon breaks into a high-energy solo on his air guitar as Bruce Springsteen blares from the boat’s stereo. 

Other passengers whoop their appreciation — an excursion with Sundance Watersports is an upbeat affair. “This is a barracuda,” Erica continues patiently, making a chopping action with her right hand against her left forearm, entirely ignoring Connor as he finishes his performance with an extravagant bow. “And if you spot a shark, put the side of your hand against your forehead, like a fin.” If I spot a shark, I’ll be making some very different movements, but I nod along as Erica wraps a weight belt around my waist, and then talks me through the dos and don’ts of snuba. 

Snuba is a bridge between snorkelling and scuba diving. There are no oxygen tanks to carry; instead, the diver’s regulator is attached by a long hose to air cylinders in a raft on the surface. Mask and flippers on and regulator in place, I bob alongside the raft above our dive site, an area of coral reef known as The Donut. The first challenge is to get below the surface. Weight belt or not, I’m stubbornly buoyant, like a human victim of Bubble-Butt Syndrome. 

But after a minute or two things start to happen. Relax and breathe out, were Erica’s instructions, and as I focus on her words I start to sink through the water, pinching my nose and swallowing every few feet to release the pressure in my ears.

And then I’m with Erica, finning up close to things that have felt frustratingly far away when snorkelling: corals like purple brains or frilly fans; dark holes where who-knows-what might hide; a school of blue-striped grunt fish. I’m front row at the show, and there’s a narrator, too. Erica holds up two fingers like antennae as a spiny lobster withdraws into a crevice, and mimes a bugle blow when a trumpet fish swims past. Best of all, she brings out the wiggle-thumb signal, and a green turtle wafts gracefully around us before dropping down to scratch itself on some coral. 

Back on board, Erica tells me the turtle was a three-year-old called Shelly who was probably feeding on the scores of pink and pulsing moon jellyfish that had drifted in on the current. The little jellyfish have no nutritional value, but their sting gives a mild buzz that the turtles find pleasant — a sort of underwater espresso. I find the nettle-like stings on my neck rather less pleasant. “Yeah, small things can pack a punch!” calls Connor, interrupting his latest dance sequence to hand me a vinegar spray gun. The vinegar usually calms the discomfort — but on this occasion exacerbates it because I get some in my eye.  

Creatures great & small

Connor’s words strike a chord when I join guide Debbie Lotter at Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, 30 minutes from the coastal city of Naples. A two-mile boardwalk snakes into the Everglades wetland of old-growth cypress forest. As we go deeper the swamp seems to inflate and intensify: tree trunks become broader, the foliage thicker, the air somehow denser. Drops of water fall in fat spatters on the boards; a whistling duck breaks cover with a high-pitched cackle; and the grunts of pig frogs wrap tight around us. The swamp is building towards something big. Then a throaty rumble grows in the distance, like the growl of a lion, which is quickly answered by another growl, much louder and closer. We round a bend and there, just below the boardwalk, is a huge alligator. It’s dragged its bulk up against the base of a tree so that it’s propped almost vertical, head tilted back and mouth wide. 

“The male alligators are chatty today,” says Debbie breezily, and I realise this menacing monster isn’t the something big the swamp’s been building towards: it’s just part of the supporting chorus, like the duck and the frogs, preparing the way for the entrance of the real A-lister. That star soon appears. “Can you see, up there?” says Debbie excitedly, pointing to a towering cypress tree. Clinging to a branch a hundred feet high is a leafless plant, roots blending so perfectly with the bark that its white flower seems to float in the canopy. It’s a ghost orchid, pollinated by the tongues of just two species of moth, and precariously rare. “There are only 2,000 in the wild,” explains Debbie in strangely hushed tones, as if not to interrupt the performance. “Isn’t it beautiful?"

Debbie isn’t the only guide for whom the big thing can be something small. Early the next day, Don McCumber of Everglades Area Tours takes me in his flat-bottomed boat to explore a coastal wilderness of mangrove islets called Ten Thousand Islands. “Although there might be 9,999, I guess,” says Don, drily. “I’ve not counted ’em.”

We enter a web of saltwater channels that binds the scattered islets, thwacking over lumpy water beneath an osprey on the hunt for mullet, and passing scores of sharp-beaked egret chicks squawking on their nests in the mangroves. Alongside, watchful adults cool themselves by vibrating their cheeks, which makes a glugging noise, like the last of the water going down a drain. In the early 1900s, it was fashionable for ladies to wear hats made from egret feathers, and many birds were killed here. Many men died, too, during gun battles between poachers and the authorities. 

Don is most absorbed by tragedies and triumphs played out at a smaller scale. As we walk the water’s edge of a lonely island called Rabbit Key, he stoops over pool after pool, shell after shell. Each step comes with the promise of new plotlines. “A Florida fighting conch,” he says, crouching at a beige-coloured shell that swirls to a pointed tip. “It’s being hunted by that horse conch over there, which is following the slime trail like a map.” The fighting conch has a trick, Don reveals. “If a predator gets too close, the fighting conch can flail its foot from side to side, and flip itself away from the trail.” It lives to fight another day. 

Among the shellfish and sea snails, Don also finds a weathered shard of pottery, made by the Calusa tribe — the ‘Shell Indians’ — who inhabited these islands for millennia, fashioning tools and weapons from the conch shells. Calusa means ‘fierce people’, and Spanish explorers were attacked by Calusa tribesmen when they came in the 16th century. “Someone shaped this pot, hardened it in a campfire, maybe drank from it,” says Don, turning the fragment in his hand. “And I’m the first to touch it in 500 years.” On this beach, we walk a midden of life stories.

My own Florida story ends with an encore from the region’s greatest entertainers — its dolphins. Master naturalist Bob McConville and his no-nonsense sidekick Captain Eddie have taken to the Big Marco River twice a day almost every day for the last 16 years to monitor the dolphins who live there. Their research is globally important, funded by visitors like me who join them on their excursions, and they love every moment. “We’re forced to take two weeks off each year,” says Bob ruefully, “so Captain Eddie’s wife don’t divorce him.”

“Dolphins at two o’clock!” says Captain Eddie from behind the wheel of the Dolphin Explorer. Bob hurries to the front of the boat and peers towards an olive-coloured patch of water beneath a bridge. “It’s Avery and Snowflake,” he calls, with clear affection. “Snowflake’s only 10 days old — she’s like a little gummy bear.” Snowflake is the first of the calves this birthing season. Whoever spots the next will have the privilege of naming it. 

Another dolphin appears, rising for a quick breath before corkscrewing below. It’s Avery’s teenage son, Lucky Charm, and he’s on the hunt, driving fish towards the bridge where he can corner them. “It’s a simple life: eat, sleep, play,” observes Bob. “Kinda like my brother-in-law’s,” says Captain Eddie. 

“Dolphins at 11 o’clock!” A pair of large males, Capri and Hatchet, have arrived on the scene. They’re best buddies who’ll stick together for life, Bob tells me, and their interest has been piqued by Zipper, a female who’s approaching maturity but doesn’t yet have a calf. But wait — at 9 o’clock — another two bruisers called Bangle and Finch. The mood’s changed, the atmosphere tense, a new plotline unfolding. “There might be a scrap here,” says Captain Eddie. “These guys like a brawl.” 
Are you ready, people? This is Florida, and the next show’s about to begin.  

Published in the Jul/Aug 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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