Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Go Wild in South Florida!

Florida's variety of wildlife is majestic and vital to the health of its delicate ecosystem. The Everglades and the reefs along the coast are home to lots of interesting species; Florida is also the winter home to almost every kind of bird on the eastern seaboard. In South Florida, the great outdoors is magnificent!

Alligators are important to the Everglades for many reasons, including controlling the rodent populations and keeping the wetlands wet during the dry season, thanks to the water that gets stored in their gator holes. Male alligators tend to be about 14 feet long, while females are closer to 10 feet when fully grown. Although alligators were endangered at one time due to over-hunting for their hides, there are more than a million of them in Florida today! While alligators are in almost every inland body of water in Florida, the best place to see them is Everglades National Park.

A close cousin to the alligator, the only American crocodiles in the US live at the tip of Florida, in Florida Bay. More docile than alligators, Florida's crocs are also smaller, usually only about 5 to 6 feet long when adults. In recent years, several Florida crocs have somehow made it to the canals and lakes of the University of Miami. Crocodiles are a protected species; there are only about 1,000 of them left in Florida today.

Three main varieties of sea turtles nest in Florida: green sea turtles, leatherbacks (which, as the name implies, do not have a bone type shell) and loggerheads. All three are endangered species. Sea turtles navigate by using the magnetism of the earth; females return to the nesting grounds where they were born year after year. Florida is, in fact, home to the largest nesting ground for loggerheads in the US! Sea turtles can live to be 80 years old. The biggest threat from humans to sea turtles is destruction of their nesting grounds and their entanglement in fishing nets or floating garbage such as balloons and six-pack rings.

Manatees are gentle giants which can be seen grazing on plant life in the canals and mangrove hammocks of South Florida. Distantly related to elephants, manatees can weigh up to almost 1800 pounds! Even their newborn calves weigh about 65 pounds. Like whales, they surface for air every 20 minutes or so. Half their time is spent asleep, and their very low metabolisms keep manatees in warm areas. Manatees are absolutely no threat to humans, and are in fact curious and friendly, but humans, especially in propeller driven boats, have harmed countless manatees. Of the nearly 300 manatee deaths reported as caused by humans in Florida in 2006, the majority involved boats, so be watchful on the water!

Critically endangered right now, the Florida Panther lives only in a few places in southern Florida these days. Living only in Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, the panther population is down to less than 100 of these beautiful animals and occupies only 5% of its former territory. Development has been the biggest threat to panthers; driving at night in the Everglades, keep an eye out: automobiles are the leading cause of death for panthers.

The sailfish is one of the most sought after game fish in the world and it can be found in plentiful numbers at the edge of the Gulf Stream right here in South Florida throughout the winter months. Characterized by its large dorsal fin and elongated bill, the sailfish is capable of powerful runs, acrobatic jumps and reel blistering dives which may make your arms regret the ever tangled with this great fish.

Sometimes called the "ghost of the flats," the bonefish is the pound for pound best fighting fish in the world. The first run of a bonefish, whether caught on fly gear or conventional tackle, will astound you as many a fish have stripped the reel completely of line leaving the angler only to wonder what might have been. Biscayne Bay, in the shadow of downtown Miami, is the perfect place to target wintertime bones.

Largemouth Bass is incredibly popular with locals and out-of-towners alike. "Old bucketmouth" has long been a staple of South Florida game fishing in freshwater and with places like the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee and literally hundreds of miles of inland canals, there is no shortage of water to fish for this great species.