Noisy and controversial to match, tours aboard airboats abound for an obvious reason.
They replace incursions on foot or by bicycle from the national park headquarters, which are too expensive, which remain on the edge of a few canals and reveal almost nothing.
We therefore assumed the need to board one of those eccentric vessels that set sail from the side of Highway 41, one of two that depart from the Atlantic coast, crossing Miami and, in the company of canals, they cross the flooded immensity to the west.
In no time, we leave the forested bank adjoining the asphalt into the surrounding swamp.
We removed our ear plugs every time, in his high position and along the route, the helmsman reduced the engine speed to communicate.
As buoyant as it was noisy, the vessel sailed, sometimes over dark water, sometimes over the sedge thicket (cyperaceae juss) that emerged from it.
The Prolific Fauna of Everglades National Park
After another few moments, reality already illustrated the zoological theory delivered safely from the engine.
Herons of different subspecies, ibises, spoonbills and other winged creatures took off into the blue sky sprinkled with white.
Dozens of alligators They are forced to stop recharging in the sun and dive into the Coca-Cola depths of Everglades National Park.
Spread across the more than 610 hectares protected by the national park of the same name (a much larger unprotected area), alligators have always been the most sought after animal in these tours and the protagonist.
Others, mammals rather than reptiles, occupy alternative places in this stardom. This is the case of manatees, which, as a rule, live near freshwater springs.
And Florida cougars. Even under special attention, recovered from just thirty in the 90s to more than 200 today, concentrated in refuges further north in the park, these endemic felines are rarely seen by the common visitor.
An Invasion of Weedy Species
In Florida – as in other US states – the acquisition and possession of exotic species has become fashionable. In a short time, it killed both the Everglades and the Florida cougar.
Little informed or aware residents of the region get rid of aquarium and farmed fish, iguanas, monitor lizards, parrots and parakeets. No other species added causes as much damage as Burmese pythons and green anacondas.
Even though they often target alligators and come face to face with them, several of their favorite prey are the favorites of Florida pumas, with an emphasis on white-tailed deer that have declined in several areas of the Floridian pantanal.
Florida Natives and the Pioneer Intrusion of Spanish Ponce de León
In other times, both reptiles and felines were much more abundant. Crossing and exploring the Everglades was only up to natives of the area, knowledgeable about its four corners.
Even so, shortly after the pioneering landing of Juan Ponce de León (1513) on the coast of what he would later call Florida, the Spanish conquerors defied the resistance of the native Calusa and Tequesta tribes and were able to probe the edges of the flooded peninsula.
Instead of finding the Fountain of Youth that Ponce de León was said to be searching for, they seized the entire current territory of the state.
Indigenous people did not inhabit the flooded lands of Florida. Instead, from time to time, they crossed them on hunting expeditions or on migrations to other more profitable corners of the region.
During more than two centuries of confrontation and coexistence with the Spanish, with their greed and the diseases they brought from Europe, the indigenous people saw their tribes and ways of life degenerate.
After the Spanish, Arch-Rival Great Britain and the Independent USA
At the end of the XNUMXth century, Great Britain was already seeking to take over the Hispanic colony. With no way to prevent this, the Spanish captured many surviving indigenous people and transferred them to Havana.
Other natives remained safe from their captors. They formed part of a distinct indigenous nation – the Seminole – formed in northern Florida.
This nation was further strengthened and complexified by thousands of free blacks and escaped slaves, especially from neighboring Georgia, who joined it.
If, despite some roads, canals and infrastructure, the Everglades continue to be wild and inhospitable, imagine what they would have been like from the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth century, when much of it remained unexplored by Europeans.
In a short time, this natural and immaculate setting changed.
The Seminole Wars and the Passage of Florida to the United States
Almost half a century after the Declaration of Independence of the USA, the Americans insisted on increasing the nation's territory at the expense of North American indigenous people.
In the case of the Seminoles, the native blockade proved twice as harmful. The indigenous people rejected the settlers.
As if that weren't enough, they welcomed slaves who fled from Georgian farms onto their (officially Spanish) lands. Thus, they often forced farm owners to cross the border in search of missing labor. In fact, they forced the United States army itself to do so.
In 1817, allegedly angered by the indignation of the Spanish, the future 7th President of the USA, General Andrew Jackson, led a new cross-border expedition. He leveled several Seminole settlements and occupied the Florida region of Pensacola.
This US onslaught takes us back to the intimidating interior of the Everglades.
After another three years, Spain assumed that it would not be able to sustain the defense of isolated Florida. He negotiated the territory with the United States.
The intensifying US conflict with the Seminoles (war of 1835-1842) pushed the natives into southern Florida.
Also to the heart of the immense grassy river in which they quickly got used to living. And they knew that the American forces would find themselves in trouble fighting them.
Not even then did the Americans leave the natives alone. The persecution guaranteed them the submission of the Seminole, their escape to unlikely destinations, such as the islands and cays of the Florida Keys or the exile in Oklahoma territory that the US preserved Indians.
It further dictated the pioneering white exploration of most of the Everglades.
The Seminole Refuge in the Everglades
In 1913, the Seminole indigenous people who lived in that swamp so different from the South American wetland there were little more than three hundred. They inhabited rare small islands that emerge from high, dry points full of trees.
They fed on a little of everything that the surrounding fauna and flora generously gave them:
hominy, plant roots, fish, turtle, deer meat and other animals.
Let's fast forward to 1930.
The opening of the Tamiami trail, the current Highway 41 that we followed from Miami and which bisected the Everglades, along with several drainage projects, dictated the end of its isolation.
The Protagonism of the Seminole in the Flooded Vastness
Today, the Seminole inhabit the Everglades city they built.
They work on plantations, ranches and small tourist businesses.
They serve as guides, alligator keepers, artisans and even the fire brigade, whenever fires threaten to spread.
There are still six reservations of Seminole and Miccosukke ethnicities in Florida.
Two of them, Big Cipress and Imokalee, are located right in the heart of the Everglades, a relatively short distance from the large cities of Florida that, from the coast, exert environmental pressure on the flooded expanse.
On one of the flights we take to Miami, in the late afternoon, the plane enters a queue to approach the runway.
The Incompatibility of Civilization with the Preservation of Everglades National Park
The pilot is forced to do two laps over the Everglades National Park, amidst scattered clouds that impose their shadows and plays of light.
For a while, we marveled at the distinct patterns on its surface. Some are almost completely filled with water.
Others, covered in vegetation dotted with lagoons.
Still others, crossed by slow, multidirectional rivers and canals, a strange green labyrinth that the storms and hurricanes that frequently ravage the Florida peninsula, alter and alter again.
Finally, the plane receives authorization to land.
Approaching Miami reveals how much the city and its surroundings expanded into the Everglades, with more canals, roads and urbanization.
Condominiums and golf courses tucked into lakes. Warehouses, salt mines, prisons and so many invasive structures that we failed to understand.
Enough to validate the concern as to whether, even immense, the Everglades would really be forever.
HOW TO GO
Book and fly with TAP Air Portugal: www.flytap.com TAP flies direct from Lisbon to Miami every day.