Some things to do in Florida when you're a big kid and your family won't go with you to Disn
Well, firstly, you could just go without them. But seeing as it was Christmas, I decided against flying solo at the Magic Kingdom, needing to populate my Janzan Christmas 2015 photograph with the cast of Frozen rather than my actual family.
Despite their general lack of enthusiasm for roller-coasters and fairy-tale characters, luckily the Janzans are more excitable when it comes to outdoor adventures, wildlife spotting, frequent brunch outings, and some round-up line dancing now and again.
We all know I love brunch and the only thing I'll say about Round-Up (which is in Davie, FL and family night is Sunday, if you ever end up in that neck of the woods... and need to keep it family friendly) is that my years in London with no line dancing practice have not left me in good stead to keep up with the ever-quickening country songs and increasingly-complex routines. But it is rather good fun nonetheless. Maybe I need to source a rodeo bar in London to brush up on a more frequent basis. Anyway, in this Story I am focusing on our outdoor adventures and wildlife-viewing wanders...
Disclaimer: I developed a serious obsession with seeing Florida manatees so admittedly several decisions were probably (definitely) based on this.
Visit Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park is - among other protections - a World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance. It protects important and unique habitat areas for a vast range of wildlife including several rare and endangered species such as the Florida manatee, American crocodile, and the elusive Florida Panther (which I also rather wanted to see, but no luck!). The Florida Panther is a unique subspecies of Puma concolor, there are 32 subspecies in total, known by many names – puma, cougar, mountain lion, painter, catamount and panther. Despite being the state’s official animal, there are only 100-180 individuals left in the south Florida population, which is the only known breeding population. The subspecies historically ranged across numerous south-eastern U.S. states, but suffered immense population decline due to persecution as well as habitat fragmentation and destruction, which began when European settlers arrived the 1600s. You can learn about the conservation work being done to protect and save this amazing species here.
We just had a day to drive down and explore the Everglades, so we went to Flamingo (as I said, decision-making processes = where will there be manatees?), but there is lots and lots more to do! See here.
Drive down to Flamingo and take a boat tour
Flamingo is at the very tip of mainland Florida; you have to drive through the Everglades National Park for about an hour to get there. There are several amenities including a café, toilets, and a gas station - just in case you forgot to top up the gas before you entered the park... Not that we did that or anything... *ahem*. They run two different boat tours on a pretty frequent basis: one in the Backwaters and one out in the Bay. Both offer great wildlife spotting opportunities: crocodiles, alligators, Bald eagles, osprey, and more on the Backwater; and dolphins, turtles, ibis, birds of prey and more on the Bay tour. Both are guided tours so you'll learn a lot! We took the Backwaters tour and saw some HUGE crocodiles and some little tiny baby ones! We also saw a Bald eagle, some Anhinga, a ton of Ibis and other native bird species. We also saw a lot of beautiful mangroves.
It was especially noteworthy to see so many crocodiles: the American Crocodile is one of 2 species of crocodilians found in the U.S. and sadly the species is classified as Vulnerable due to an inferred population decline of 30% over the last three generations (75 years) caused by the exploitation of - and subsequent decline of - quality habitat, which are on-going threats.
Most importantly, we saw some little bobbing noses in the marina, belonging to Florida manatees! Manatees are Florida’s official state marine animals; and as grazing herbivores, they play an important role in influencing plant growth in the rivers, bays, estuaries, canals and coastal waters they inhabit. Florida manatees (Trichechus manatus latirostris) are a subspecies of the West Indian manatee and are also sometimes colloquially referred to as “sea cows”! Recently Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimated the population to be a minimum of 6,250, breaking the last record count of 5,077 in 2010. This count supports growing data that this endangered species is bouncing back from the brink. Yay manatees!
Go Kayaking/ Canoeing
This is one of the absolute best ways to see the mangroves (in my opinion) and is incredibly fun (/funny, especially when it takes a while to get to grips with coordinated steering and you are travelling some narrow, bendy waterways! Prepare for much laughter - which doesn’t really help with the coordination of steering, either).
Florida has an estimated 450,000+ acres of mangrove forests, an ecosystem which stabilizes the coastline and shelters much marine life, as well as trapping and cycling materials and nutrients important to maintaining the health of the state’s southern coastal zone.
The term ‘mangrove’ is broadly used to refer to a group of trees and shrubs that live in the coastal intertidal zone at tropical and subtropical latitudes. More than 70 species of mangrove exist worldwide, providing vital support functions to coastal and marine life. Unfortunately data available globally suggests that approximately 35% of mangrove area was lost during the last several decades of the 20th century, primarily due to human impacts. Encouragingly, the vast benefits of mangrove ecosystems are increasingly well-known and there are numerous grassroots efforts saving them from further exploitation and degradation. You can learn more here.
Of course there are SO many things we didn't have time to do given we only had a few spare days working around the holidays. I'd love to do a proper Keys trip, explore more of Everglades National Park, see the manatees when they huddle like this(!) and at some point I will get to go to Disney World again (even if I have to kidnap my family to get them there) and so much more. But it was great to remember that Florida is so much more than Disney and beaches. To end off, here's a happy tree, who agrees and thinks you should get out and explore in the wonderful natural world!