Airboats speed across the marshes of the Everglades and are one of the best ways to spot an alligator in the wild

The Everglades airboat is one of the most iconic forms of travel in the United States. This flat-bottomed boat powered by an aircraft or car engine skims over the marshes near Orlando at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. With an experienced captain, they’re one of the best ways to spot an alligator in the wild and explore the park.

Everglades National Park is a tropical wilderness and one of the world’s most important series of wetlands and forests. It is a unique, delicate ecosystem full of protected species of flora and fauna. It was the first National Park in the United States created to protect life in the region instead of outstanding scenery. 

The Everglades is a park full of diverse wildlife

A white egret in the Everglades National Park
The egret is just one of thousands of animals living in the Everglades
A stork flies through the air

Discover the flora and fauna of the everglades

The park contains nine main ecosystems that shift and change based on the level of the water. These include freshwater sloughs, mangroves and hardwood hammocks, which are the only dry land to be found within the Everglades. More than 400 species of animal and 11,000 species of plant call the 4,000-square-mile area home.

In the grand scheme of things, the Everglades are a young region at only 5,000 years old. They were formed when the sea level rose and the level of groundwater rose with it. This weathered the rock until the groundwater was exposed to the air and created the marshes that can now be seen. 

The area is not flat, as it appears. A very slight slope runs from Lake Okeechobee near Miami towards the coast and the water flows down this slowly. It moves at a speed of two feet per minute, or 0.02 miles per hour. In contrast, the Mississippi flows at about 1.2 miles per hour. This creates the perfect conditions for plants, such as sawgrass, to grow.

The River of Grass, which some people call the Everglades, is largely made up of sawgrass. It is well-named, even though it is not actually a grass. Its long, thin, grass-like leaves are sharp and serrated like a saw and is sharp enough to tear clothes and cut skin. The stems can grow up to 10 feet tall and hold small flowers. Sawgrass makes the perfect nest for the American alligator.

Home to the American Alligator

An American alligator floats in green water
The American alligator may be the top predator but its way of life helps other animals to survive
Airboats sit docked in the Everglades

Explore the Everglades by airboat

American alligators can grow up to 15 feet long and weigh more than 1,000 pounds, although there are claims that some have been 2,000 pounds. It is one of only two species of alligator on the planet, with the other being the Chinese alligator. They are a freshwater species that can be found in brackish water, which contains some salt, and have the strongest bite of any animal.

For a long time, alligators were an endangered species. However, since the late sixties, it has been protected and population levels are now considered to have recovered. This is important because the American alligator is a keystone species in the Everglades. It is the apex predator, but it also protects other species through the way it lives.

When an alligator builds its nest from sawgrass, it also builds large holes around them. During the dry season, these holes remain full of water and become an oasis for the other animals and plants. Fish will survive in alligator holes for months until the rains return, and other reptiles will live on the banks. Because there is life here, other animals come to hunt, scavenge and graze. If the American alligator had been hunted to extinction, the Everglades would be a much quieter place.

Sunset over Orlando

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