Searching For Alligators In The Everglades Of Florida

Searching For Alligators In The Everglades Of Florida
When I was invited to speak at a conference in Naples, I imagined I would be heading to Italy. Alas, it was also the name of a town in Florida. I asked around the office to see if anyone had been there. A couple of folks said yes. They regaled me with alligator stories from the Everglades.

In Naples, the hotel concierge said that Everglade City was an hour away. Once we got there, we should ride the speed boat to spot alligators.

We heeded her advice, drove there and boarded a speedboat. It did not have a rudder or a propeller but a big fan, which was mounted on the back. Two large vanes mounted behind it were going to be the aerial rudder, like on a plane.

We left the harbor and started going upriver. Now we were entering a dense mangrove forest and the captain asked us to put on earmuffs. The fan was so loud that its sound came through the earmuffs. Then the boat began swinging wildly from side to side, as it followed the bends of the river through the forest.

When we arrived at a lagoon, the captain turned off the engine. He asked us to take in the view and breathe the fresh air. An eerie silence hung over us, redolent of the climactic scene in the Robert De Niro movie, Cape Fear.

Sadly, no wildlife was in sight because cold weather was coming in. I asked him if we were going to see any alligators and he said no.

Then the boat flew off at high speed without any announcement. At some point I felt the wind rushing through my hair. The captain suddenly cut the engine, took out a fishing rod, and moved toward the front of the boat. My baseball cap was bobbing in front of the boat, and he fished it out. My attempt to secure it with the strap of the earmuffs had failed.

We tipped the captain and asked: where should we go to see the alligators? He said the receptionist will give you a map to a river where they are found in abundance.

To assure ourselves that we were in the right spot, we checked in at the visitor center. They said we were in the right place. We found the river and after some searching, spotted our first alligator. He was asleep, or so it seemed, on the other bank of the river. Then, by driving along a dirt road, we spotted a second and then a third. In 15 minutes, we had spotted 15 alligators, but the car’s tires had kicked up an incredible amount of dust, even at 15 mph, and we decided to return to the tranquility of the visitor center.

We discovered that a wide river went past it and a few alligators were enjoying a swim in it. As I pointed them out to my wife, her iPhone slipped from her hands. The scene was so scary!

The concierge told us to visit the Edison-Ford Winter Estate in Fort Myers, the Botanical Gardens in Naples, and Sanibel Island. The tour of the Estate was the high point of our visit. It was truly impressive with a colonial style building located on the bank of a river with a beautiful, plantation-style garden. On display in several of the auxiliary buildings were exhibits highlighting the innovations of these two icons. We came to know that not only did Edison invent the light bulb, he also made movies and was deep into botanical research.

Later, we visited the botanical gardens which were located south of our hotel. They were beautifully laid out. They featured several sub-gardens that represented various regions of the world including Brazil and the Caribbean.

Another day we toured Sanibel Island. The visitor center had amazing exhibits. One featured the skeleton of an alligator that was overlaid on a portrait of a dinosaur, suggesting a possible genealogy.

I asked the ranger at the reference desk if he had heard about the python which had eaten an alligator, killing both, half expecting that he would refute the urban legend. It turned out to be true, but it had happened in the Everglades and not on Sanibel Island. He seemed singularly uninterested in discussing the episode.

He directed us to take the four-mile wilderness drive. At the first mile of the four-mile drive, we spotted some three dozen white pelicans on a sand dune in the distance. A ranger encouraged us to see them through her stand-mounted scope. We did and suddenly they were standing right in front of us, some nibbling at their prey and others cleaning their bills.

At the second or third mile there was a raised “Broadway” that seemed to meander through a grove toward the sea. The invitation to walk on it was very clear. So, we did. But after seeing nothing, we began to turn back when another ranger who was posted there called out to us, with evident disappointment, saying “Don’t you have some questions for me.”

I asked her why it was called Sanibel Island. She said it was named after St. Isabel but didn’t ask me why. But how did St. Isabel become Sanibel? She said one morphed into the other as the Southern accent kicked in. She had a Brooklyn accent.

She asked me where I was from. When I said San Francisco, she said but you don’t have that accent. I told her I was a Pakistani native. She said I picked up a British or European accent.

No wildlife was visible. She pointed out the inch-sized tree crabs which were clinging to one of the mangroves. They looked like black spiders. I asked if they eventually ended up on the dining table. “No, but the birds feed on them.” “How do the birds find them since the mangroves are so thick?” She said the white ibis come in low, track them down and pluck them with the long beaks.

On our last day, as we approached our car in a parking lot, I spotted a Porsche with a bumper sticker: “Most people wait until the 11th hour to discover God. Unfortunately, death comes to them at 10:30.”

That thought stayed with me as our plane took off for California, an hour late because of mechanical issues. The time was 10:30 pm. I could not help wondering if the plane was flight-worthy.

Dr. Faruqui is a history buff and the author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan, Routledge Revivals, 2020. He tweets at @ahmadfaruqui