In travel or in life, there is a plus side to every failure. That is the lesson I learned from my failed attempts to see alligators with Jono while visiting the Florida Everglades.
This post has 4 failures describing why I did not get to see any alligators in southern Florida. Some of the reasons were beyond my control while others were absolutely my fault.
If your mission is to see alligators, make sure you do not do what I did and learn from my mistakes!
Fail #1: Poor Planning
A lack of research was the major reason why Jono and I did not see alligators at Shark Valley Visitor Center in Everglades National Park.
Shark Valley is one of a few select park entrances open all year round. Jono and I figured we could get away with seeing alligators on foot there—and we were very wrong!
Guided tram tours and bicycle rentals are the main ways to get around Shark Valley's 15-mile loop. Yes—15 miles!
There was no way Jono and I were even remotely prepared for such a journey on foot. Even the map informs bikers and walkers to carry at least 1 gallon of water with them to complete the loop. Sure, we could have bought some overpriced water at the Visitor's Center, but we already felt stupid for not bringing our own water.
We also left late in the day which meant we arrived well into the afternoon. A 15-mile stroll was definitely not going to be finished by the park's closing at 5pm.
Stubbornly, we decided to walk the very beginning portions of the park in the hopes of seeing alligators despite our poor planning.
The Plus Side
While no alligators made an appearance in the parts of the park that we did walk, we saw a lot of other cool stuff anyway!
I loved the open expanse of grassy swamplands stretching out from the walkway. It almost felt like we were walking through a very wet African Savannah.
I was so keen to see alligators that I managed to spot a large painted turtle swimming beneath the lily pads at one point.
A few side trails such as the Bobcat boardwalk and the Otter Cave Hammock trail had some nice scenes, too. Little lizards (tiny alligators?!) crept along the boardwalk and these crazy "solution holes" are in the limestone path along the trail harboring crayfish and frogs.
I kept laughing at what sounded like a pig coming from the waterway next to the main loop. Turns out it was the aptly named "Pig Frog."
Prepare to walk or cycle a long distance in Shark Valley. Wear comfortable walking shoes, bring plenty of water, and arrive early in the morning.
Fail #2: The Everglades' Weather
As we were walking the Shark Valley loop, we noticed clouds suddenly rolling through. I was optimistic, explaining to Jono that storm clouds are frequent and fleeting in Florida, especially in the summer.
Soon the sky let loose an instant downpour. I was reluctant to turn back, eager to spot my first gator, but something told us that this storm was not going to quit anytime soon. As it turned out, the Everglades' weather acts a little bit differently than other parts of southern Florida.
We looked as if we had gone swimming with (no) alligators by the time we got back to the Visitor's Center. We stood under the pavilion looking out in awe at the waterfall of rain coming down and the increasing flood in the parking lot. I guess that's the end of our Shark Valley tour.
The Plus Side
The rain was actually really amazing! It was a truly topical storm, unleashing an unbelievable amount of water in such a short time.
In general, I enjoy rain storms. I enjoy them even more when it's hot outside (as it was in Florida in July). And considering I was already soaked from getting caught in it on the trail, it was fun to run around in the parking lot after that, taking in every drop of it!
Bring rain gear, check the weather ahead of time, and/or visit during the less rainy months of December to April.
Fail #3: Trail Closures
In a last-ditch effort to see alligators, Jono and I made a race to a different park entrance on the morning of our flight back to New York. Reviews for the Anhinga Trail at the Royal Palm Visitor Center suggested high likelihood of alligator sightings within walking distance of the parking lot. We were hopeful.
As we pulled up to the Royal Palm at 8am, we could already see that something was off. Signs were posted around stating "Partial Trail Closure." NooOOoo!!
I thought we might spot some gators in the water just behind the visitor center, but there were none. We walked the 100 meters or so up the trail before coming to a fence with the same trail closure sign posted. Well, this is it. If we weren't going to see alligators here and now, we weren't going to see any at all.
The Plus Side
We stood leaning against the wooden fence between the trail and the creek, scanning the surface of the water with little hope left. That's when we tuned into a cacophony around us.
A sound like birds chattering in random fits had us glancing up and down and all around looking for the source. Then, two large grasshoppers wrestled off the grass and onto the paved trail next to us—FLIT-FLIT-FLIT! Then two more a few feet from them—FLIT-FLIT-FLIT!
Suddenly we spotted them all around us. They were mating! And these grasshoppers were HUGE! They are about the length of my hand, so when they mate they are not at all quiet about it.
Picture hundreds of grasshopper pairs, scattered about making quite the production out of reproduction. Who knew grasshopper porn would be so entertaining?!
It wasn't exactly the show we came to see, but it certainly was funny!
Check the website for trail closings and other alerts or call ahead to ask for specific reports (305-242-7700). Go with an open mind—you may miss something else cool if you are too distracted looking for alligators!
Fail #4: Ethical Dilemmas
There's another way to see alligators in Florida besides walking the parks and that's airboat swamp tours. Normally, I'd perk up at this kind of an experience. Boats, water, swamps, animals—what's not to love?
But anything involving animals with "tour" in the description generally makes me wary. World travel has taught me that animal tourism can be unethical anywhere you go, regardless of a country's wealth or standing.
Mistreating wild animals for profit really bothers me, so I did a bit of research ahead of time. I quickly learned that many of the popular airboat swamp tour companies in southern Florida have alligator petting zoos and animal wrestling at their launch locations. Based on this information alone, I could not justify spending my money on any of them.
I did find one tour company that excluded these features: Buffalo Tiger's Alligator Tour. They are owned and operated by a local Miccosukee tribe family. Their focus is less on profit and more on educating people about the Everglades and the Miccosuku people. However, I learned that, like many of the other tour companies, they feed the alligators (hamburger rolls, at that!) to get them to come over to the boats. So, again, I just could not bring myself to go there.
The Plus Side
After returning from my trip to Florida, I dug a little further and managed to find one of the only airboat swamp tour companies that actually is ethical. Everglades Day Safari is gold-certified by the Florida Society for Ethical Ecotourism.
While the other unethical airboat tours last about 1 hour and cost $25-$40, the Everglades Day Safari airboat tour with "Captain Bob" is 4 hours at about $80. Although more money overall, it's actually a much better bang for your buck.
Not digging deep enough ahead of time to find a truly ethical eco swamp tour was probably my biggest fail of all. In the end, I am glad I didn't make any fast decisions, though. I probably would have regretted it later.
Do your research in advance; ethical, eco-friendly options for alligator swamp tours do exist! They're a great option especially if you have no luck spotting any gators walking through the park on your own.
Now you can take what you've learned from my mistakes and apply it to your adventure in the Everglades. Just remember – If anything goes wrong, try to look for the positives because they're always there!