By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, the Tampa Tribune
Unlike many aquariums that focus on sharks, dolphins and other offshore species, The Florida Aquarium, in telling the Florida water story, illustrates how intrinsically tied those coastal species are to swamps and wetlands far removed from the shore.
It is a fascinating story, one that includes creatures that range from otters to tarpon, and makes one appreciate the remarkable diversity of Florida’s natural riches and understand the importance of maintaining the integrity of our natural systems.
The water story’s lessons were underscored to my wife and me recently during an anniversary visit to Myakka River State Park, one of Florida’s oldest and largest state parks.
Myakka River flows through the nearly 30,000- acre park east of Sarasota on its way to Charlotte Harbor, famed for its spectacular fishing, particularly for tarpon. The health of that estuary’s fishing, and the tourism industry it supports, is dependent on Myakka and its other freshwater sources, including the Peace River.
Pollute, dam or divert those freshwater sources and Charlotte Harbor’s water quality and marine life will inevitably decline, as will the enterprises that depend upon them.
Fortunately, visionary leaders took steps to preserve much of the Myakka wilderness. Today it remains a remarkable place to see native flora and fauna, with the river widening into two lakes – the Upper and Lower Myakka – within the park, and the terrain including marshes, swamps, hammocks and pinelands.
Wildlife is abundant and can be seen simply driving along the park’s seven-mile main road. Those who drive slowly in the early morning and late afternoon are almost certain to see deer browsing. We also saw wild turkeys, including a long-beard gobbler. Surprisingly, we did not see the wild hogs that ran amok when we first started visiting Myakka decades ago, an indication that traps located through the park are having an impact on the destructive nonnative species, first introduced to the state by Spanish explorers.
Still, the telltale tractor-like rootings of the hogs are visible in much of the park. With mature female hogs giving birth at least twice a year to six or more piglets, park officials know there is no eliminating them. They just hope to keep their numbers, and threat to native flora and fauna, manageable.
Big gators are the star attraction, and when drivers pull over to look at these large creatures that typically sun themselves where the Myakka River flows under the Park Road Bridge, it can look like a bear sighting traffic jam at Yellowstone National Park.
The gators also can be viewed on cruises of Upper Myakka Lake offered at the park’s concession area. The tours take place on impressively large (up to 75 passengers) and exceedingly slow (5 mph) airboats, but the captain’s narration is funny and informed, and one sees many of the estimated 500 to 1,000 gators in the park, along with lots of shorebirds. You learn about alligator natural history, including that they open their mouths while laying along the bank, not as a defense display but to regulate heat. They also can live more than 30 years in the wild and much longer in zoological facilities.
Bird watching is terrific throughout Myakka park, particularly on the wooden “birdwalk” that goes out into the upper lake. One evening we saw white pelicans, three eagles, ospreys, avocets and countless shorebirds and ducks. The limpkin, rare in most of Florida, can be spotted along the river, lakes and marshes. Its eerie, jungle animal-like howl is common, as are the “Who Cooks for You” call of the barred owl and the screech of the red-shouldered hawk.
A neat park feature is the Canopy Walkway, where one can walk among the tree tops on a suspension bridge 25 feet above the ground and then climb the stairs of a 74-foot tower that allows a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape.
There are camping facilities for trailers and tents and, if one is fortunate enough to get reservations, five cabins. The cabins, built in the 1930s, are rustic but comfortable, each with shower, kitchen and a large fireplace in its main room, which has two beds. There is electricity, but blessedly, no television, and don’t expect Wi-Fi or a phone signal.
The park has nearly 40 miles of trails and several primative campsites. The trails will lead you through a diversity of ecosystems. I went on a fantastic tromp to the Lower Myakka Lake, a section of the park where cars are not allowed and hikers must obtain a permit.
Led by a member of the Friends of Myakka, whose members work to preserve the park and educate visitors about its treasures, we hiked several miles through pine and palmetto forest and then hardwood hammock to Deep Hole, a sinkhole in the Lower Myakka Lake that retains water during the most severe drought. It is crammed with husky gators – both in the water and on the banks – and surrounded by vultures. What a memorable sight. Most of the gators are lounging but occasionally one in the water would suddenly crunch a fish – apparently, the lake is full of tilapia, an exotic. With gators being mostly nocturnal feeders, one can only imagine what the place must sound and look like at night.
Our group also sees red-headed woodpeckers, white pelicans, eagles, deer and many other creatures, as well as coyote and bobcat sign.
The state park is part of what is called the Myakka Island, the remaining native habitat in the 550-square-mile watershed. Development pressure remains acute, and park advocates hope to preserve enough to ensure a reasonably functioning ecosystem. But that is a complicated task.
Using the example of the bobcat, former Myakka naturalist B.J. Benshoff aptly puts the conservation challenge in perspective in her wonderful book, “Myakka,” (published by Pineapple Press and available at the park gift shop.)
“The home range of a male bobcat averages 7.5 square miles. About 4.5 square miles are required for a female. Bobcats require a mix of habitats, such as hardwood swamps, pine flatwoods and marshes, so the kind of space is as important as the amount of space.”
“The quality of habitat is also an important consideration. It is estimated that a one-year-old female bobcat and her three kittens will consume at least 3,800 cotton rats, 3,200 cotton mice and 700 cottontail rabbits by the end of the mother’s second year. All this prey must be within the home range that she shares with an adult male during mating season and other predators (e.g. birds, snakes, foxes, coyotes) using her range.”
Yet every new development eliminates habitat, introduces exotic species, including dogs and cats, that can threaten native species and, perhaps most critical of all, makes it more difficult to conduct the burns that ensure the land remains productive for wildlife.
One quickly realizes the wisdom of state voters who in 2014 overwhelmingly endorsed Amendment One, the referendum requiring lawmakers to invest more in conservation. Florida lawmakers, alas, have been reluctant to comply with voters’ directive.
Yet one doesn’t leave the park preoccupied with politics. Rather, Myakka State Park, with its diverse array of ecosystems and stunning wildlife numbers, leaves you with a profound sense of wonder at the beauty and complexity of wild Florida, an appreciation for the wilderness that remains, and, after observing the joy of visitors to the park, encouragement that Floridians will not squander their priceless natural gifts.