Life in the swamp (or how I nearly became 'gator bait)

There's more to Florida than theme parks. It offers natural thrills, too. Steve Connor takes a walk – and a swim – on its wild side

I am driving south on US41 towards Naples, Florida, in a monsoon downpour and there is not a manatee to be seen. It was the promise of swimming with manatees that brought me to the south-west coast of the "sunshine state" but someone up there forgot to turn off the power shower. It has rained almost non-stop for four days and I'm doubting whether I'll ever glimpse a manatee, let alone swim with one.

Manatees are perhaps one of the most enigmatically engaging marine creatures you're ever likely to get close to in the wild. They belong to the sirenia group of sea cows and they spend their days gently grazing on the beds of sea grass that grow in the shallow, tropical waters off the Floridian coast. From the front they have the hangdog expression of a grumpy old man. From the back they look like a mermaid, complete with horizontal tail flipper.

The tourist brochures promised "swimming with manatees" but that was before the weather got in the way. Everyone says it's unusual because most downpours in summer last only an hour or two in the afternoon before that famous Floridian sunshine breaks through. But I'm beginning to lose all hope. Twice I've attempted to kayak down the Cocohatchee river to its manatee-rich estuary, but on both occasions the rain was too heavy.

Steve in the Cocohatchee Nature Center is optimistic about the outlook. He's checked his "Doppler" and he assures us that the weather front is "moving south". Twenty minutes later we're back in the office wet through. Mark, my guide for the day, mutters something about not "needing no Doppler to tell me when it's raining" and suggests a rescheduling. Two days later, a break in the clouds sees us finally paddling down the Cocohatchee to the sea.

Cocohatchee means "brown water", the colour created by the endless dropping of tannin-rich leaves from the red mangrove lining its banks. Red mangrove is perhaps the most ubiquitous shrub on the coast of south-west Florida. Like other types of mangrove it can live in brackish water, exuding excess salt in the "sacrificial leaves" it constantly sheds. Known as the "walking tree" because of its habit of dropping roots from its overhanging branches, red mangrove can quickly spread out across a body of open water.

Mark tells me that this is the only part of the world where you can kayak with both alligators and crocodiles. Somewhat nervously, I ask whether they are aggressive. "The crocs are the worst," he says. Being just a few inches from water I wonder whether my flimsy kayak would withstand a determined bite. On a lighter note, Mark says that we're more likely to see manatees than crocs – but when?

As we slowly glide down river, Mark points out the rich variety of birds, and how to tell the difference between tricoloured and blue herons. As we get nearer to the sea there is a sudden and remarkable change in the colour of the water, turning from the river's deep, chocolate brown to the milky blue-green of the saline ocean.

I suddenly feel as if I've just crossed one of the thresholds of the vital water cycle supporting the rich Floridian wildlife. The intense tropical heat and humidity cause clouds to form over the sea. These move over the land, unleashing huge volumes of fresh water which slowly percolates through the channels of the swampy Everglades and down rivers such as the Cocohatchee, where it meets the salt-water source where the cycle begins.

On one of those rainy days I took off to do a boardwalk in a little bit of the Everglades. Corkscrew swamp, named after a meandering river, is an eerily beautiful place. Apart from the heat and humidity (and mosquitoes), the first thing that hits you is the noise. Not so much a noise as a cacophony of sound. Strange metallic songs, which must have come from frogs, periodically rise to a hysterical crescendo. The buzz of crickets act as relentless background percussion to deep bass vocalists – half grunting, half barking. These could only have been the calls of male 'gators lurking beneath the bald cypresses.

No trip to south-west Florida should be complete without a mini excursion into its swampy interior. This is the dark heart of the Sunshine State, untamed and untamable. Here, the struggle of life is writ large. The roots of huge strangler figs embrace their host trees in a deadly game of who can climb highest, and stay in the sunshine for longest. Endangered ghost orchids, with six-inch, nectar-filled tubes extending from their white flowers, cling to the sides of trees waiting to be pollinated by the equally long tongue of the giant sphinx moth. The roots of ghost orchids blend in with the bark of the trunks on which they hang, making it seem like their flowers are floating phantom-like in the twilight. I was lucky to see one in flower from a telescope arranged on the boardwalk.

Other "air plants" and lichens of every hue cling to the trees. The greatest tree of all is the bald cypress, some of which are 600 years old and 130ft high. The bald cypress is unusual in that it has no tap roots for anchorage. Instead, it grows "knees" that sprout vertically from its roots, acting like buttresses to protect the tree from tropical storms. These strange structures interlock between the trunks, acting as a dense mat of shallow roots that reinforce each other.

But there are no manatees in Corkscrew, so I'm heading north on US41 to the barrier islands of Sanibel, Captiva and Pine Island, so called because they act as buffers against the storms and hurricanes that come in off the Gulf of Mexico. There is no shortage of good hotels along the US41, ranging from the comfortable and affordable Double Tree to the extravagant and spectacular Hyatt at Coconut Point. The latter is an architectural pleasure dome of palm trees, marble and night-time swimming – think late Roman Empire. In contrast, a simple yet exquisite place to eat turned out to be Randy's Fish Market and Restaurant on the way to Naples. No frills, just good, fresh fish dishes and a particularly delicate battered shrimp.

The weather is now back to normal – intense sunshine that breaks each afternoon to form a few heavy clouds and a quick downpour before clearing up once more for a spectacular Floridian sunset. From Sanibel it is possible to take a boat cruise out to the beach of Cayo Costa Island, a protected state park. This is one of the most exposed beaches in south-west Florida, with nothing in between it and the vast, hot expanse of the open Gulf. Shell collectors come here in the hope of finding the best specimens the sea throws out.

The significance of shellfish to the area goes back centuries, being an important source of protein for the local natives since they first arrived here more than 6,000 years ago. The Calusa Indians even used waste shells of whelk, oyster and conch to raise the foundations of their homes as protection against flooding. Today, these ancient middens have turned into verdant hillocks on which the rich have built magnificent mansions.

On the final leg of my journey I stay in Tarpon Lodge on the northern end of Pine Island. Rob Wells, the owner, tells me that the lodge was originally built in the 1920s and has been used for many decades by boaters fishing the shallow, but rich fishing grounds of Pine Island Sound. He takes me out on his boat to show me the sights. We see the old fish houses built on stilts, where catches were landed and sold nearly a century ago. On our way, a couple of dolphins come to play in our wake. "It's a lazy way of spending an afternoon," says Rob.

We have lunch in the Dollar Bar of Cabbage Key, a small island in the sound, then take off around Useppa Island to view more mansions-on-middens. Later on we visit a small, uninhabited island which has, rather inexplicably, become home to a thriving colony of birds of all descriptions. South-west Florida is famous for its birds – I even managed to spot the rare and threatened roseate spoonbill on the Cocohatchee.

The local beaches are made of white sand composed of crushed and eroded seashells. While swimming on one of these beaches, pelicans dived within feet of me to catch fish. On another occasion, I witnessed an osprey patrolling the water before it, too, dived just feet away from where I swam.

But the most memorable moment came almost on the last day of the trip. This was the same beach where I had seen ospreys and pelicans and now, suddenly, I could see five or six dark underwater shadows coming in my direction. Suddenly, a huge flipper was thrown into the air and flopped down with a gentle splash. A pod of manatees swam into my space, emerging now and again to breathe through their whiskered snouts, spraying water as they snorted. Their dark shadows came closer and closer and at one point they seemed to snuffle in the sand around my feet, like the snouts of friendly but slightly scary hounds. The little ones seemed to be well guarded by the larger adults. But although their presence seemed like an eternity, no sooner had they come on the scene than they had gone. They continued along the beach until they were lost from sight

My ambition was fulfilled. I had swum with manatees, and when I least expected it. True to type, they were as gentle as their reputation. They came quietly and had left in silence.

Compact facts

How to get there

BA Holidays (0844 493 0758; offers a seven-night fly-drive to Miami from £432 per person, based on two sharing, for departures during December 2008, including return BA flights from Heathrow, all-inclusive car hire and UK taxes. Book by 11 November, subject to availability. DoubleTree Guest Suites, Naples (001 239 593 8733; ), offers rooms from $89 per night. Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa, Bonita Springs (001 239 444 1234; coconut ) offers rooms from $115 (£72) per night, and Tarpon Lodge and Restaurant, Pine Island (001 239 283 3999; tarponlodge. com) has rooms from $189 per night.

Further information

Naples, Marco Island, Everglades CVB (001 239 225 1013; paradise ), Fort Myers & Sanibel (01444 461642; fortmyerssanibel ), Visit Florida (0870 770 1177; ).

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

    £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

    Recruitment Genius: Developer

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Estates Contracts & Leases Manager

    £30000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Estates Team of this group ...

    Guru Careers: Brand Manager / Marketing Campaign Manager

    COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Brand Manager / Marketing Campaign Manager is req...

    Day In a Page

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future