Across the coast of southwest Florida lies the Ten Thousand Islands, dotting the vast waterways of the Everglades like speckles of stardust. Lush, tropical and foreboding, these tiny islets form the largest expanse of mangrove forest in North America. These islands are also home to a rich diversity of native wildlife, including several endangered species.
Despite the name, there are only a few hundred islands in the chain.
“Thank god that there are only a few hundred islands, I wonder how long it’ll take to see all ten thousand of them!” I said to our host, Bob Miller Jr. He smiled in response to my remark, almost as if he thought otherwise.
“I’m the happiest when I’m out on the water,” said Bob. Originally from New Jersey, Bob had moved here as a teenager with his father – it was obvious that after twenty years, he’d still rather be out here in the Everglades than anywhere else.
His father Bob Sr. founded Miller’s World, a well-loved and established company in the Everglades City. His empire now consists of the Glades Haven Cabins, marina, kayak rental and tours, as well as the Oyster House Restaurant known for having the best seafood in town.
Exploring the Backwater of Florida
As we jumped onto his powerboat for our ride, Bob looked even more excited than we did, even though he’d been cruising these waters for a few decades. With much curiosity, we left the edge of Everglades City and headed towards the open waters.
It was a sizzling hot day, with temperatures well over 90 degrees (32degC). We had on our hats, sunscreen, and bottles of drinking water, but the heat was still all too overwhelming.
“You want to jump in for a swim?” Bob joked. Crocodiles are a threat in these waters, just last year a tour guide had lost his fingers to a crocodile. According to Bob, crocodiles don’t attack unless they’ve been antagonized. But swimming was definitely out of the question.
Out in Chokoloskee Bay, Bob slowed down the boat as we were entering the manatee zone. Manatees come to the area for the warm water, especially so in winter. But as it was summer, it would be hard to see manatees since they would be able to find warm water deep in the mangroves.
We could see Chokoloskee Island in the near distance, connected to Everglades City by a causeway. As the largest island in the chain, it’s home to about 400 permanent residents. Some of the locals trace their roots back to the Native Americans who occupied The Ten Thousand Islands thousands of years ago. These days, the islands are mostly inhabited by fishermen and holidaymakers passionate about fishing and boating.
Everyone living in the area knows that the only way to keep tourism sustainable here is by conserving our environment. It’s no wonder the islands here feel largely untouched and primitive. The water is brackish and not suitable for swimming; It’s not Tahiti, but it’s fascinating.
With houses, boats and the highway quickly disappearing behind us, we picked up speed and cruised towards Sandfly Pass, a wide channel that leads southwards towards the islands and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. Soon we were weaving our way through the network of waterways, past islands fringed by narrow beaches and sugar-white sand.
We passed Jack Daniel Key, Indian Key, Jewel Key and many more isolated islets, most of which were made up of tiny patches of sandbanks and explosive jungles of palm trees and large Australian pines. Some of them were even equipped with make-shift toilets, put in place by the National Park Services for kayakers camping out on these islands. Bob said that his favorite way to explore the area is by paddling the waterways, camping on different islands each night. As a regulation to control the number of visitors, camping permits are required, though easily attained at the national park visitor centers.
At Camp Lulu, we hopped off to take a closer look. A man had actually built a house on this remote island and lived here for 25 years. Unfortunately he passed away recently, and since then the authorities no longer allows building of private camps or houses on these islands.
We took a walk around the island to explore and found a beautiful mosaic of ponds, sawgrass marshes, and forested uplands. As we nosed around the camp, I even caught a glimpse of a curious raccoon who was scouting us out. We were surprised to find that there wasn’t a piece of rubbish or remnants from human activities around us, just the old house standing on its own.
“We operate on a ‘leave no trace’ policy here,” Bob explained, “Everyone living in the area knows that the only way to keep tourism sustainable here is by conserving our environment.” It’s no wonder the islands here feel largely untouched and primitive. The water is brackish and not suitable for swimming; It’s not Tahiti, but it’s fascinating.
Continuing our ride, we spotted tiny grey mullets skidding above the water surface in the dozens. As Bob explained, these mullets are often caught and shipped to the Orient. Roughly 200 species of fish are found in the area as much of the sea grass beds and mangrove bottoms serve as vital nursery areas for marine fish.
Apart from that, over 189 species of birds fly over this area at some time during the year. We spotted hundreds of pelicans, herons, ospreys and also the rare and endangered bald eagle. Bob told us that it’s common to see raccoons on the islands, as well as sea turtles, river otters and even bottle-nosed dolphins in the water.
My eyes lit up at the sound of dolphins. I’ve seen dolphins in the wild before, but who doesn’t like dolphins?
As we cruised back towards mainland, Bob killed the engine when he saw a dorsal fin above the water surface. Alberto and I looked out eagerly, in all directions, hoping the dolphin would make an appearance again. But there was nothing.
By sunset, it was time to head back and just when we were leaving the waterway behind and heading towards Everglades City, we finally saw a pair of dolphins, cheekily diving in and out of the water in the near distance. We heard the sounds they made and almost wished they would come closer. Amidst the excitement, we still managed to catch a good look of them and snap a somewhat blurry shot.
It was a pity we couldn’t spend more time in the water, but I promised Bill we would be back. The next time, it wouldn’t be just for a day.
You can organize the boat trip at Glades Haven, other activities like kayak rental and bike trips can also be arranged. We stayed overnight at Glades Haven cabins, where we had a whole log cabin to ourselves. Besides a bedroom, the cabin is fully furnished with cooking facilities, a screened porch, and even a swimming pool nearby. Room rates start from US$99 per night, based on double sharing.