The Starfish chugs in a slow, wide circle, churning up an enticing wake. Within a few minutes, a grey fin surfaces near the froth, followed by two more in rapid succession. The captain picks up cruising speed and the bottlenose dolphins follow in pursuit, eventually performing perfectly synchronized leaps from the water as close to the boat’s outboard engine as safely possible – so near, it seems they could jump on board.
It’s just another beautiful day in the Ten Thousands Islands, where Everglades National Park boat tours have carried passengers since 1959. The park’s concession company transports about 25,000 people annually into this watery mangrove wilderness on its cruises from Everglades City.
“If you’ve ever wondered what Southwest Florida looked like when people first arrived, a cruise through here is a good indication,” says Joe Cox, a Naples resident who took in one of the park’s boat trips.
The Ten Thousand Islands stretch along the Gulf coast from Lostman’s River, in the northwestern section of Everglades National Park, to Marco Island, the northernmost isle. Some, like donut-shaped Sandfly Island – located in Chokoloskee Bay, across from Everglades National Park’s Gulf Coast Visitor Center – are actually shell mounds, constructed by the Calusa Indians who paddled these waters in cypress canoes 2,000 years ago. Most are uninhabited and swathed in mangroves, creating a welcoming environment for some 200 bird species, 30 kinds of mammals and 30 species of amphibians and reptiles – including five of the world’s seven sea turtles.
“Besides being a great protectorate to mainland Florida from hurricanes, our mangrove wilderness is home to great biodiversity,” says Everglades National Park Ranger Joe Sterchele, adding that there are actually 14,000 to 16,000 islands in the archipelago (depending on whether it’s high or low tide). “It’s a crossroads where tropical forest meets temperate North American animals, and the fresh water that flows off the low altitudes of the state meets the shallow salt water of the Gulf. It is an area where dolphins live near raccoons, manatee live near bobcats, sharks are near white tail deer and sea turtles are near black bears.”
That biodiversity also makes the Ten Thousand Islands one of the top fishing grounds in the country. More than 200 species of fish cruise the Gulf, oyster beds and inshore grassy flats, from grouper, spotted sea trout and permit to tarpon, snook, and snapper. “It’s an angler’s paradise,” says Port of the Islands Marina owner Christopher Shucart, whose store has a Ten Thousand Island Education Center onsite. “The remoteness is a big part of the appeal. It’s not overfished, like so many other areas. Fishing limits are easily met.”
In addition to Everglades National Park, this island-rich zone also spans the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge and part of the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, which includes the Cape Romano-Ten Thousand Islands Aquatic Preserve. (The two entities co-manage where boundaries overlap.) The remote Ten Thousand Islands NWR is primarily accessed via watercraft, with launches available in Goodland and at Port of the Islands. But an inland look at the refuge is available via a one-mile trail that travels from upland marsh to mangroves off U.S. 41. “One of the things about our refuge that people forget is that we have some interior portions,” says Joyce Mazourek, Ten Thousand Islands NWR manager. “They always think of the outer islands and the mangrove area, but we have 3,000 to 4,000 acres of marsh along (U.S.) 41 that’s being protected from development.”
A recently opened parking lot at the trailhead is aimed at encouraging more visitors to pull over. The refuge is also in the process of installing signs and changing the turnoff’s name from Oil Pad Road to the more environmentally conscious Marsh Trail, Mazourek says. “Even though the trail has always been open to the public, because there hasn’t been parking there or signs, it hasn’t been that visible. It is a great place to bird in the fall and the spring. Tropical migrants, warblers, use the trees along that trail and you don’t always need binoculars. And water birds roost there during the winter.”
Marking a canoe route off the Marsh Trail is also on the summer agenda, now that there’s enough water for paddling, Mazourek adds. Dipping into the Ten Thousand Islands via kayak or canoe remains a top choice among adventurers. The new Paradise Coast Blueway, Collier County’s paddling trail, includes six day-trip routes and one longer trail that extends from Everglades City to the village of Goodland, on Marco Island and passes through the wilds of Everglades National Park and the 35,000-acre Ten Thousand Islands NWR.
Even on a 90-minute ride aboard the Starfish, the enormity of the Ten Thousand Islands is evident. Here, among the mangroves, the food chain begins, says Julie Russell, a six-year veteran of Everglades National Park’s tours through the islands. “Ninety percent of the fish commercially caught in the Gulf have their beginnings in a mangrove estuary,” she says. “That’s how important they are and why (this area) is protected.”