Guest opinion: Exploring 'one of the most magical places on Earth'

Malia Byrtus
Special to The News-Press
A bear rests against a tree in the Everglades.

There is nothing that can prepare you for working in the Everglades. It is a world which feels separate from this one. Or rather, a time separate from this one.

The American alligator — creatures whose ancestors date back to the Cretaceous period — remain relatively uninterrupted as the armored rulers both above and below the surface.

Towering old growth bald cypress trees, some estimated to be at least 700 years old, are living reliquiae of a swamp dating back to 3000 BC.

Spanning 2 million acres from present day Kissimmee Prairie near Orlando south to Florida Bay, the Greater Everglades quite literally feels like the edge of civilization.

When I took my first steps into the tannin waters of the Fakahatchee Strand just 30 miles east of Naples, I understood very little about the Everglades and her wonder. Even as a Floridian and an avid outdoor enthusiast, I was ill prepared for the sense of place that I would soon discover in the south Florida swamps. I was 20 years old and completing my graduate studies in Exploration Science from the University of Miami when I began working as a camera trap technician for Wildpath — a group of conservationists, storytellers, and explorers creating stories and campaigns to inspire the protection of land and water for wildlife and people.

A bear in the Everglades looks upward.

Wildpath’s primary focus for the last several years has been connecting and protecting the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Similar to the patchwork made by the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes with a plethora of colorful shapes used to create garments that tell a story and identify the person wearing them, the Florida Wildlife Corridor is also a patchwork compiled of private and public lands encompassing 18 million acres across the state creating an interconnected blanket of green space which provides safety and identity for both humans and wildlife. What began as a 9 month graduate internship assisting with the management of roughly two dozen professional remote camera traps strategically placed in hidden corners of the corridor, eventually turned into three years of exploring one of the most magical places on Earth (and certainly North America)... as a full-time job.

Throughout 2020, when the rest of the world felt like a dystopian future, I found peace in isolation while working in the Kissimmee Billie Strand near Big Cypress National Preserve. I was setting video camera traps in an effort to capture Florida black bear behavior for an original documentary series from National Geographic titled ‘America the Beautiful’. Trekking to the same coordinates every other week, spending countless hours on an animal trail or 20 feet high in a cypress tree taught me the language of the Everglades; something I could have only learned by becoming a part of the Everglades herself. I found myself acclimating to 12 hour days in 90 degree heat and 100% humidity. The mosquitoes? Well, I got used to them too. I started to feel a connection to this place that I realized was quite rare. But nothing can compare to the relationships I formed with the wildlife around me.

Malia Byrtus sets video camera traps in an effort to capture Florida black bear behavior for an original documentary series from National Geographic titled ‘America the Beautiful’.

It started out as recognizing the same family of black bears on the camera trap video. Particular markings or scars would help me identify different individuals. I enjoyed learning about each of their unique personalities and watching the juveniles grow into adults. Then, I started to see the same bears with my own eyes at the camera trap sites! In a way I felt a little star-struck; like it would be seeing your favorite movie star out in the real world. I recall once when a young female bear and I spent nearly 10 minutes together with less than 15 feet between us. She entered the camera trap site nose to the ground while I remained still and quiet. When she noticed me, her curiosity and unwavering bravery made me wonder… How many times has she seen me out here? I like to believe we were distant friends of sorts. Respectively watching each other in our natural habitats all this time.

If there is one thing I learned from my time in the Everglades, it is this. Places and moments such as what I experienced are few and far between, particularly in Florida. Nearly 1,000 people move to Florida every day, resulting in the rapid sprawling development that is diminishing the state’s wildlife habitat and inimitable natural wonder. Without the Florida WIldlife Corridor intact, the Everglades can not be evermore. For the armored rulers and towering giants of the swamp, they now depend on our species. Will we protect what is left, or will we let the Everglades slip off the edge of civilization forever?

I am proud to have contributed a year of camera trap work along with my team members at Wildpath for the National Geographic original series ‘America the Beautiful’. Together, we are excited for this series to share the Everglades and the Florida Wildlife Corridor with a global audience. Narrated by emmy-nominated actor and producer Micheal B. Jordan, the series explores North America’s astonishing landscapes while introducing the regions’ iconic wildlife and the conservationists working to safeguard their future. Streaming on July 4 only on Disney+.

Malia Byrtus.

Malia Byrtus is a conservationist and storyteller from Melbourne Beach, Florida. From 2019 to 2021, Malia served as Field Program Manager for Wildpath overseeing their extensive network of remote wildlife camera traps throughout the Greater Everglades ecosystem. Her camera trap contributions have reached global audiences, as seen in National Geographic’s original series ‘America the Beautiful’. Today, Malia works as a communications and outreach strategist for Wildpath from her 1994 Dodge van as she travels the country’s connected landscapes.