It has been called a river of grass a picture of endless marsh ruled by gators and birds and that's what most people come to the everglades to see but time and the elements have sculpted a place that defies labels extreme in its moods needing fire as well as rain.
It guards some of the world's rarest creatures big cats and tiny water-loving deer the gentlest of beasts and the most devious of killers but invaded by one living time bomb perhaps more dangerous than man one mother will stand in the invader's way for the sake of her young.
It's a battle for the wild soul of everglades national park at the southern end of florida the everglades are never in a hurry in some seasons the sprawling river of grass flows as slowly as 50 feet a day its journey down the florida peninsula weaves a tapestry of ecosystems found.
Nowhere else in the world with surprising tales of life and death at every turn finally it creeps through the tangled mangroves to the sea where one of the everglades most startling dramas is about to play out transforming beloved creatures into cunning killers.
Bottlenose dolphins are prowling florida bay and they're up to no good like a gang of smiling thugs they're here to terrorize the neighborhood the leader scopes out the area for a hapless school of fish and begins to circle them while the rest of the hooligans wait.
Beating his tail against the silty bottom he stirs up a spiral of grey mud draws the net closed and the gang turns as one panicked fish leap right into the dolphin's waiting jaws again and again they cast their muddy.
Nets and school after school the fish go down their grinning gullets having had their fill they head out of the area these are the only dolphins who hunt this way.
And they pass down their secrets from generation to generation everglades national park protects only the southern one-fifth of the historic everglades but it's still a million and a half acres in the wet season the everglades ecosystem is a shallow river 100 miles.
Long and 50 miles wide it's a river a prairie an ancient seabed and a frustrated sheet of liquid fighting its way south through thousands of square miles of obstinate sawgrass basically the everglades can't make up its mind what it is and the world is a better place for it.
Because it provides endless homes for extraordinary appetites like these unique groves of trees called cypress domes these don't happen by accident they're the signature of the original developer of waterfront real estate in the everglades.
The alligator this big female doesn't just inhabit this crystal clear waterhole she built this place which was just a modest hole when she chose to put down roots and raise her first family here she bulldozes when she needs to expand she tends to her foundations and her.
Clear water pool why because if you build it they will come fish that is yummy fish with the dry season setting in waterfront real estate is in huge demand and all good things to eat will congregate here.
Her investment will pay off handsomely her development is environmentally friendly providing a lovely home for many of the everglades creatures she is the queen of all she surveys but soon she'll have to make a dangerous trek to make this place a true home there's other inviting real estate in.
The drying everglades like these little teardrop islands that stay green year-round these hardwood hammocks may only be a foot or two higher than the surrounding sawgrass but that's enough to keep the trees above water inside the hammock lurks the thing that may actually kill off the everglades.
An interloper is bent on taking over the whole place the burmese python is an illegal release from the pet trade and these 20-foot monsters are literally eating their way through the park's mammals raccoons used to be common here but not anymore.
In the realm of the python park scientists have logged a 99 decline in raccoon sightings a burmese python kills by constriction squeezing the life out of its prey and now it's squeezing the entire park as winter winds sweep over our.
Alligator's cypress dome they help with their expansion plans they dislodge the needles of the cypress trees which fall onto her waterhole the needles will drift to the bottom and decompose forming acids that will eat away at the limestone bedrock deepening her pond.
As winter takes hold the cypress trees grow bare nights become chilly on some winter mornings the temperature can drop nearly to freezing alligators survive deep chills even long freezes by slowing down their metabolism.
And our female has dragged herself out of the cypress dome to soak up some florida sunshine those bumps on her back act like solar cells absorbing heat and transferring it to her blood once warm enough she heads back to the dome.
Unaware of the threat to her home and her park for now alligators are still thriving here but there are many creatures here who are just hanging on creatures few tourists will ever.
See like this elusive cat one of the most endangered mammals on earth the race is on to save the last florida panthers in everglades national park a shy handful of endangered cats make their last stand even camera traps left out for months.
Seldom capture more than a fleeting glimpse of the florida panther once a top predator across the southeast they were nearly wiped out by hunting and habitat loss by the 1960s there were so few left in the wild that inbreeding seemed to spell doom.
So texas cougars were released in south florida to add to the gene pool now they're up to 160 but park rangers fear the giant pythons could even kill these big beautiful cats in winter the water level on the sawgrass prairie drops fast.
this is when the everglades burst into full flower with a profusion of daisies down at water level up above the cypress trees provide shelter for rare plants red-bellied woodpeckers usually hunt insects but some nectars are.
Irresistible like the bromeliads rare cow horn orchids add their own exotic touch to the dome they thrive in this dry winter weather as the water table drops the alligator's waterfront becomes hot property and the fish that have flourished here.
Are about to pay a high price american white ibis flock to the dwindling pond knowing that the residents are now overcrowded and have no escape for our female alligator life is good for now by late april much of the everglades has dried out.
Clouds pass uselessly overhead yielding not a drop finally all that's left of the river of grass is a muddy plain in the driest years even the alligator holes evaporate with her prime real estate in crisis she must leave home in search of water.
It's a dangerous journey that will take her across unfamiliar territory this is the downside of being a cold-blooded reptile just as she needs the sunshine to stay active too much sun will bake her alive desperate she hunkers down in the mud to.
Find whatever shade and moisture she can but to remain here would mean death she's got to keep moving and find water it won't be easy the rains have not materialized and the everglades is drying up.
Clouds rarely bring rain and in winters like this one the system can go bone dry while alligators search for any remaining water another reptile searches for a haven on unfamiliar dry land the florida's soft shell turtle spends most of her life in water but has urgent.
Business on land she needs to get to a delivery room and fast she makes it across just in time and starts to dig her eggs have to be laid on dry land and her time has come but this she doesn't need.
The attentions of the worst midwife in the world the crow's anxious to speed the process along the turtle knows what the crow's after and she has a decision to make she has to stop laying her eggs to save them it's too late for the first unfortunate.
Egg but the distraction gives her a chance to head for shelter still carrying dozens more sometimes the good of the many outweighs the good of the one the dry season is reaching its peak.
Now the only bodies of water left in the everglades are in low-lying channels called sloughs these watery highways lead to seasonal gathering places like an alligator's version of miami they draw visitors from all over the place our female alligator follows these wet.
Arteries she knows they will take her where she needs to go places where her kind are gathering to luxuriate in the water mingle with fellow tourists and sample the local fair sex and violence on an epic alligator scale are sure to follow.
It's a bit crowded at the best south florida restaurants but the menu makes it worth it for the exceptionally clever alligator there may be a rare and very special item on the menu it's breeding time for the egrets the birds are so tantalizingly close the.
Alligators can practically taste them the egrets are busy nest building and quite picky about their construction materials somehow the occasional alligator can be seen floating around balancing a stick perfectly on his nose is it just coincidence or is this 400 pound reptile with the.
Brain the size of a walnut a master of deception the egret apparently has eyes only for the stick and the alligator has snagged the chef's special this amazing strategy or wild stroke of luck has been seen here but never filmed before.
For the egret chicks life is just as harsh at meal time they can be pushy even brutal not only will they steal each other's food they'll kill a weaker sibling to eliminate the competition if the slough is the alligator's equivalent of miami this section of the.
Slough is a south beach nightclub a place to see nbc alligators can't dance so they make the water dance for them the males underwater mating call too low for humans to hear sets off quite the cha-cha on his back but the place is jam-packed the.
Testosterone is high and the males will rumble when two bull alligators decide this place isn't big enough for both of them it's really not wise to try to break them up the smaller male that got between them gets the beating they intended for each other.
When they've all shown off what big men they are they'll turn back to the ladies but the real bigwigs here the ones with power and influence get to head to exclusive back rooms the slough's canals lead to private areas where a big male can set up his seduction scene in peace without even leaving the building.
this will do nicely a great blue heron quickly gets out of the way but he'll hover like a nervous simpering mater d waiting for tips our female has followed mr big into the.
Privacy of the back area and the dance of mutual seduction begins the major deed keeps an eye out you never know what alligators will scare out of the water.
The lovers will circle and stroke each other in a ritual that can go on for days then slip under the surface to culminate the act a tip.
it looks like the heron's patience is rewarded or maybe not mr big does not appreciate the service and the best mater d here is one snap from being the desert our females south beach hunk has gotten.
What he came for but so is she as soon as the reigns release her she'll head back to near her cypress dome to start her family and face the nightmare that's killing the park by late may the skies over the everglades take a turn for the dramatic as shifting winds bring in humid air.
From the sea and in florida when it rains it pours within days the everglades become a marsh again it's a relief from the heat but for the alligators it makes life difficult with water everywhere the fish can.
Easily escape the rains could be a problem for threatened woodstorks for the same reason the parents need over 400 pounds of fish to feed themselves and their chicks each season but these chicks just look miserable they're old enough to survive.
It's worse for the younger egret chicks early reigns can chill them to the bone and that can finish off the weak ones if they haven't been killed by their siblings the river of grass takes up its stately pace again despite its sluggish flow and churning.
Rains and animals the water stays clear thanks to algae and bacteria that grow on every available surface they act as a filter absorbing contaminants the fish populations explode and the bare trees gain new green needles again.
do the clear water creeps southwest toward the gulf of mexico and florida bay the bay itself with its countless islands beaches and estuaries makes up a third of everglades national park and it's a whole other world for actually the dramatic meeting of two.
Worlds land and sea much of the coast is wreathed in thick mangrove forests these plants can tolerate the tidal fringe where the fresh water of the everglades mixes with the sea these warm shallows serve as a nursery for some of the most rare and exotic.
Marine life in the world here a west indian manatee is raising her calf undisturbed by predators these placid creatures are known as sea cows and true to their nickname they spend much of their time grazing in a pasture of algae these are true mammals.
And little one will nurse on her mother's rich milk for up to two years they'll stay together until the calf is weaned and he will face the perils of the bay alone up above in the mangroves ospreys call the female won't let her mate forget that it's his turn to catch their dinner.
While she tends to the nest there's certainly no shortage of fish in these waters the tangled roots of the mangroves provide shelter for a veritable smorgasbord of seafood the male osprey has caught a big mullet he'll sneak a snack before taking it.
Back to the nest and keep his favorite part for himself the head time to bring home the bacon there are also four-legged creatures living in the mangroves like tiny key deer which live on a few islands south of the park these little deer the smallest in north.
America are less than three feet tall at the shoulder they've adapted to eat almost anything that grows here and they're completely at home in the water the male osprey finally gives up his catch there's a strict division of labor among ospreys and it's his job to keep her.
Well fed someone else has made his way into florida bay now there's nothing between the python and the rest of these endangered creatures though they're not sea creatures burmese.
Pythons can survive for months in salt water and they're making their way down to the florida keys they've been known to swallow an adult deer whole fortunately they haven't taken over this little island south of the park just yet.
This little fawn is probably just a few weeks old he's wandered off from his mother now he's lost in the dense mangrove and getting nervous his calls are answered not by his mom but by another fawn.
the island becomes their playground mom arrives and breaks up the fun there's nothing better than being with mom again he'd like to suckle but for now the milk.
Bar is closed staying by her side and living in their small herd he'll learn everything he needs to know twice every day many of these mangrove islands are transformed by the tide the change in water level is small rarely more than a couple of feet but.
Since the island may only be inches above sea level that's enough to let the ocean come flooding in and with it come the sharks they're young lemon sharks eager to see what else might have swum in with the tide.
Juvenile lemon sharks are sociable just like the adults and they travel and hunt together in packs horseshoe crabs move around with the tide too they use the mangroves for mating and spawning for the little lemons they're just an.
Object of curiosity though lemon sharks prefer fish they will eat crustaceans but these horseshoe crabs are just too big for these youngsters but they'll harass them there are lots of other things here to nibble on less challenging fare in an hour or so it's time for the.
Sharks to head back out to sea the tide is turning the island will soon be high and dry but as they say in florida if you don't like the weather just wait a minute from may to october nearly every afternoon brings rain to the everglades.
Sea breezes from the caribbean and the atlantic blow in over the flat terrain of south florida they combined with the heat and humidity to spawn powerful storms and with those storms comes lightning a lot of lightning.
In fact there's more lightning in florida than any place else in the country a good sized storm here can produce 25 cloud to ground strikes in the space of 10 minutes all that lightning can have a huge impact on the landscape.
By turning the river of grass into a terrifying river of fire fire in the everglades used to spark an all-out war against nature's most terrifying rage but now scientists understand how important fire is to the park's ecosystems wildfires help renew the sawgrass.
Prairie by burning off old vegetation while the roots stay wet fortunately for our female alligator this fire is bypassing her home and if the smoke gets too thick she can always retreat underwater to wait it out the park's trees are prone to fire too especially endangered pine rock lands.
The resident eastern diamondback rattlesnake isn't afraid of much but when his home catches fire it's best to head for safety preferably underground fire is crucial to the health of the pineland it clears away the undergrowth and keeps alien plant species from taking over while the trees survive and.
Their seeds open in the heat once the blaze burns itself out the landscape may look devastating but the everglades and its wildlife have evolved to tolerate the purifying power of fire within days new growth appears the tree islands came through mostly.
Unscathed on some high ground not far from the cypress dome a pile of vegetation hides little treasures our female alligator built this incubator for eggs 40 of them or even more for the next two months she'll stand guard against scavengers and wait for.
The eggs to hatch a buffer the caterpillars of zebra long-winged butterflies munch on the leaves of a passion flower vine the plant contains a toxin that will make an adult butterfly poisonous to predators but for these guys it's just a hearty meal soon a caterpillar changes into a female.
Pupa in order to become a butterfly as she undergoes her metamorphosis she gathers an audience the male butterflies flit from pupa to pupa alert for the scent of a female then they stand guard and wait for her to emerge so they can mate with her immediately.
The competition is fierce by butterfly standards and he who shows up late loses out two males may even team up to repel rivals they'll have to fight their own battle once the female emerges to the winner goes the genetic spoils.
by mid-august the alligator's nest is chirping her babies have finally hatched one by one with exquisite tenderness she carries them to the water if they haven't quite escaped their shell she gives a little help almost all the eggs have hatched.
Successfully but many dangers lie ahead fewer than five of these young alligators are likely to make it to adulthood once they're all in the water they stay close to their mother's side she'll continue to watch over them for the next three years and they're lucky to have such a fierce protector.
But now more than ever their fate and the fate of the everglades is controlled by what happens outside the park water has long been a subject of contention here in south florida no matter how much rain there is it seems almost impossible to balance the needs of nature people and.
Agriculture water intensive crops reach up to the boundaries of the park and the amount of water that's allowed to enter the everglades has long been regulated and rationed the six million residents of the miami.
Metropolitan area live within 100 miles of the park and they too compete with the everglades for a share of florida's water meanwhile in the wilderness next door life carries on on the mangrove islands of the keys blue land crabs are on the move and someone spotted them.
yellow crowned night herons love blue crabs they're delicious but wary she's exquisitely patient but a furry neighbor's appearance scares the crabs away thanks mr raccoon back to the business at.
Hand for crying out loud finally success or maybe not they're going another round and this time the crab has his garter once the claws are disposed of the heron.
Can enjoy his meal not far from her dome the new mom is back to improving the real estate her new brood means expanding she excavates a nice nursery where her toddlers will be able to play safely protected from big hungry fish or adult alligators.
While she works they're happy to spend their time basking alligators are caring mothers and vigilant she's alert to anything that may put her young in danger and she senses a threat right now.
a burmese python has made his way into the pond the alien invader is stalking her young big pythons can easily catch and kill a little alligator but not if this mom can help it it's a clash of reptilian titans.
with the outcome uncertainty but finally the gator prevails the babies are a bit cowed by the commotion but one intrepid youngster can't resist venturing out on her own she checks in with mom.
Then goes on the prowl clearly she needs to work on her technique and her aim but success is sweet and she'll get the hang of it eventually.
someday she may rule over a cypress dome just like her mother queen of her part of alligator heaven in the astonishing river of grass that is everglades national park.