I just returned from a perfect-weather week in beautiful Southwest Florida. I’ve visited this area a few times. One of my favorite places for photography in Southwest Florida is the Big Cypress National Preserve area (https://www.nps.gov/bicy/index.htm).
Big Cypress Preserve, a National Park, covers about 729,000 acres of a freshwater swamp ecosystem. It provides refuge to a wide variety of plants and animals. Big Cypress was created in 1974, to protect the water quality, natural resources, and ecological integrity of the Big Cypress Swamp. This is a unique and beautifully protected ecosystem and landscape. This area was impacted by Hurricane Irma which hit this past September (2017). Fortunately, the impacts were generally not acute and damage was isolated.
Big Cypress National Preserve provides so many opportunities to see really beautiful and some rare wading and diving birds (wood stork, herons, egrets, ibis, roseate spoonbill, anhinga, cormorant), raptors (red shouldered hawks, osprey, vultures), alligators, snakes, and turtles. Hover over the wildlife names in parens and click on links revealed to see photos I’ve added to the gallery from this recent trip.
There were lots of highlights of this trip, but one really stuck with me. One early morning while photographing in the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge (https://www.fws.gov/refuge/ten_thousand_islands/) I saw something (Loch Ness Monster??, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loch_Ness_Monster) moving slowly about 150 yards out in the shallow water. I initially thought it was an alligator, which were common here.
Just so I had a record, I took several photos of this “thing” off in the distance (see the upper half of the photo below). As I continued shooting other photos of the incredible mangrove and wetlands landscape before me, this “thing” kept moving at a good pace toward the tower I was on. The tower about 20 feet up, provided for public viewing, was on a walkway just at the edge of the wetlands area. As “thing” got closer, I could see “thing” was a turtle. Next thought …. this is a REALLY big turtle. I started taking LOTS of pictures!
The photo on the lower half below shows what “thing” was – a Florida Soft Shell Turtle. The turtle was generally submerged in the shallow murky water and occasionally raised its head up for air. I had to do some homework on this reptilian turtle because I’ve just never seen anything like it. Here’s a few good sources I used (https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Apalone_ferox/; http://www.reptilesmagazine.com/Turtles-Tortoises/Turtle-Care/Soft-Shelled-Turtle-Information-and-Care/; http://www.petguide.com/breeds/turtle/smooth-softshell-turtle/). These turtles are found primarily in the south. They’re called soft-shelled because their shell is actually a leathery-like skin. Florida soft-shells are the largest species of soft-shells in North America. Females can reach up to two feet and weigh over 40 pounds. This is the size of a medium-size dog. That’s a big turtle.
The turtle I had an opportunity to photograph was quite large and appeared close to two feet, if not more. The photograph doesn’t reveal any neck or snout markings of a juvenile soft-shell. The general size leads me to believe this is an adult female. The pig-like snout on this turtle is the strangest thing I’ve seen in a while, but it’s for real! Check out the claws on the webbed foot that’s in the image. That’s for real too.
Florida soft-shells are carnivores. They mostly eat fish and snails. However, they’re also known to prey on waterfowl like ducks, and even small-size herons. They have powerful jaws and a powerful bite.
In southern Florida, these turtles nest between mid-March and July. In a single season, the female can nest 2-7 times, and can produce almost 225 eggs every year. This is more than most other species of reptiles. (http://www.animalspot.net/florida-softshell-turtle.html) These reptilian turtles may live for more than 20 years in the wild, and 30+ years in captivity. Only alligators and humans pose a threat to adult soft-shell turtles.
The protected Florida ecosystems provide days of free wonder, enjoyment, education, and relaxation.