iguana appears at a resort in Key Largo, Fla., in
LARGO, Fla. ó Each year we make a pilgrimage to a
group of islands we call paradise, an archipelago that
juts between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico
known as the Florida Keys.
explorers imagined these 1,700 islands as twisted and
tortured souls and named them Los Martires ("the
martyrs") more than 500 years ago.
northernmost island, Key Largo, provides some of the
best opportunities for diving and fishing in the world.
It is home to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the
beginning of the only living coral reef in the United
while I appreciate the importance of healthy coral
colonies, they arenít the siren song that calls us
back each year.
us, it is all about the animals that thrive on and in
the waters surrounding the islands we have come to love.
1513, Spanish explorers led by Ponce de Leon, arrived in
the Florida Keys hoping to find gold and the famed
Fountain of Youth. The only gold they found was an
unrelenting sun, along with sparse reservoirs of fresh
water and lots of bugs, especially when the wind blows
across the bay from the nearby Everglades National Park.
has changed in 500 years.
our first visit almost 20 years ago, we hadnít
unloaded our rental car when a dolphin swam past in
was hooked with the first flip of its silky black fin.
then, we have communed with manatees, stingrays, sea
turtles and birds and tropical fish in every hue.
seen our share of alligators and once spotted a rare and
endangered American crocodile. Barracudas ply waters
alongside nurse, blacktip and many other species of
paradise has been invaded by some new inhabitants in the
past few years that donít belong here. Most invasive
pets thrive in the tropical climate after they have
escaped or been released by owners.
shared a resort with several adult and juvenile iguanas
whose ancestors made their way to the keys in the 1960s.
The nonnative green iguanas are now established and
quite common in backyards and tree-lined streets. They
are timid and nonthreatening, looking to humans only for
the occasional handout of food.
area is also home to the descendants of 900 Burmese
pythons believed to have escaped from a warehouse where
they were housed by an exotic pet dealer when Homestead,
Fla., took a direct hit from Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Today there are estimates that many thousands of them
are roaming the Everglades and the nearby islands.
venomous lionfish was imported from the western and
central Pacific Ocean and introduced here by aquarium
owners. The fish reproduce quickly and will eat anything
in their paths. Humans are their only known predators.
more than 500 nonnative species have been observed in
Florida ó some more damaging than others.
month, a Nile crocodile was recovered in the Everglades.
The 37-pound juvenile was too young to reproduce, which
is a good thing, said the National Park Service.
spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife
Conservation Commission said the crocodile is likely one
that escaped from a Miami-Dade County home in 2012.
Wildlife officials had been tracking the animal for four
months when Hurricane Isaac hit Florida that year. If an
owner can be determined, he or she will face prosecution
as the crocodiles are federally protected and considered
threatened internationally. The croc is being kept at a
Homestead alligator farm.
Nile crocodile differs from more docile, smaller
American crocodiles because of its size and risk to
humans. According to National Geographic, Nile
crocodiles can grow to 17 feet or longer and weigh about
500 pounds. On average, they fatally attack hundreds of
people a year in their native sub-Saharan Africa.