Gulf Coast Nature

I sit on the white sand beach of Panther Key, watching the warm winter sun sink into the Gulf of Mexico. Hog Key stands in silhouette before me, mangroves reflecting perfectly in the still water. The horizon seems to carry on forever in all directions. To the South – only islands and water fill the 100-mile space before the Florida Keys. West – the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge sprawls beyond sight. North – islands give way to rivers and swamps of Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve and Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, before leading into Big Cypress National Preserve. East – Everglades National Park stretches clear across the peninsula. I feel fortunate to be camped here at the end of America, in one of its wildest places. My career as a photojournalist has taken me to unseen corners of the earth, including the heights of the Andes, the heart of the Amazon, and most recently, the edge of Africa. While the nature of each place is amazing in its own way, no place inspires me more than Gulf Coast of Florida. Maybe it's the way that the sun comes across the water in the afternoon, or the way the clouds build like mountains into the sky. Maybe it's the dozens of bird species that seem like old friends. Maybe it's because its home. Or maybe it's through experiences like camping in the Everglades and listening to the tales of old-timers, that I see the state for what it once was and what it has the potential to still be with proper care. The nature of the Gulf Coast is special, without question. There are the landscapes, which set the stage – islands, rivers, woods, beaches and bays. And there are the myriad individual species of plants and animals acting out the cycles of life. Buts it's the collective whole of landscapes and lifeforms that makes the real magic. A tawny panther stalking unseen through green palmettos. Rosette spoonbills in breeding plumage foraging the grass flats exposed by low tide. A pod of dolphins chasing mullets along the beach. A monarch butterfly dancing among milkweed, preparing for its long flight to Mexico. White-tailed deer bounding beneath the slash pines. A large male alligator rippling the lily pads as he calls for a mate. A ghost orchid growing on a cypress tree, high above the swamp. A Bald Eagle letting out a cry as it delivers a speckled trout to the nest. Young loggerhead sea turtles digging themselves out of the sand and into the waves for the first time. Enter the Everglades or the Ten Thousand Islands. Everything feels peaceful and connected, unscathed by human hands. This is Florida as it once was. Yet you know Naples is not far away. The shadow of development looms and humans continue to squeeze Nature's neck a bit tighter with each passing day. But can we control ourselves? Can we set limits to our encroachment? With hundreds of people moving to Florida each day, can we make sure that the Nature that brought most of us here will somehow remain?View new photography at www.carltonward.com