The day began like most spring days in south central Florida, calm and clear, warm and sensuous, sunshine creeping slowly into the lanai, flooding it with a cheerful brightness.
This was the kind of day that begged us to enjoy the outdoors, close to Mother Earth, in tune with the natural elements and with our spectacular environment.
It was a day to spend at Highlands Hammock State Park.
As we parked the car on the main road, just past the entrance gate, we heard a rustling in the brush just off the pavement, so we waited and listened and strained to see what was poking around in the crispy, dead leaves of the forest floor. Within minutes, an inquisitive armadillo snuffled out onto the road, and waddled his way across our path and into the underbrush on the other side of the road, as if he was on a mission, oblivious to the two humans who were quietly snapping photos of his every move.
We chose Fern Garden Trail, one of the many interesting and colourful walks that visitors can take thoughout the park, mainly because it features an elevated boardwalk over swampy waters, perfect conditions for spotting indigenous Florida wildlife.
Within seconds of starting down the trail, we spotted him -- a ten foot long alligator, just five feet away from the boardwalk. His leathery hide glistened in the dappled sunshine filtering through the cypress trees, as he lounged motionless on a grassy bank steps from a swampy waterway. His right eye opened lazily and he gave us the once-over with as much disdain as only an alligator can convey. A few feet away, lying coiled at the bottom of a tree, a water moccasin sunned himself, quite comfortable with his companion in leisure.
Suddenly, with a noisy splash, we saw a river otter sliding through the water around the bank, ducking and diving beneath the surface, frolicking carefree in his paradise. Sleek and supple, the otter swam back and forth, relishing his afternoon swim and the snacks the swamp had to offer. Somehow, though, he did not notice the gator as he crawled up onto the bank and began nosing around under the fallen leaves, coming closer and closer to this awesome predator. With anticipation, we watched what would ultimately play out between these enemies, wondering if the outcome would favour the alligator or the otter.
Slowly, and with engineered precision, the gator lifted its fearsome jaw from his resting place, but only a fraction of an inch and in dead silence. The movement was barely noticeable. In a split second, the otter's head shot up and for the first time he realized how close he was to lethal danger. In one perfect motion, he swung around, bodysurfed into the water and made his escape as quickly as his little legs could paddle.
The gator's jaw slowly moved back down to rest on the grass, and we saw that right eyelid slide closed.
Lunch would have to wait.