My STEP signature project involved taking a trip to Everglades National Park in Florida and practicing my photography skills on the beautiful wildlife there. I was there for seven days, and each day, I had a different activity planned that involved trying something new or scary, learning new things, or practicing various types of photography in different settings.
This trip was an amazing experience for me in so many ways. First and foremost, I went to do photography, and oh, did I. Every day in the Everglades, every place I went, I was thinking about photography–how could I get the perfect shot, where would be the best place for me to sit on the tour, how could I avoid getting wet, etc. I always had a camera with me of some sort, whether it be my professional camera, a GoPro, or even on occasion my phone. I bought my professional camera last summer, and was able to practice with it then while I was in Seattle for my internship. However, this trip to the Everglades was a whole new ballgame. I had done a couple hikes in Washington, so I was able to do some nature photography there, but I had never practiced with wildlife. And let me tell you, trying to get pictures of animals that were often constantly in motion, sometimes competing for space with other tourists, was a learning experience. Despite the difficulty I faced, I was pleasantly surprised by my pictures, and ultimately really happy with how they turned out. That being said, I took a lot of photos. I learned the patience it takes, not only to capture the pictures themselves, but to filter through hundreds of photos and footage and pick out the best shots to put in my photo essay. Another “lesson learned” was that the small lens I had didn’t work well with capturing wildlife, as the zoom was pretty much next to none. It was hard to get close enough to the animals to get decent shots, so in the future, I’ll invest in a bigger lens.
Aside from just photography, though, I learned a lot about myself. I was able to plan and coordinate the entire trip by myself, and learn how to handle things if they didn’t follow my plans exactly. I also tried some things that were scary for me, like a 15-mile bike ride. Before the trip, I hadn’t ridden a bike in 2 years and have avoided them at all costs because I don’t trust myself or my coordination. As such, I was terrified. However, the bike ride actually ended up being great, despite difficult because I was (am) out of shape. We made it to the halfway point and I got some great pictures on the observation tower, didn’t crash, and only almost took a nosedive into the gator-infested march once. I had several opportunities like this to test myself, and I think I’m actually a pretty capable human being and I can do scary things and communicate with people and make things happen that need to happen. For that, if nothing else, the trip was worth it.
One of the major things I learned on the trip was how to roll with the punches when things don’t go as you expect–there were two key experiences that contributed to this. The first was the day that we wanted to go fishing. I had tried to look up fishing gear rental places, and the results were sparse. Still, there was a place outside of the south entrance that looked promising. When we arrived, we thought we had made a mistake. Instead of a bait shop, we ended up at a fruit stand and farm with the charming title “Robert is Here.” We got out and explored, and it actually ended up being such a hidden gem of a place, with a petting zoo-like farm in the back, a sign on the front announcing the owner’s new adoption after one thousand days of waiting, and hundreds of fresh fruits and homemade spreads. We got a smoothie and discovered the tiny kayak and fishing gear rental stand right beside Robert is Here–closed. We called and they suggested just buying stuff from Walmart, so that’s exactly what we did. Going in blind and not having much experience with fishing, figuring out not only what to buy but also how to put it together once we got to the lake was a challenge. We got to the lake much later than intended because of all the delays, not to mention missing the initial turn to get to the lake, and I only caught one small fish despite all the setup, but it actually ended up being a great day. Robert is Here was such a wholesome and happy place that kind of just made my day–how could I be mad about anything after that? Pine Glades Lake was a beautiful place, and since we got there so late, we got to watch the sunset on the water. And even though I only caught one fish, it was so exciting when I did that I didn’t even mind.
The second hiccup of the trip was a less exciting experience. Our flight home was supposed to leave at 6:00am on Saturday. We woke up at 4:00am to finish packing, left for the airport around 4:45, and got to the airport around 5:00am, which is what we had intended. However, we didn’t take into account that we had a rental car with us, and the rental car center was poorly marked so we had to drive around for a while to figure out where to return the car, not to mention a ten minute walk back to the terminal. We checked in our bag at 5:30am, where we were told “you’re way too late.” We got put on standby for the 7:00am flight, and once we didn’t get on that, got moved to standby for the 8:00am flight, and once we didn’t get on that… you can see where this is going. After we didn’t get on the 8:00am, we decided to call the Delta help hotline to see if we had any other options. Keep in mind, I was already well enough emotional by this point, so when she initially told us that they couldn’t do anything to help, I was distraught. However, she stayed on the phone and continued to look up options for us, and eventually found a flight leaving on Sunday, somehow getting us this flight for free. We decided to go with that option, and I had some Marriott rewards points saved up from my summer internship, so I was able to get a hotel with that. Despite an extremely stressful morning and a lot of frustration with myself for not getting there earlier, it probably ended up being the best solution we could have found. After that, I kind of just had to take a deep breath and remember that no matter how much planning you do, sometimes, things just happen. It all ended up working out in the end, and I’m ultimately glad I got experience dealing with that kind of situation.
Aside from the mishaps, there were also so many amazing people we met and things we saw that made the experience transformational for me. In general, I wanted to avoid things that were too touristy–the airboat ride was probably the most touristy thing we did, and it was also my least favorite. It was quite hard to get pictures since the boat moved fast most of the time, and was mainly just so tourists could get glimpses of gators. The other tours we did, however, were extremely well done. The dolphin and birding photo boat tour ended up being a small, quiet boat designed for us to get good pictures and not disturb the wildlife. While out on the water, we saw a tourist boat that was speeding through the waves trying to get the dolphins to ride the wake. Our guide disapproved of this strongly, and we were instead able to observe the dolphins contributing to their ecosystem, feeding, playing together, etc. It was an incredible experience and I’m so grateful to our guide for teaching us about the wildlife and the beauty of the Everglades. Also, we inadvertently ended up as part of a tour group at the Nike Missile Base on the south side of the Everglades. The guide for that tour was fascinating, telling us about so much history of the base during the Cuban Missile Crisis and pointing out details we wouldn’t have seen before. One quote he said that stuck with me: “You go somewhere like the Grand Canyon, and it shouts at you. But you come to the Everglades–it whispers to you. And the more you learn about it, the louder it will be.” It was very powerful and really allowed me to have a deeper appreciation for and understanding of the Everglades and everything it stands for.
In the end, I’m so, so happy with how the trip turned out. I learned so much that I can apply to my own life. Namely, I was able to practice my photography skills on the wildlife and nature of the Everglades, and I hope to continue this art in my everyday life to eventually become a lifelong hobby. I actually created a photo essay of my trip, selecting the best pictures I got, writing about them, and putting them all together in a way that mimics what you might see in National Geographic (but longer and with more pictures). I am also currently working with my professional mentor to edit the photos, so I’m excited to be getting some experience with that. I’d like to do this kind of thing throughout my life and come up with other creative ways to capture the world around me, such as through video. But aside from what I went to the Everglades to do, I hope that I can have a new appreciation for nature, noticing the small things, listening for “the whispers”. Being in the Everglades really taught me the value of animal life and conservation, and I would be pleased if I could see that translate into how I interact with nature everyday. Ultimately, I wanted a trip that would free me from computer science and the kinds of responsibilities that come with school, and focus on something completely different. I get so wrapped up in school that sometimes, it’s all I think about and have time for, and this trip was such a breath of fresh air, teaching me that there is so much more to the world, I shouldn’t take everything so seriously. I am so grateful I got the opportunity to explore a different interest of mine and learn skills that I can use throughout my entire life.
All of my best pictures are included in the photo essay, but here are a few of my favorites: