So like I said, I stopped at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center and was talked into talking a boat tour. Two different tours are offered. One goes through the mangroves in a small boat but can be buggy and didn't fit with my schedule. The other was on a larger covered pontoon boat which suited me because I was still trying to stay out of the sun. The timing would leave me just enough of the afternoon to get back to the bike shop. The tour was excellent and the guides gave a lot of information about the ecology, geography and history of the area, some of which I will try to recollect here.
The Ten Thousand Islands are an area where the Everglades meets the Gulf and there is this almost esturine geography as the land breaks up into many small islands of mangrove trees. They really tried to count the islands on several occasions using aerial or satellite photography, but depending on the height of the tide the number can increase as small channels fill with water and one island becomes many! But the ten thousand moniker is definitely in the right ball park and may even be an underestimation.
The mangrove tree is the only tree that can tolerate the saline waters of coastal areas, so it has the place to itself. There are actually three kinds of mangrove, black, white and red, and all three are present on the florida mangroves. They are an evergreen tree, so they do not lose their leaves in winter but rather they continually drop leaves into the water. The leaves contain tannins, so the waters around the mangrove islands are like a tea. Although the water looks murky because of the decomposing mangrove leaves, it is very healthy and supports the second largest area of oyster beds in the U.S. (behind the Chesapeake Bay - woohoo!). However, no-one eats the oysters from Florida because the waters stay too warm and bacteria abound. There is no solid ground on the islands, but in some places there looks like there is a beach. It is formed by oyster shells. Since they are not harvested, they build up in large numbers and during a storm are pushed up against the islands.
On the way back in one of the guides rambled through some of the history of the area. Tales of the spanish trying to move in and being beaten back by skilled indian warriors. Stories of lawless settlement where the villagers meted out justice with a variety of makeshift weaponry according to their own feeling of what the facts might be. I guess the Everglades has been a good place to dump a body for a long time!
So, if you every get down the the Everglades, definitely take the short detour down 29 and check out the Gulf Coast Visitor Center. The staff will happily talk you out of your money but it will be totally worth it!