Florida’s destiny has been molded by water. Jutting into the Atlantic for 450 miles, this most celebrated of America’s peninsulas has no point more than 60 miles from its coastline. Rainfall averages more than 50 inches a year, making Florida one of the wettest states. As a result, some 30,000 lakes are scattered throughout its interior, ranging from pint-sized ponds to the 700-square-mile Lake Okeechobee, the second largest natural freshwater body entirely within the United States after Lake Michigan. Water draining from Okeechobee flows slowly southward, creating the vast marshlands of the Everglades. A ribbon of islands, sandbars, and coral reefs festoons the coast, culminating 150 miles off the southern shore at the tip of the Keys.
These warm and sheltered waters attract one of the most astounding arrays of wildlife found anywhere in the world. Alligators, crocodiles, manatees, sea turtles, more than 350 species of birds, and 700 species of fish can be found in or around Florida’s ponds and coastal waters. Since the turn of the century, Florida has also attracted another sort of inhabitant, whose numbers constantly grow. More than 40 million tourists now savor the state each year, most of them headed for the good life on its sunny coast.