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Lake Okeechobee

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Looking west over Lake Okeechobee,
2007.

 The southeast section of Lake Okeechobee is part of the north and west borders of Palm Beach County. The entire lake averages 45 miles in diameter and covers more than 730 square miles. It is the second largest freshwater lake in the U.S. that is located entirely within one state’s boundaries.

Before Anglo-Americans arrived, Lake Okeechobee was known by other names. When the Spanish arrived in Florida, they called it Mayaimi. The Europeans named it Espiritu Santo Laguna, Lake Mayaca, Lake Macaco, and Lake Sarrope. Today it is called Lake Okeechobee, the Seminole word for “big water.” Some people shorten it to “Lake O.”

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Close-up of the 1831 map Florida with an insert
of Pensacola and Tallahassee by Anthony Finley.

Lake Okeechobee has also been called the “mother of the Everglades," because historically, the water level of Lake Okeechobee rose and fell according to rainfall and the seasons. Water regularly overflowed from its southern shore, spilling onto its flood plain in the Upper Glades and passing all the way through the Everglades down into Florida Bay.

The waters and shores of Lake Okeechobee support various communities of fish, birds, and other animals. Bluegill and red-ear sunfish are among the 60 species of freshwater fish found in Lake Okeechobee, but largemouth bass are its dominant freshwater predators. Because the lake is large, bass do not often have to complete with each other for food. Lake Okeechobee has some of the biggest bass in the country and more of them than any other lake in the U.S. Speckled perch, or specks, are also a favorite with anglers. They are known as “panfish” by locals, as are the bream and crappie. The apple snail is the largest native freshwater snail in North America and an indicator of water quality. The decline of these snails affects the snail kite, and to a lesser degree the limpkin, birds that depend on the apple snail for food.

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Large mouth bass.

Lake Okeechobee is home to some unique trees, vines, fruits, and mosses. Each plant plays a role in the ecosystem, and some may even offer answers to how we can improve our agricultural methods. The pond apple tree is recognized as an important nesting habitat for wading birds and a trellis for the Okeechobee gourd, which is now protected as an endangered species by federal law. Forests of pond apple trees once dominated the southern rim of the lake, but by 1930, ninety-five percent of them had been removed to make way for farmland and water-level management. The trees are now the focus of restoration efforts away from the dike or canal banks.

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Pond apple in Everglades National Park.

Moonvine, or evening glory, can be seen hanging from the pond apple trees or along the shoreline of lagoons. Spanish moss also dangles from many trees, getting its nourishment from nutrients in the air. The moss actually helps the tree it grows on, when the moss holds moisture in periods of long droughts. Early Florida settlers used Spanish moss to stuff their mattresses and furniture cushions.

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