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Is Swimming in Lake Okeechobee Hazardous to Your Health?

While a swim in Lake Okeechobee may look inviting, you might think twice before jumping in these waters. Florida’s largest wetland is full of things you want to avoid.

After reading news stories of pollution and dangerous wildlife, we have cold feet when it comes to taking a dip.

Today, we’re getting into the dirty details you need to know before your next trip to Florida’s Inland Sea. 

Let’s make a splash!

Fishing from a boat on Lake Okeechobee in Florida might be better than swimming in it.
Is it safe to take a dip in Lake Okeechobee?

About Lake Okeechobee

At the center of Florida’s Greater Everglades is Lake Okeechobee. Its surface area covers a whopping 730 square miles, setting it apart from the state’s countless waterways when looking at a map. Although it covers plenty of real estate, the average depth is only nine feet.

The ecosystem is ideal for many plants and animals. Shorebirds, such as herons, egrets, and ibises, flock to the area to munch on various fish species. Both native and invasive fish feed humans and birds alike. 

It isn’t just birds that prey on the fish. Anglers can catch largemouth bass, bluegill, and crappie. In fact, Indigenous Americans relied on the lake for fresh water and food.

The name Okeechobee translates to “big water” in the Seminole language. 

Today, various restoration projects aim to protect it from pollution and other negative impacts. Sadly, they’re becoming more necessary as time goes on. 

What Is the Problem With The Big O?

Despite its size and beauty, locals shy away from swimming in Lake Okeechobee. Heavy pollution, mainly from agricultural runoff, makes it unsafe. Byproducts from fertilizers and pesticides have accumulated at levels beyond the danger zone.

You won’t want to eat the fish you catch, either. Since they live in the toxic stew, their meat is also affected. 

The problem isn’t just that it’s polluted. This watershed is the most contaminated in the entire state. That’s impressive, given that it’s also the largest in Florida.

And because it connects to the Everglades, the Kissimmee River, and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, those waters are also tainted. 

Stormwater contributes to high pollution as well. Florida is a prime target for hurricanes and tropical storms. Excessive toxic runoff enters the region when storms move across the state’s southern tip. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t a new problem. Researchers have noted elevated pollution since the 1980s. 

Even massive lakes can have problems: Which Great Lake Is the Dirtiest?

Do Dangerous Animals Swim in Lake Okeechobee?

If you decide to swim in Lake Okeechobee, you’ll be up against more than invisible dangers. Over 30,000 American alligators make their home here. As a matter of fact, it has a higher population of these massive reptiles than any other spot in Florida. 

In addition to alligators, you can find forty-six native and three non-native snake species here. Most of them are harmless if just a little icky.

However, venomous cottonmouths are hard to spot and consider this lake their territory. While they tend to stay under three feet long, some have measured as much as 71 inches!

Although rare in the water, Burmese pythons are an invasive species in South Florida found throughout the Everglades. They can reach 23 feet in length and weigh several hundred pounds. These nocturnal beasts can hold their breath for half an hour and easily remain hidden despite their size.

It’s not just lakes: The 7 Dirtiest Rivers in the USA.

When Is the Worst Time to Swim in Lake Okeechobee?

Sadly, pollution and wildlife aren’t the only concerns for swimmers in Lake Okeechobee. Toxic algae blooms are frequent occurrences. 

Cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, thrive in waters with high phosphorus and nitrogen levels. This means that all that agriculture runoff feeds the bacteria, making the blooms even more prolific. 

The Florida Department of Health alerts residents anytime these events take place. They warn locals and visitors to avoid contact with the lake, including boating. And although officials claim fish is safe to eat, shellfish are strictly off-limits.

Be aware that boiling doesn’t affect these microscopic organisms, so play it safe and avoid contact at all costs. 

Finally, your pets can also suffer by swimming in or drinking water contaminated with Cyanobacteria. Keep them safe by steering clear of the lake, especially when algae blooms are active. 

A motorboat on a lake. Boating and hiking around Lake Okeechobee are probably healthier activities for you than going for a swim.
Boating and hiking around Lake Okeechobee are probably healthier activities for you

Besides Swimming, What Can You Do at Lake Okeechobee?

While we don’t suggest a swim, the area is still beautiful and full of exciting and safe things to do. 

You’ll find plenty of hiking trails in the area, including the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail. This 110-mile trek circles the water and offers stunning views, especially from the Herbert Hoover Dike. 

The abundant wildlife makes this area a bird-watcher’s paradise. Osprey, kites, and even wild turkeys live in the area. In addition to snakes and alligators, you might also spot graceful manatees swimming by. And occasionally, bobcats appear along the shore. 

Of course, when algae blooms aren’t taking over, you can get out on the water. Rent a boat for a day of fishing or take speed along the surface on an airboat ride. 

The area hosts several annual events you can time your trip around. The Speckled Perch Festival is the oldest, dating back to 1965. The two-day party every March includes food, art, and a classic car show. There’s also the Okeechobee Cowtown Rodeo, which is fun for the whole family. 

Going fishing? Pick up this Lake Okeechobee Fishing Map.

Is Swimming in Lake Okeechobee Worth It?

As you can see, Florida’s largest body of water isn’t exactly safe. We suggest skipping a swim in Lake Okeechobee and instead visit for the wildlife and scenic vistas. You’ll find plenty of ways to enjoy yourself that don’t put your health at risk.

Despite the pollution and dangerous creatures, the Everglades and the surrounding area are unique environments that we should appreciate.

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