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Whether you call them bogs, bayous, swamps, or marshes, wetlands are critical habitats for wildlife and offer flood protection for people living near these watery estuaries. A swamp, which is a wetland with trees, differs from a low-lying marsh, which is characterized by its consistent flooding of water from ocean tides or bodies of freshwater. A bayou, on the other hand, is a stagnant area within a swamp, while a bog is unable to support any plant life at all, due to its thick layers of peat and a lack of nutrients.
No matter what you call them, wetlands are found on every continent except Antarctica, acting as giant sponges and soaking up excess water. They even alleviate the damage to fragile coastal ecosystems caused by storm surges, mitigating climate change. Although wetlands cover less than 8% of the Earth’s land, it’s estimated that they retain almost a third of the world’s carbon. Swamp or marsh tours let you experience the wonders of a wetland with local guides. Here are eight of the world’s most amazing wetlands and the best ways to see them.
The Pantanal (Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia)
Brilliant blue hyacinth macaws — the world’s longest parrot — screech above the largest tropical wetland on Earth. Covering more than 70,000 square miles, this South American swamp is roughly the size of Washington state and nestled between Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia.
Nearly 5,000 species of plants and animals call the Pantanal home, in addition to the world’s highest concentration of jaguars (they’re expert swimmers!) and 270 communities of Indigenous people along with ranchers and tourism operators. For a variety of tours by boat, bike, or on foot led by Kadiweu native Marcelo Indio (also known as “the Jaguar Man”), check out Pantanal Wilderness.
The Great Dismal Swamp (North Carolina and Virginia)
Once covering more than 1 million acres, the Great Dismal Swamp is the geologic remainder of a vast sea. The land formed when the continental shelf experienced a sudden settling and the swamp began to be forested at the end of the last Ice Age about 11,700 years ago. Rich in cypress, cedar, and other trees, President George Washington was an early investor in a company attempting to drain the swamp to harvest its lumber and use the land for farming. The murky swamp also became a refuge for African-Americans seeking freedom from enslavement, as the area’s impenetrable forest, venomous snakes, and dangerous wildlife provided cover from bounty hunters and law enforcement.
By the 1970s, about 90% of the swamp had been destroyed, but 112,000 acres remained, protected as a federal wildlife refuge. Today, the panthers and wolves are gone, but visitors can still see bears, foxes, alligators, butterflies, and more than 200 species of bird. Four-hour “swamp safari” tours are conducted by Suffolk County Tourism; don’t forget your mosquito repellent!
Asmat Swamp (Indonesia)
On the southern coast of Papua New Guinea lies the largest alluvial swamp in the world, meaning it contains large deposits of silt, clay, sand, and gravel. Named after the Indigenous people of the area, the Asmat is one of the most isolated areas in the world. The Arafura Sea nourishes the coast with 15-foot tide swells, and rivers cross a densely vegetated swamp roughly the size of Belgium. Mangroves nurture fish and crabs, and 15-foot-long crocodiles sun on riverbanks.
The Asmat tribe are fierce warriors, and their exploits are celebrated in fantastically detailed wooden carvings. Papua Adventures offers tours of this stunning region and its fascinating Asmat culture with trips to the swamp in motorized dugout canoes and evenings spent in traditional longhouses. For a more luxurious experience, Far Fung Places offers sailing excursions on a double-masted schooner, with air-conditioned cabins and private bathrooms.
The Everglades (Florida)
Often described as a “river of grass,” Florida’s Everglades National Park covers 1.5 million protected acres — about half of its original size. As the third-largest national park in the Lower 48, the Everglades is a rich biosphere of water and wildlife only an hour’s drive from the bustle of Miami. The wetlands are home to a large number of endangered or threatened species, including panthers, alligators, and manatees — said to have inspired sailors’ tales of mermaids.
The Seminole and Miccosukee tribes fished and hunted among the grasses choking the slow-moving brackish waters, and many still call the region home. Shallow-drafting airboats are a popular way to see the Everglades, as well as kayaking and canoeing excursions.
Okavango Delta (Botswana)
Most river deltas empty into an ocean, but in Botswana, the world’s largest inland delta flows out onto flat and grassy plains which swell to three times their usual size during the rainy season between March. The Okavango Delta covers almost 6,000 miles in the desert and forms an irresistible oasis for wildlife and for the humans who have settled in the area for at least 100,000 years, including the famed “Bushmen of the Kalahari.”
More than 4,000 rock paintings can be found at Tsodilo Hill, an official UNESCO World Heritage Site, depicting wildlife and hunting scenes. The Okavango is home to a wide variety of animals, including elephants, giraffes, hippos, zebras, and wildebeest. For magnificent safaris with a focus on local ownership, check out The Wild Source.
Atchafalaya Basin (Louisiana)
“Atchafalaya” is an Indian word meaning “long river,” and the Chitimacha tribe held sway over this fertile region of southern Louisiana for over 2,000 years — fishing, growing corn, and weaving intricate baskets from the wild cane reeds that grow in abundance. Larger than the state of Rhode Island, the swamp is home to more than 270 bird species, including wood storks, spoonbills, osprey, and bald eagles, as well as Louisiana black bears and thousands of American alligators.
About 15,000 acres of the hardwood forests and brackish salt marshes are preserved as the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge. The French-speaking Acadians who migrated from Canada embraced these remote bayous, and the basin is the pride of Cajun Country. A touring company called The Last Wilderness offers day and night boat trips from the city of Plaquemine.
Mesopotamian Marshes (Iraq and Iran)
The “Cradle of Civilization,” the “Garden of Eden” — whatever you choose to call it, many of the most important developments in human history sprung from this deltaic plain of the Euphrates, Tigris, and Karun rivers in eastern Iraq and southwestern Iran, a land once called Mesopotamia. The Marsh Arabs are believed to be the descendants of ancient Sumerians and have occupied these wetlands for 5,000 years — fishing, raising water buffalo, and cultivating rice.
The marshes, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, consist of shallow freshwater lakes, swamps, and seasonally inundated plains and are a critical wintering habitat for migratory birds. The region’s political instability doesn’t lend itself to a robust tourism economy, but Silk Road Adventures offers tours to the area.
Great Vasyugan Mire (Russia)
The words “Siberia” and “swamp” seem like they would never appear in the same sentence, but the Great Vasyugan Mire, covering almost 14,000 acres (an area 20% larger than Switzerland), is surprisingly lush despite an average winter temperature of -4.9 degrees Fahrenheit. As the largest swamp system in the Northern Hemisphere, the Vasyugan is still growing.
Under consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vasyugan is composed of 800,000 lakes, numerous small rivers and springs, and temporary canals that rise and fall seasonally. A major reservoir of fresh water, the mire is a crucial habitat for bears, lynxes, reindeer, and sable (a small carnivorous mammal similar to a marmot or weasel), as well as many species of bird and fish.