This morning I took my first airboat ride in twenty years through Everglades Private Airboat Tours. I had made the appointment for 9:30 am however I arrived twenty minutes earlier than expected, which was good because the staff here do recommend that you arrive 15 minutes before your boat departs. As I waited for the captain of the airboat I was assigned to was ready for me, I looked around the company’s small little gift shop,which contained books, alligator plush toys, souvenir alligator heads, t-shirts saying Everglades Private Airboat Tours on the front pocket, snacks and beverages and hats. There was also a television playing scenes and interviews with some of the drivers. Finally, the captain I was assigned to came in, asking me “are you ready?” I replied with a yes and followed him outside towards the dock and his airboat. As I walked behind the captain towards the dock I noticed that there was a sign that cautioned for all visitors to refrain from heading to and from the airboats unless accompanied by the captain they’ve been assigned to. I took comfort in seeing this because this policy told me that they want their guests supervised at all times by their assigned captain possibly as a safety precaution for them but also to make sure the number of guests there at the time have been accounted for by the front desk and have properly paid for the excursion before heading towards the dock. This sign showed me that the owners have spent a lot of time working on organizing the tours in regards to when boats leave and come back, assigning paid guests to each get a chance to ride that day but also to insure the safety of their passengers.
Once I got onto the airboat, my captain introduced himself, asked me where I was from, and informed me to make sure that any easily detachable items I had like a hat or flip flops were secured in my hands and/or belongings because the fan mechanism that propels the boat will drag and destroy items like this so he wanted to make sure that I had them taken care of before he started the boat.
As the tour started he and I talked a little bit where I was from, what I was doing and what brought me here today. I’m originally from Everglades City I told him but I’ve lived in South Carolina, France and Massachusetts for the past ten years; ironically I went to school with both his daughter and son.
So the tour took full swing through the private estuary that the Everglades Private Airboat Tours owns; I was the only one on board so I certainly felt like I was getting a private tour with my own personal guide, however if you come and do this you might end up taking it with at least ten other people depending on what time of day and year you come by. I was recommended to come before 10:30 am because it was less crowded.
Anyway, the airboat winded down the watery path that was framed by tall saw grass and various species of mangroves. Eventually the captain decided to speed up, which increased the wind speed, causing my hair to blow in the wind behind my head but also for the landscape to wisp past this unique sample of the Everglades ecosystem. The water was very still, despite the boat’s presence, making it appear that the mangroves and grass were upon a glass surface and that we were gliding above it.
As you can see, I did get to see some wildlife. In total, I saw three alligators, primarily females and six rosette spoonbills. According to my captain, the Everglades is currently experiencing one of the most unique changes found in nature-a rush of salt water in exchange of fresh water. My captain stopped in order to show me how one can physically see this change occurring- “Look at the water and see how brackish and muggy it’s gettn’? That’s the salt water comin’ in more and replacing the salt water. This happens always around this time of year, which is going to cause certain animals like the alligators to move to parts of the Everglades where there is fresh water.” I then asked him about the famous fact that the Everglades is the only known ecosystem in the world that sustains both alligators and crocodiles. “Oh yeah, you start to see more crocodiles this time of year because of the salt water,” he replied. “Well then where do the alligators go?” “They move up north, literally across the other side of the road because over in that part of the glades some fresh water ponds still remain in tact.”
Another interesting thing I learned about alligators from him is that the males tend to not stay in one place and are much larger. I figured that the females were smaller, but never realized that they stayed close to their young and their nesting place and rarely venture outside of that area. My captain took me to several of these spots because he reasoned that there was more of a chance of seeing an alligator than none at all. Sure enough, I was able to see two through his guidance, and one at the very beginning of the tour on my own because of his close observations regarding where female gators in the estuary normally nest.
I also got to see lots of local and migratory birds; here’s a lovely picture of three rosette spoonbills, who normally migrate from the Caribbean to the Everglades during the winter. They feed on the many shrimp that live among the mangroves (the same species we humans love to dine on in fact) which gives the spoonbills their distinct rosette color. According to my captain, you can tell how much shrimp a rosette spoonbill has eaten because of how bright their feathers are; he said that he’s seen some that are really really, a bright pink; these were rather pastel as you can see. When we saw these rosette spoonbills my captain commented on the fact that he found it unusual to see rosette spoonbills in the area so late in the season with the salt water coming in because normally they have migrated back to the Caribbean by now.
Towards the end of the tour, my captain pointed out a “prairie” which was basically an area filled with saw grass where larger animals like panthers, deer, bear, etc like to hang out in, hunt and feed. He began to tell me stories about some of the animals that he would see out there like a panther, a few bears, a deer; today was not the day to see anything though however I appreciated the fact that he pointed out this interesting feature to me.
So the tour ended around 10:30 am or so. I left the airboat accompanied by my captain whom I thanked and told him to say hi to his son and daughter for me. I then go inside in order to complete the final part of the tour which was to hold the baby alligator they promise for all guests. This the second time I have ever held an alligator before and actually it’s pleasant; their skin is very smooth with a few bumps and scale like sensations here and there but they’re very sturdy animals and do not feel or smell slimy or gross at all. The alligator I held was from a gator farm so he was used to human contact, and was very placid; he kind of had a look on his face like “why is this human just holding me and what am I supposed to do.”
So how would I rate this experience? On a scale of one to ten a nine because of the knowledgeable yet friendly staff, the beautiful property they own which is a stunning example of the fundamentals that make the Everglades’ ecosystem one of the most valuable and unique ecosystems in the world, it’s great value (only $40 per adult), and the company’s respect and passion for the Everglades, airboats, and the local wildlife that is not only enlightening to the visitor, but also respects everything natural and technological that locals treasure about this area. Airboats are a part of the heritage of the local people here because many of them grew up with families that used them to hunt frog and alligator. Now they are only used for hunting frogs and for showing tourists the Everglades. Taking an airboat ride is definitely an iconic experience you must have during your visit to South Florida because you will not only get a taste of the local heritage, but be able to see the local wildlife in their natural habitat with a knowledgeable local/guide. Thanks for reading and happy travels!