Everglades Airboat Tour

An Everglades airboat tour is definitely a cliché tourist thing to do, but that didn’t stop me from putting it at the top of my list for our recent trip to South Florida. As I started to research our options, I encountered a plethora of companies offering basically the same brief thrill ride through the mangroves to see alligators. I began to get discouraged as a brief perusal of websites left me with the feel of cheap roadside attractions. I began crossing off companies touting things like “animal sanctuaries” where they announced we could see not only alligators, but tigers. The idea of tigers living in a cage in South Florida for tourists to ogle just made me sad.

Thankfully, my research also introduced me to Down South Airboat Tours. This company was owned by 6th generation residents of the area and seemed to value giving guests the opportunity to really experience the Everglades over simply providing a thrill ride. They had rave reviews from previous guests and claimed a more authentic view of the Everglades, exploring an area different from other tour operators. Several reviewers who’d been on multiple airboat tours with a variety of companies backed up these claims and despite the significantly higher price tag, I was sold.

Several weeks later on a cool, but sunny winter day we pulled off on the side of US-41 at a public boat ramp halfway between Miami and Everglades City, just about equidistant from the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Across the relatively deep canal that paralleled the highway, a sea of seemingly endless grass stretched to the horizon, dotted here and there with stands of cypress trees. An airboat was parked on the ramp and a dozen trucks with boat trailers sat nearby with no sign of their occupants.

A matter-of-fact gentleman in his 60s wearing a camouflage jacket and jeans approached us as we got out of our car and introduced himself a Bill, our guide. We were a bit early, but he said we could leave whenever we were ready.

At first I wondered if this was going to be a really long 90 minutes. I’d been hoping to learn a lot about the Everglades on this trip and Bill initially seemed a bit quiet. We had barely gotten situated in the boat  when I realized how wrong my initial assessment had been, however. Bill quickly became animated as he started to talk about what he referred to as his “backyard”. Having grown up 20 minutes away, he’d spent much of his life on these acres and his passion for the area came through clearly.

Daryle and I were the only people booked on the tour, even though the boat could fit two or three more. Down South has a policy of one party per tour making each trip a personal and customized experience.

Before pulling away from the dock, Bill handed us each a pair of two-way headsets that gave us the ability to not only hear what he had to say over the noise of the fan, but to ask questions along the way as well.

It had been cold in Florida recently, so on the recommendation of one of the owners, I’d booked a mid-day tour, departing at 11:30 to up our chances of seeing alligators. (Later that day we’d stop off at the Big Cypress National Preserve Oasis Visitor Center farther west on US-41 and see dozens sunning themselves below the raised boardwalk, but at this point, we were still on the hunt for a gator.)

Having led many tours, I’m sure Bill knew that, like most of his guests, we wouldn’t settle in to enjoy the rest of the scenery until the need to see at least one alligator was satisfied. As we pulled away from the dock, he mentioned he’d seen some alligators earlier that morning and we’d go see if they were still hanging around, before “really heading out to see the Everglades.”

A short distance from the dock, Bill navigated the airboat through an area mottled with relatively solid-looking patches of ground where several of the dark-skinned reptiles lay inert sunning themselves. It was hard for me to tell the different between the small bits of solid ground where the alligators lay and the mats of thick stems and roots floating on the water surface.

Several times, I thought we were about to collide with an island of solid ground when suddenly the vegetation would silently submerge, pushed down by the weight of the boat, and let us pass freely. Most of the water in the freshwater part of the Everglades we would be exploring was less than 2 feet deep during the winter dry season, making airboats, which sink just 2-3 inches into the water, the preferred method of motorized transportation. Bill told us you can actually run a light airboat in your front yard on nothing more than the morning dew – although he doesn’t recommend it, as it tends to annoy the neighbors.

As Bill navigated our boat through the thick grass to rejoin one of the more formal “trails” we’d follow for most of our tour, we were immediately immersed in wilderness, a world away from the hectic urban jungle of Miami, just 30 miles down the road. Within the two million acres that remain of the Everglades (1/3 of the original extent), Bill told us that there are five major ecosystems and that we’d see two on our adventure: grassland and cypress forest. Starting out in the grassland, we were surrounded by vast plains of grass with stands of cypress trees (referred to as strands) that could stretch up to 75 miles. Upon closer inspection of these “plains”, we could see that there was actually a blanket of remarkably clear water covering nearly every surface. In some areas, just a few inches of elevation gain made cypress strands into islands, called domes, which offered the only respite in the saturated grasslands for local land mammals like white-tailed deer and marsh rabbits.

Water quality has long been a major issue of concern in the Everglades and today the water is cleaner than it has been in a very long time. After many (fairly unsuccessful) years of dredging canals to drain the area with a goal of making it both more suitable for agriculture and real estate, and (misguidedly) to protect the area from flooding, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CREP) was passed by Congress in 2000. Combined with a year of heavier than normal rainfall in 2017 and the tidal surge from Hurricane Irma helping to flush out the area, Bill told us proudly that the water was the cleanest it had been in 50 years. In fact, he professed, that unlike several years ago, today he’d happily scoop some up to drink without any hesitation. I was less confident, but this was good to hear.

In addition to beginning to fill in the 1500 miles of dredged canals, the CREP is providing for the removal of dams in the area that prevent the free-flow of water within the Everglades. The largest of these is Highway 41 itself which cuts straight through the Everglades, effectively dividing the salt and freshwater ecosystems. In fact, we’d driven through miles of construction on our way to the boat dock where the road was in the process of being elevated to remove this barrier without impeding the flow of humans.

The 35 miles of trails that we travelled on our tour were primarily narrow channels free of vegetation or filled with shorter muhly grass, lined on both sides with taller sawgrass and cat tails. The name saw grass is not a joke – the edges of these stalks are made up of thousands of tiny saw-like teeth. Pull up on a stalk and all is well, but run your hand down a stalk and you will regret it.

The landscape was so immense, we found ourselves scanning the horizon constantly for signs of life, a bit like being on a wetland safari. The first bird we saw was an osprey. These majestic fish-eating raptors experienced a dramatic decline in populations in the 1950s and 60s and were listed as endangered in many states. Proving their resilience, ospreys, with the help of reintroduction programs and a ban on DDT, have slowly made an impressive comeback and have been downlisted to threatened or to a species of “least concern” in most states. We’d see many more during our time in South Florida, both in and out of the Everglades.

We also saw great egrets, the iconic symbol of the Everglades as well as of the Audubon Society, with their snowy white plumage and long black legs, as well as snowy egrets, a variety of hawks and a handful of great blue herons. These shy graceful giants are always one of my favorites.

In addition, there were vultures, both turkey vultures and black vultures, surfing the air currents everywhere. These birds are critical to the ecosystem as well as important to humans. Not only do they serve as the janitors of the Everglades, keeping the dead stuff from piling up, they help to control disease. As scavengers, vultures eat things we’d rather not think about and that have died for all sorts of reasons, from old age to deadly viruses. An important example of the protective measures these birds have developed is saliva that contains an enzyme lethal to the rabies virus, which not only protects the vultures, but prevents the virus from being passed on and proliferating.

Farther along on our journey, Bill pointed out several camps on small cypress dome islands still used by the Miccosukee Indians. The rough wooden docks were clearly visible as were the thatch-roofed chikee huts, just peeking through the trees. No longer used on a permanent basis, these structures and camps still host special ceremonies. Two island in particular are sites for the cremation and burial of tribe members – one island for the women and another for the men. Bill joked that the Miccosukee chief had told him this was “so they could all rest in peace.”

Also living in the Everglades, but thankfully not seen by us, were 27 species of snakes, including four that are poisonous. In addition to the snakes that are supposed to live here, there is a newer addition which Bill referred to as an “ecological disaster.” After a bit of research, I’m inclined to agree.

In the 1980’s, Burmese pythons, native to SE Asia, started showing up in the Everglades and by 2000, it was reluctantly recognized that there was an established breeding population. It’s thought that the originals were exotic pets released by their owners, but it’s also likely that Hurricane Andrew really accelerated things. In 1992, this category 5 hurricane pretty much flattened everything in the town of Homestead, located on the edge of the Everglades, including a private reptile breeding facility that was supplying a substantial demand for exotic reptiles as pets.

One of the largest snakes in the world, Burmese pythons eat a lot of small mammals and birds. In fact, there is no doubt that the precipitous decline in small mammals seen in the Everglades in recent years, reported to be as much as 99%, is related to the introduction of pythons to the ecosystem. Of course the impact doesn’t stop there. Several people we met who have lived in the area for many years told us they’ve seen more Florida panthers in the past few years than ever, mostly on and along roadways, although there’s no evidence there are any more of these incredibly rare cats. In fact, with an estimated population of only 70 to 160, its surprising that anyone sees this rarest of the world’s large cats at all. The likely explanation is that panthers are being forced to range more widely to hunt as the populations of small prey species decline. This puts the cats at greater risk for traffic accidents and other unfavorable encounters with humans. To underline what a true threat traffic accidents are considered, we passed through an entire straight, flat section of US-41 that was labelled a “panther-zone” and given a 35mph nighttime speed limit.

About 2/3 of the way into our trip, Bill navigated our boat into a dense stand of cypress and shut off the motor. It was beautiful, virtually silent and incredibly peaceful. We were in the cypress swamp and I can only describe the feeling as mystical or spiritual. This was, without a doubt, my favorite part of the tour. One minute we were speeding along with the sun beating down and wind in our faces, looking out over miles and miles of flat plains of grass and then suddenly we found ourselves floating in this very close, cozy enclave of dense forest with visibility cut to 50 yards at most and life just climbing all over itself.

As we floated quietly, Bill pointed out numerous bromeliad species growing in every nook and cranny of the wide-based cypress trees.  Although silent during the day, he said at night the frog chorus would be intense and you could easily see 40-50 owls from this very spot.

After several minutes, we reluctantly put our headsets back on and Bill fired up the fan for our return to civilization. As we navigated the grassy trails and turned toward the radio towers that marked the public dock we’d launched from, we watched one last great blue heron take off and clear a strand of cypress trees in the distance.

A few minutes out from the dock, we saw two other boats heading out. I realized that we had been on the water for 90 minutes and not once seen a single other boat or human.

Now, I’m a mountain girl and the Everglades are a much more subtle landscape than I’m used to, and nothing if not flat, but there is incredible beauty in this subtlety where even a few inches of elevation or the exact mix of salt and fresh water can mean a whole new subset of species. There is also incredible significance and importance in this diverse ecosystem that is home to nearly 70 threatened or endangered plant and animal species, including the charismatic Florida panther and West Indian manatee. I am thankful to have had the chance to get a glimpse of the magnitude and importance of this place and I’m grateful to Bill for sharing his backyard with us.

If you have the opportunity to visit the Everglades, you should absolutely take it and I highly recommend an airboat ride with Down South Airboat Tours and a stop at the Oasis Visitor Center to see the alligators.