Southwest Florida has a
very colorful history. The Everglades were filled with smugglers, outlaws,
bootleggers, environmental activists, alligator hunters, songwriters and
We airboated through the Everglades
on a previous visit to
Florida, and we just happened to be returning there
when Captain Gary wrote us an email.
"You toured with me before.
C'mon down! I work for a different company now and want to show you what we got
You bet. Wouldn't
miss it for the world.
Everglades City isn't
far from Naples
We arranged for a day in
the week that was convenient and drove the easy hour from Naples to Everglades City.
It had been gorgeous and clear for days, but that afternoon, dark, menacing
clouds gathered. We could have sheets of rain or the skies could clear. The
unpredictable weather added to the excitement and we figured it was all part of the experience.
We didn't mind either way.
Entrance to Everglades
City Airboat Tours
Humans have lived in the southern
portion of the Florida peninsula for 15,000 years. The two major native tribes
which formed in and around this area were the Calusa and the Tequesta.
The coast of Florida was mapped in 1773
by a British surveyor named John Gerard de Brahm and he called this area "River
Glades." It has been suggested that cartographers substituted "Ever" for the
word "River" and in 1823 the name "Ever Glades" first appeared on a map. It
stayed this way and by 1851 the name was sometimes spelled "Everglades."
Akaisha in rain gear with two-way
communication headphone and mic
Captain Gary was coming in to the dock
from having just completed a previous tour. He recognized us right away and
since we were early, we waited a few minutes for the the rest of our small group
Stating the obvious, the Captain said it could
rain any moment. We could wait to see if it blew over or get the tour on the road. Or
actually, on the water. We chose the latter.
Professional and courteous, Gary handed us
all rain gear and explained how the two-way communication system worked. Our
journey throughout The Glades would be fully narrated through our headphones (which drowned out
the noise of the airboat's motor) and if we had any questions, he would be able
to hear us ask.
Everglades City Airboat Tours was the only
company offering this two-way communication system and it was both comfortable
Always an individual, Billy chose not to wear
his gear and to take his chances. We motored slowly out of the harbor going
against the 7 mile an hour current and Captain Gary explained that the tide was coming in. Water
levels could go up 6 feet or so during this period.
A closer look at the airboats
All the boats owned by Everglades City
Airboat Tours are brand new and our boat could hold 6 passengers very
comfortably on these cushy seats! Airboats today are propelled by airplane
engines and skim the surface of the water so as not to disturb the ecosystem.
Ten Thousand Islands of the Everglades
The Ten Thousand Islands is an ecosystem of
fresh and salt water comprised almost completely of mangrove forests covering about 200,000 acres. The trees can survive drastic water level changes and
are tolerant of salt, brackish and fresh water. Because of their roots, these
dense collections of mangroves protect
the coastline during severe storms. The unusual root tangle absorbs the energy of waves and
the surges of storms.
forests thrive near the mouths of large rivers where there is lots of sand and
mud. Over time, these roots can collect enough sediment and debris to extend the
edge of the coastline further out. Mangroves in the Everglades serve as nurseries for
crustaceans and fish and are breeding grounds for birds.
shrimp and stone crab industries are supported by this ecosystem.
Stone crab traps
Collecting stone crabs is a huge
industry in Florida, and almost 90% of commercially harvested crustaceans are
born in or spend time near the Everglades. Crabs are
trapped in cages such as the ones pictured above, pulled to the surface and one
claw is snapped off. They are then returned to the water and within a year will
grow another claw to replace the one that was taken.
Stone crab fishing boat
crabs are only harvested along Florida's Gulf Coast and the season runs from
mid-October to mid-May.
Everglades City is
considered the epicenter of the stone crab fishery.
Intricate roots of the mangrove tree
easily able to move through the complex waterways of the Everglades on the
airboat. Even though the airboat travels on the surface of the water, sometimes
the extended roots of the mangrove tree are pulled up by the activity of the
boat. This provides the benefit of keeping these trails clear for tourism.
But when water trails get too narrow or clogged, they are cleared so that this
industry can continue, providing income for local residents.
Mangrove trees are sometimes called "Walking
Trees" because of their roots
Many of the twists and turns looked the same
to me and made me nervous. Where were we going and how did Gary know where we
were? All I could think of was that someone could easily disappear here
forever and no one would ever know...
When I asked Captain Gary how he could tell
one turn from another, he hesitated and said he was just about to pull out a map
and look! Then he laughed heartily. His family came to The Glades in the 1800s and he was born and
raised in this area. He knew it like the back of his hand!
This trail through the mangroves opens up
at the end
Gladesmen led a simple life among the maze of
mangroves and swampgrass that are known as the Everglades today. Fishing,
hunting alligators and trapping raccoons gave families the protein they needed
for survival. A most independent sort, they made their own rules for living
together and they poled through the marshes in handmade wooden skiffs. At some
point, motorized swamp buggies replaced the skiffs, and today transport is made
Raccoons live in these parts and we were able
to see one from our airboat.
The creation of Everglades National Park
changed the lives of Gladesmen more than anything else. By forming a National
Park, it began 30 years of contention between the locals who considered this
their home grounds and the government who wanted to limit where they could live.
The National Park Service found itself
balancing the traditional uses of the Big Cypress reserve by the Gladesmen with
protecting it from any damaging overuse.
Fights continue to this day over access to
Airboats replaced swamp buggies
This is a photo of another company giving a
tour on their airboat. While they have headsets to keep the noise of the
motors from bothering the passengers, this Captain must stop his boat at certain
places to narrate about what they have just seen or are about to see. So it is a
stop/start/stop kind of tour.
My first attempt at a self-portrait
My arms aren't as long as Billy's and here I
am taking a self-portrait of the two of us with the Captain in front of the
large fan, distinctive of airboats. I think I need more practice with the
From the mangrove forest to the sawgrass
Sawgrass marshes are part of a complex
ecosystem that include cypress swamps, mangrove forests, tropical hardwood
hammocks and pine rockland. In 1947, Marjory Stoneman Douglas described these
marshes as being a "River of Grass."
Closer view of the sawgrass marshes
Prior to the Everglades being drained in
1905, there were 4,000 square miles of marshes and prairies. Climate and the
frequency of fire help to create, replace or maintain these ecosystems. Sloughs are the free-flowing channels of
water between the prairies. Turtles, snakes, fish and of course, alligators
flourish in these waters.
Sawgrass thrives in slowly moving water but
if there are unusually deep floods and oxygen is unable to reach its roots,
sawgrass becomes vulnerable. This is especially true immediately after a fire.
Where these grasses grow densely, only a few animals or other plants are able to
This is Gator Country
Alligators like to choose these sawgrass
locations for nesting and have created their own
niche in the wet prairies. Digging at low spots with
their claws and snouts, they create ponds free of vegetation that
survive even during dry season. These holes are essential to the
survival of turtles, fish, small mammals and birds during extended
drought times and the alligators are also able to feed on some of
these animals which come to the holes.
Captain Gary holds up a mangrove propagule
So how does a new mangrove tree begin?
Spindle-like propagules form on the trees like the one that Gary is holding. These
can be directly planted into the soil by nurseries. In nature, these buoyant
propagules are carried and dispersed by currents.
Here you see new mangrove trees growing up
from the silt held by the root system.
It never did rain, and all those intense
Awesome Captain Gary
We enjoyed our tour through the Everglades
and we definitely recommend Captain Gary. His narration was informative and made
the tour come alive. If you have any questions about the history of the
Everglades or the nature that abounds here, Gary will answer them for you.
Everglades City Airboat Tours
For information and reservations call
1.877.AAA.6400 or 239.695.2400