Hidden Gems: Everglades Airboat Tours

Florida is home to one of the most unusual ecosystems in the
world: the Everglades. A member of the National Park System and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Everglades is the only
subtropical park in North America. The park teems with wildlife and plants — some of which are endangered and many of which exist nowhere else on earth.

This weekend, I got the chance to go on an airboat ride through the Everglades. I had this opportunity last fall,
too, and I was thrilled to get the chance to go again. And you know what? It was just as much fun the second time!

We arrived at the Loxahatchee Everglades Tours at 1:02 in the
afternoon. We eagerly bought our tickets ($25.50 per person, after the 15% off coupon you can print out from the website). If
you like, you can also buy snacks and cold drinks.

ticket sales

Rides depart every half hour, so we had some time to kill. Fortunately, they have a nice museum there — right
behind ticket sales — where you can learn all about the Everglades. Featured prominently on the walls of the
museum are loads of newspaper clippings about the Everglades. I was pleased to see one clipping in
particular. After all, I was in search of a "hidden gem." I was clearly in the right place!

Florida offers hidden spots

Unfortunately, right next to that clipping, I found another one…which I didn’t really feel like reading
too closely…

newspaper clipping

So, instead, I decided to concentrate on learning about the local flora and fauna. The museum boasts dozens of
preserved specimens from the region. For example, I loved this polished turtle shell.

turtle shell

Here’s a Florida bobcat. Sadly, there aren’t too many remaining.

Florida bobcat

Of course, the Everglades is known for its alligators.

alligator

Although I wanted to see some alligators while I was on the boat, I didn’t want to see too many like this:

mouth

To estimate the length of an alligator in the water, you measure from the nostrils to where the eyes poke up. For
every inch of snout, you have one foot of gator. This gator, therefore, was about 8 or 9 feet long when it died.
Unfortunately, you can’t estimate age or gender very easily.

The museum has a lot of information in it. Although it’s not too fancy, it’s quite large, and you could easily
spend an hour wandering around.

museum

Finally, it was time to head to the boat. I was excited. We made our way past ticket sales, and into the Arthur
A. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge
.

Arthur A. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

For those of you who don’t know what an airboat is, it’s basically a flat-bottomed boat that skims over the water.
The major difference between an airboat and most other pleasure boats is that an airboat doesn’t have a propeller
hanging in the water. Rather, it uses something like a giant fan to push it over the water. Since there’s no prop in
the water, airboats can glide over very shallow bodies of water. For example, airboats were crucial in helping to clean up after
Hurricane Katrina
.

airboat2

In this part of the Everglades, the water is about 24 inches deep, so airboats are the perfect option. Of course,
not all airboats seat 2 dozen people. Most recreational airboats only seat 2 to 4 individuals.

airboat

The owner and lead guide of these tours is a salty feller named Wild Lyle. As his name implies, Wild Lyle is a
crusty ol’ bugger. He tells it like it is. However, despite his curmudgeony-ness, he really loves the Everglades and is
happy to share his knowledge of it with visitors, so it stays protected long into the future.

pre-boarding

Without even asking, I received the best seat on the boat!

Best Seat

OK…so all the seats say that they’re the best. But it’s true. The boats are small, and you can see great from
anywhere. Immediately, in fact — before I even sat down! — I saw a turtle!

turtle2

Hmmm…maybe you can’t tell from that photo, but that’s not really a turtle. It’s an old sand bag that has floated
away from shore. However, in my defense, when Wild Lyle tells you that he sees a turtle, you instantly aim your camera.

Soon, Lyle fired up the boat and took us for a spin through the Everglades. Some people might not think the
Everglades are much to look at, but I think they’re beautiful!

everglades

The engine is loud, so Lyle gives you ear protection.

ear protection

If you go on a  trip like this, you’re virtually guaranteed to see alligators. In one hour, we probably saw 50
of them. There are 6 in the photo below.

everglades2

Some alligators get very close to the boat, but they swim away if you get too near.

alligator

At about the 40-minute-mark, Lyle stops the boat and talks about the Everglades. If you have a question, you’re
free to ask him.

Wild Lyle

He’s worked in the Everglades for 35 years, and he knows everything. He’s conducted rescue missions to collect
people and recover downed airplanes; he knows every animal in the park; and he has some great ideas about how to
protect the Everglades for future generations. He’s a terrific resource, and he has the ability to explain complicated
issues in very simple terms. For example, he explained that women are less likely to find their ways into and out of
the Park successfully, because they are directionally-challenged. See, I told you he was crusty!

If you want to know what an airboat ride feels like, I shot a short video of the ride for you to watch. It’s
52-seconds long, and it ends with a pretty fair shot of an alligator submerging. Pardon my fat finger in the opening
frames of the video!

An airboat ride with Wild Lyle takes one hour. In that hour, you get to see all kinds of wildlife and learn about
one of our country’s most treasured natural resources. If the weather is nice, it’s a wonderful way to spend part of a
day. In addition to enjoying the ride on the boat, personally, I felt smarter after the trip.  Or, as my
friend so eloquently put it: "I love learning about all this nature crap!"