Touring the Everglades by airboat

Rush hour in the Everglades. Another airboat passes during our tour.

Rush hour in the Everglades. Another airboat passes during our tour.

A raccoon and our driver, Justin, share a moment.

A raccoon and our captain, Justin, share a moment.

The Chevy 350 engine rumbled to life as we climbed aboard an airboat for a 45-minute tour of the southwestern edge of the Everglades. Headphones protected our ears from the noise as the engine roared and the boat pushed out into the mangrove swamp.

The mangroves form narrow tunnels that open onto wide bays — where the bots speed up and the thrill level rises.

The mangroves form narrow tunnels that open onto wide bays — where the bots speed up and the thrill level rises.

A flat bottomed tin can of a boat with cushioned benches for six people were all that separated us from the tea-colored water below us. The trip began tame enough as we inched through the shadowy tunnels formed by mangroves arching over the water. We spied white ibises and a blue heron as well as a few quarter-sized crabs scurrying up the roots at the water’s edge.

Chevy 350 engines power the Everglades airboats.

Chevy 350 engines power the Everglades airboats.

Pretty tame at first. In fact, it seemed like one of those rides in Disney World. You know the kind: You climb aboard a nice little boat and ride safely through a set  path. There were airboats in front of us and others behind us. Our captain, Justin, kept in contact with the other  captains so he knew where everyone was. Even if it was mid-afternoon on a Tuesday, it was rush hour on the swamp.

Cute as they were (and thirsty), we were warned not to get too close to the raccoons.

Cute as they were (and thirsty), we were warned not to get too close to the raccoons.

Then the tunnel opened up and Justin hit the gas. The boat rose as it picked up speed and slid sideways a bit around the curve. Cool air and a spray of water blue across our faces. It was a thrill — until the hull of the boat hit a bit of mud and the boat crashed into a stand of mangroves. I flew onto the deck. No harm done but I was a little rattled.

A few minutes later the excitement was forgotten as we approached a group of raccoons. First one, then two, three…10 and maybe more. They climbed the branches, dangled over the boats, put their hand-like black paws out, looking for a treat. They were graceful, gregarious, curious and adorable. The captain offered a bottle of water, explaining that the water we floated on is saltwater. The only water these little critters get is the dew that collects in the morning. They sucked down the whole bottle and looked for more.

This was the highlight of the tour. That and speeding over the open water of the swamp under a brilliant sunlit Florida sky.

Sharp eyes are needed to see some of the wildlife — like this young blue heron — that live among the mangroves.

Sharp eyes are needed to see some of the wildlife — like this young blue heron — that live among the mangroves.

We chose Everglades City Airboat Tours, one of several operators in Everglades City. Why them? No reason really, except that their website was easy to navigate and we easily found their operating hours, directions and phone number.

Last year, we took a tour with Jungle Erv. which also has a bit of a zoo with alligators and a boardwalk over the swamp. It wasn’t any better and the cages full of animals were, to be honest, kind of sad. The tour was about the same, although the captain was a proud Everglades native.

We picked this airboat company but there are several outfits in Everglades City.

We picked this airboat company but there are several outfits in Everglades City.

Airboat tours are pretty touristy — as are the Chincoteague pony tours we took this summer (Yes, we went twice.) But it’s also a pretty easy way to see the beauty of the Everglades. Paired with the long ride down the Tamiami Trail and a stop at the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk, it’s a natural for a day away.

© Text and photos
Mary K. Tilghman

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