Ecotourism on Airboat Tours in the EvergladesWe had read some highly inflammatory Yelp reviews about how awful airboat tours were. People said “Did not see any gators on the gator tour.” and “very loud.” Finally, we came across Everglades Holiday Park Airboat Tour, which seemed reasonable at first blush. However, we were skeptical about any place that offered an alligator show. We feared mistreatment of gators would taint our entire experience. We prefer eco-tourism, but what is that anyway? According to the Nature Conservancy: “Ecotourism is distinguished by its emphasis on conservation, education, traveler responsibility and active community participation. ” They go on to warn – “Most tourism in natural areas today is not ecotourism and is not [ecotourism]. We agree with the Nature Conservancy when they say “People want to experience nature and the world but should try to do so in a way that doesn’t impact the natural environment.” We just weren’t sure that there were any swamp tours that met these lofty goals. Instead of telling you that Everglades Holiday Park Airboat Tour does all of this, we’ll share with you our experience, and let you decide for yourself.
Arriving at our Everglades Airboat TourEverglades Holiday Park is located about a 30-minute drive west of Fort Lauderdale or 45-minute drive NW of Miami. It’s easy to reach, right at the edge of the Everglades, but still in serious gator country. They even offer a VIP Tour with van pickup at your hotel if you need it for a little extra. Adult tickets cost $31.50, and kids tickets cost $20.50. Kids under 3 are free. The company encourages mothers to bring their babies out to see the wildlife. The accessibility of the tour for little kids was great for business but did nothing to dissuade our fears about the ethos of the trip. We picked up our tickets and proceeded to the dock for boarding. Tours start every 20 minutes and last about an hour, so we didn’t have to wait too long to get out into the Florida swamp.
Meeting Captain M.T. – Our Everglade Airboat Captain and Tour GuideYour captain is your guide to the wonderful world of the Everglades. He not only drives the boat, but he also drives the conversation. Captain M.T. looked like he was straight out of central casting. If you picked up the phone and asked them to send down a gator boat captain, M.T. would show up on set. He had the obligatory jacket, and leather hat covered with gator teeth. I was seriously scared of the cheese factor, and his opening joke about returning the boat M.T. didn’t help. Once that engine started, all I could think about was how loud it was. I’m a guy, and I love boats and power. The roar of the engine pumped adrenaline through me, but my daughter would have definitely wanted ear plugs. It wasn’t too long before we saw our first gator, and he brought the boat almost to a stop.
Gators at the AirboatAlligators have been around more or less unchanged million years. That makes them like living dinosaurs. There is something primordially powerful and intimidating about them. From their reptilian eyes to their armored skin, to sharp teeth protruding from their mouth, you know they are made to eat meat, just like you. If they are hungry enough, they will even eat black bears or panthers, which makes them the natural apex predators in Florida. M.T. used a special call to bring the gators to the boat. They would swim close enough to see them very well… Maybe a little too well. Nothing compares to the eyes of an apex predator, except for perhaps the power of an airboat opened full throttle. After we met a couple of alligators up close and personal, we headed to the back straight-away. Captain MT accelerated up to full speed, and we glided across a river of grass. The airboat ran smoothly along the surface of the swamp in stark contrast to the mighty roar of the motor. After the run, MT let the boat settle back into the water. Surrounded by still and silence, we met One-Eyed Sally and learned about the darkness of the swamp.
Threats to the Everglades SwampTrue to her name, Sally only had one eye. This made her recognizable, but since gators are territorial, the captains know not only where to find gators, but which gators will be there. Sally was pregnant, so we didn’t stay too long. MT wanted to give her some rest. It was heartwarming to see the rugged swamp man caring for a wild gator and showing genuine concern for her well being. As we drifted through the swap, our captain interpreted the ecological war that was raging around us. People, plants, and pests keep finding their way into the Everglades. Nearly a 1/4 of the total all fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals in South Florida are exotic (i.e., not native). Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year to fight the spread of non-native plants and that much or more goes out to fight invasive animals. Looking across a stand of water littlies, we heard about how there used to be a family of fifty or so purple gallinules aka swamp chickens that lived there. M.T. assured us that, despite their common name, they were colorful and graceful as the danced across the lily pads. Last winter, they all disappeared. A 15′ giant python moved in and cleared them all out. Pythons eat everything, including alligators, which makes them the new apex predators of the swamp. Nothing eats them, and so far, hunting is the only thing keeping these snakes in check. Captain MT told us about one fascinating group fighting to protect the Everglades – The Swamp Apes – that he was personally involved with.
The Swamp ApesThe Swamp Apes formed in 2009 when the founder, Tom Rahill, found solace in clearing a backwater canal. The hard physical labor helped him clear his mind and find purpose. It was so therapeutic that he invited other veterans to join him. They didn’t find the same level of satisfaction doing landscaping in a hot, sweaty canal that Tom did, so he had very few that returned for a second session. When he tried the same basic formula with python hunting, everything clicked. The adrenaline rush of hunting and catching snakes was the missing ingredient to mix work, outdoor experience, and a project with a purpose. In the last decade, Rahill has caught over 400 snakes. What is perhaps more important is the difference he has made in the lives of veterans. Captain MT showed us a photo of 22 medicine bottle caps nailed to the wall. One for each veteran who no longer needed medication after participation in the program. We have always believed that nature and adventure were powerful healing forces and there were at least 22 veterans from the Swamp Apes who would surely agree. As the boat returned to the dock, we realized that we saw more than gators in the Glades. We saw a glimpse of an ecosystem like none-other in the United States. The swamps are second only to rainforests in their biological production, and there are species here that are found nowhere else on earth. We learned that if we don’t choose to protect this land, it could disappear forever.
Gator Boy ShowWe shuffled from the docks to the Gator Boy Alligator Rescue Show with two questions on our mind – what is an alligator rescue show and who are the Gator Boys. That sounds like some dudes from an Animal Planet show. It turns out, that was more or less the right answer. Paul Bedard and the Gator Boys were on Animal Planet from 2012 to 2014. After the show closed down, Paul continued his act at Everglade Holiday Park. The first thing Paul explained was that alligator removal was a 100% free service in Florida. The payment trappers receive for their services is getting to keep the body. What’s more, captured alligators over 4′ long can never be returned to the wild by law. Paul rescued all of the alligators who were in the pit with him from nuisance alligator calls, and this was their only chance for survival. That’s what makes this an alligator resue show. Paul’s charisma, appreciation of the alligators, and fearlessness made for an exciting show. He said that these alligators didn’t love him. They just tolerated him being around and gave him funny looks, kind of like going home for Christmas. I’ll admit it, I chuckled at that one. Paul went on to explain cold-blooded animals don’t have a huge reserve of energy. They realize that he is not a threat and just want to sit there. Which is more or less what they did for the entire show. We watched the usual display of alligator tricks, done with witty banter and deep respect for the gators. While we feared for the worse at the ‘rescue show,’ we got great entertainment from a showman who cares about his animals.
Wrapping up our Everglades Airboat Tour
If you want to experience something wild, wonderful, and uniquely Florida consider taking an airboat tour of the Everglades. This is the American tropics, home to an ecosystem like no other. Bring your bug spray, sunscreen, and maybe even earplugs, but most of all bring your sense of adventure. Between alligators and airboat rides, you will get your thrill on during your next Florida getaway.
What’s more, we found Everglades Holiday Park authentically concerned about their magnificent wetlands, especially the alligators. You could tell that everybody respected and admired these incredible animals. There was showmanship, but also stewardship. They worked hard to educate their visitors on, not only the beauty of the swamp but also the dangers that it faces.