Taking an Ride on Captain Mitch’s Airboat
A fun way to experience and learn about the Everglades
By Gloria Guldin
Taking a ride on one of Captain Mitch’s Airboats is not only fun but educational as well. All of the captains/tour guides are well-versed in the The Everglades, its history, plants and animals.
Every excursion is an adventure and every one is different. You never know what you will see in terms of wildlife, but the trees and plants are steadily present and so interesting. You will leave with pictures in your mind (and camera) as well a greater understanding of the wetland plant life.
As soon as we were all seated and had our ear plugs in place (an airboat is quite noisy) Captain Stanford launched the boat and we began our hour-long adventure into the beautiful Everglades. He told us there are approximately 500,000 acres of mangroves in South Florida; about half of which are preserved as The Everglades National Park.
The breeze felt surprisingly cool on this hot, humid day. The airboat almost flew over the airboat trails. The boat is touching the water, of course, but the ride is so smooth it seems like we were flying. The ride is a unique experience, both exhilarating and relaxing at the same time. It’s reminiscent of the “Soaring” attraction at Epcot, only this is real, not simulated.
After a few minutes the captain idled up to the edge of a mangrove and explained how it plays a vital role in the ecological system of the swamplands in South Florida. He told us how the mangrove leaves, wood, roots and other material provide an essential resource in the food chain and habitat for the many wildlife including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and anthropods. The mangroves also serve as a storm buffer, their roots stabilizing the shorelines, providing protection during storms and hurricanes .
Mangroves survive in brackish water because they are able to extract pure water and secrete the salt through their salt glands. They have aerial roots which originate downward from the trunk and provide additional support. The water is clear and the reflection of the mangroves in the water gives it an aesthetic appeal as well.
He then explained the brackish water. The Everglades was originally called River Glades in the 18th century, a “river of grass” that originates near Orlando with many lakes and the Kissimmee River, which flows through Lake Okeechobee and forms a slow-moving ‘river’ 60 miles wide and over 100 miles long. That ‘river’ slowly flows across South Florida into the Ten Thousand Islands. There the fresh river water mixes with the salt water of the Gulf of Mexico to form brackish water. The brackish water serves as an “incubator” of sorts for small organisms and vertebrates. Much of our commercially harvested fish and crustaceans begin their life’s journey in this brackish waters.
Captain Stanford points to “propagules”, resembling long green bean, on the mangrove trees. Propagules are the fruit of the mangrove which act as seedlings. They fall off the mangrove, float, then embed themselves in the soft silt under the water, sprouting and forming new mangrove trees.
We move on, this time picking up even more speed. We are flying now, at a speed of only about 40 miles per hour but it seems much faster, and the cool breeze is refreshing. The captain weaves through the swamp grass, our airboat leaning right and then left. He hugs the curves of the mangroves and the boat tilts left and right. But we never feel out of balance or afraid.
The waterways wind their way around hammocks, areas of higher ground where other trees such as scrub palms, cypress, Royal Palms and Gumbo Limbos provide protection for the land animals that forage there, especially during the winter months when the ground is dryer. The waterways, or sloughs, are free-flowing channels of water between the sawgrass prairies, allow aquatic animals such as alligators, snakes and fish to move about and thrive. And airboats too, of course.
Sawgrass, a hearty species of grass that dominates and is so-called because of its serrated, saw-tooth like edges., he explains, is also an important element in the Everglades. Sawgrass providing nutrients and habitats. The tall grass, maidencane, is another perennial grass. It can grow up to eight feet tall. The captain explains that fires, usually caused by lightning strikes, are nature’s way of not only controlling plant growth but also fostering plant growth. The burnt plants provide nutrients more efficiently than decaying matter. However, during the dry season, the effects of fires are much more significant and since the land is dryer during our winters, fires can also destroy the root systems if not controlled. Thousands of acres could be lost.
The captain points out some of the many submerged and floating plants in the Everglades. Waterlilies, with their white flowers, are easily recognized. But there are other ones, mistakenly called water lilies. One is the carnivorous bladderwort, with small yellow flowers. It digests small aquatic creatures. Who knew? The spatterdock, or cow lily, is another floating plant. It has heart-shaped leaves and yellow flowers that appear half-opened. Unusual names for unusual plants.
The captain slows after a while and steers the boat straight into the saw grass toward some mangroves and a palm tree. He points out an alligator nest, a mound of grass and twigs about three feet high, behind the sawgrass and under a scrub palm. He tells us the female built this nest several months ago, during our winter months, when the water was low and the land was dry.
Our captain tells us that a female alligator can lay up to 40 eggs at a time. She then covers her eggs with more vegetation and the sun warms the nest to help the eggs hatch. But the survival rate for young alligators is very slim. They are easy prey for birds and larger alligators, all except their own mother, of course. The captain says it will be luck if three survive to adulthood.
As we listen to the captain, the mother alligator approaches us on our right and the captain draws our attention to her. She eyes us as if to let us know she is keeping an eye on her nest and watching us. She’s a young one, not very long and fairly thin, and the captains have named her ‘Twiggy.’ He says the largest alligator he has ever seen is a 13-footer, but he says he has heard of one that was 15 feet long and weighed between 700 and 800 pounds. ‘Wow,’ we all say in unison.
We take off again and I wonder how this captain knows his way. The airboat trails and mangroves all seem very similar to me. It’s like a maze. But the captain is sitting higher than we are and I notice a radio tower in the distance which I figure is his landmark. We head back to the dock.
The ride is a unique experience, both exhilarating and relaxing at the same time. And we learned so much about the Everglades, the flora and the fauna. It makes us appreciate this protected national park even more than we did before.
The captain thanks us for joining him on the ride and asks if there are any questions. Of course there are. We want to hear more about the Everglades. But there are new passengers waiting on the pier. We are invited to go into the gift shop to hold a baby alligator, get some refreshments and check out the souvenirs, including an assortment of books about the Everglades, the plants and wildlife. We know we will come back for another airboat ride. Soon.
Captain Mitch can be found at; Captainmitchs.com