Airboating In the Florida Everglades

Originally aired on Savvy Traveler in February, 1998

So you say you’ve been to Florida, you’ve worked on your tan.  You’ve seen the mouse. What could possibly top that?  snd of PA system saying: “Please make your way to the boats at this time, the boats are ready to go”   As Donna Green-Townsend reports thousands get their kicks careening through Florida’s River of Grass on an airboat in the Florida Everglades.

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(airboat operator) “Five people in a seat.  When you’re in the boat never put your hands outside the boat.  Step carefully in the boats please.  Now come along with me.”

Each year nearly a million travelers are drawn to the cypress islands, sawgrass marshes, hardwood hammocks and mangrove forests of the Florida Everglades.  Most want to experience this exotic wetland wilderness on an airboat… go where ordinary boats cannot navigate:

(snd: boats starts up and operators says:  “Some of you guys have caps on and it’s going to get real windy later, you’ll need to turn ’em around or take them off and hold on to them.  And don’t put any bags or any equipment on the floor because I get water on the floor folks.  I have a bad habit about that.”)

Look at a map of Florida.  Take your finger to the southern most tip of the state.  You’ll find Homestead/Florida City located just north of the Florida Keys.  There you’ll find the entrance to Everglades National Park there.  Airboats are banned there, but just a few miles south of the park entrance sits “The Everglades Alligator Farm.”  The attraction gives visitors up close, personal encounters with  (bring in snake handling sounds of visitors) a variety of snakes (sound up full)…and three thousand Florida alligators of all sizes (baby alligator sounds)…. But the experience most come for is the breezy, open-air thrill of flying over the Everglades grassy waters in a boat propelled by a jet engine….an airboat (sound up full of airboat).

Louis Wommer’s worked as an airboat tour guide at the Everglades Alligator Farm in Dade County for 15 years.

(sound of airboat operator Wommer) “…you know alligators can jump half their body length so let’s don’t entice them.  That’s why they put my seat up here.  It takes quite a while to learn to drive these boats…(boat starts up)

Wommer says he loves his job and meeting people from around the world.

(Wommer) Just making some casual notes this summer I had people from 38 countries on my boat just this summer.

(Vox pop of visitors)  “I’m Aerie and this is my wife Betty Groves from Hampshire in South England……it’s something we’ve always wanted to do.”

(Betty) “and we’ve read up on it in National Geographic which we take at home and uh we love it.  We love this sort of country.

“We came down here mainly to do some bird photography.”

“The alligators were a lot closer and larger than I expected (laugh).”

“Oh, because I think it’s famous,  everywhere around the world it’s typical of Florida and my friend and me wanted to discover that.  It’s a big change with Miami.”

(Wommer on boat talking)  “Now I have a number of herons that hang around the boat or follow the boat.  They don’t eat what I carry in the little bag, but the fish do.  It brings fish to the boat and sometimes they’ll come out and spear fish right next to the boat.  Two more softshell turtles here on the left side….(fades down under)

There are plenty of chances for snapshots for your vacation photo album as the airboat glides through water trails amidst the tall sawgrass stirring up egrets, herons and anhingas.

Unfortunately not all the tourists see what they expected:

(woman from France)  You like what you see?  “a little bit disappointed. Why because in fact in was my own fault I supposed there was more birds and things like that.  In fact not many birds.”

In fact, since the 1930s more than 93% of the wading birds have disappeared from the Florida Everglades.  Environmentalists blame the problem on loss of habitat because of the drainage of the wetlands for urban growth in South Florida.  Many also say agricultural pollution has added to the severe decline.  And what about the impact of noise on the birds?  Airboat tour guide Wommer:

(Wommer bite)  “That’s the question I get almost daily, ‘don’t these airboats scare the wildlife away?’ Well we’ve been running the airboats for 20 years in the same spot.  There wouldn’t be anything here and I have a higher concentration in this four square mile that I run than in most four square mile areas of the national park, so I think you have to look at the results.”

Winter time is best in South Florida.  The air is balmy just the way you want it to be on a sub-tropical, Florida vacation.  Summers bring more humid, sticky temperatures, and of course the warm climate is compounded in the summer by mosquitos, another good reason to go airboating in Florida.  It’s hard to get bit when you’re practically flying over the water.

(cut to airboat operator Wommer talking to passengers)  “Hang on to your hats and anything else that’s loose.  If something blows out of the boat we won’t be able to stop for it.”  (motor guns and starts to go fast 

On an airboat in the Everglades, I’m Donna Green-Townsend for Savvy Traveler.