Coopertown offers unique experience

COOPERTOWN, Fla.— South Florida is known for its beaches, diversity and tropical climate. Thousands of visitors visit Miami each year in search of the perfect vacation.

However, Miami and the surrounding area are more than just beaches and shopping. My trip to the Everglades taught me that Miami has a lot more to offer.

The contrast is obvious, one moment I was stuck in traffic on SW Eighth Street staring at buildings and crowded streets and 15 minutes later, the same road turned into a quiet and green path to wilderness.

Airboats are a fun and original way to experience the Everglades (Photo by Lorena Puch).

A few miles of trees down the road and an occasional group of Harley Davidson bikers and I started to see a huge building ahead of me. The building was the Miccosukee Casino. The structure features a hotel, a variety of restaurants and a casino.

Five minutes past the casino I started to see signs for private airboat tours and Miccosukee Indian restaurants around the area. I had not been on an airboat since I was 12 and the idea of riding one again was pretty exiting.

A couple signs later I made up my mind and pulled over into Coopertown Airboats’ parking lot. The place seemed inviting; there was a small restaurant and a tackle and bait shop right on site. Soon after parking I was greeted by a nice old lady who showed me to the airboat tour area.

Alligators are common creatures in the Everglades (Photo by Lorena Puch).

While I was waiting for the next boat to come, I was able to chat with a couple that had just finished a tour. I asked them if they liked the ride.

“It was fabulous, you feel a sense of serenity. Its like you are one with nature. We saw two types of turtles, baby gators and different kinds of birds,” said Lorraine and David Seicol, visitors from Great Plains, N.Y.

Soon, I was handed a pair of cotton balls, “what are these for?” I asked.

Mark Gritta, the tour guide told me to put them in my ears. I didn’t really know why he wanted me to put cotton in my ears but I figured I would find out soon.

I boarded the boat and sat up front. The airboat was spacious and comfortable. There were five rows of seats and the driver sat high above us just in front of the engines in back of the ship.

Guide Mark Gritta stepped off the airboat to show passengers low water levels of Everglades National Park (Photo by Lorena Puch).

Sitting behind me were the Wongs, a family of five from New Jersey. As soon as the engine started, I understood what the cotton balls were for. The noise the engine made was extremely loud, without the cotton balls inside my ears the noise would have been unbearable.

After a minute of sitting down, the sun started beating down on me. “I wish I had brought sunscreen,” I thought. I didn’t bring bug repellant either but fortunately it was a dry day and mosquitoes were not in sight.

We started moving and the breeze started toning down the redness of my face. There was a large amount of saw grass and swamp ahead of us. We were going right in the middle of all that, I felt as if I was in the Amazon jungle just waiting for a gator or crocodile to jump out of nowhere. The boat went straight and sideways, I was afraid we were going to get stuck in the bushes or hit a limestone.

“If anything gets stuck inside the motor we have a long way back so we are going to go fast when we can but take it easy when we have to folks,” Gritta said.

The first creature I saw was an Ibis. It was apparently fishing for its lunch nearby. When we got closer, I thought it would fly away but it actually flew side by side with us for about a minute. The Seicols were right; it was truly an amazing experience.

The Purple Gallanule has been voted the most colorful bird in the Everglades (Photo by Lorena Puch).

Suddenly, I noticed a small and colorful bird right beside us. It was the Purple Gallanule, voted the most colorful bird in Florida.

Next, I saw a Spider Lily; this flower is native to the Everglades and looks like a white Hibiscus. The flower stood out like a sore thumb between the weeds.

Mark, the tour guide, started telling us about the famous reptiles that rule the place. He mentioned that there were 27 species of snakes (only four species are poisonous) and told us that the biggest alligator ever seen in the area was a bull gator that measured 19 feet and two inches.

“That is two inches longer than this boat,” Gritta said.

Alligators see clearly 24 hours a day. They have three sets of eyelids. The first one is like a membrane that acts as a goggle to allow visibility under the water. The second and third eyelids enhance their eyesight at day and night. Alligators can hold their breath under water from 30 minutes to three hours if they need to.

As we began to ask more and more questions about the gators, one of the kids onboard the boat spotted one out.

“Look there’s a baby gator,” said 11-year-old Christian Wong from New Jersey.

Jesse Kennon shows his passion for alligators with this original gold alligator ring (Photo by Lorena Puch).

As we made our way further into the swamp Mark mentioned that we were on a Hardwood Hammock (island of trees with no land) and that it was common to find alligator nests around the area.

He was right; I think I spotted more than five alligators in this area. Some of them were adults and others were babies. Often, these baby gators are hunted down by eagles or eaten by other alligators.

We were heading back and I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to see the turtles the Seicols talked about. Overall, the experience was worth the $19 that I paid for the ride. I was relaxed, educated and tanned and all in 60 minutes, not a bad deal.

After the ride was over I asked Mark Gritta how long he had been doing his job.

“I like to make people think it is my first time every time I take them out,” he joked.

Coopertown is the oldest airboat ride in the Everglades. John Cooper, the founder of Cooper Airboat Rides, migrated from Missouri in 1945 with his family and started the business that his cousin Jesse Kennon took over in 1981. Since then, Kenton has made a living off commercial air boating.

Today, Kennon owns more than 12 airboats (costing about $40,000 a piece) that make 10 to 25 trips daily and charter private tours and scientific explorations.

This cozy restaurant at Coopertown serves alligator tail and frog legs (Photo by Lorena Puch).

Not only does he run airboat tour business but he also owns a small restaurant on premises.

We serve alligator sirloin which is the best kind of alligator meat you can get and frog legs,” said Jesse Kennon.

Alligator meat comes from alligator farms and the frogs are native of the everglades. Since alligators became an endangered species serious laws have been legislated to protect them.

“It’s a third degree felony to harass an alligator. There was this guy once a couple of years ago that came in with a brand new truck and airboat and decided that he was going to make a living off hunting alligators in the Everglades. He went out and killed four gators. To make a long story short, he got caught and lost his boat, his truck and everything he had used to hunt them. He also did two years in jail,” Kennon said.

Kennon mentioned that they had an alligator exhibit out back. When I got there, I saw a big cage with five baby alligators basking in the sun. As I made my way to the back, I saw a big pool with two adult alligators in it, Big Momma and Big Papa. These two were raised from the egg and have been part of the Coopertown family ever since.

The star of the exhibit is Big Ben. Big Ben is 450-pound alligator that was caught by Animal Planet a few miles away from the business and was brought to Kennon to save his life.

“We had to blind fold him and tape his mouth shut. Then five of us picked him up and put him where he is. It’s actually on an ‘Animal Planet’ episode,” Kennon said.

There are many ways to experience the everglades. However, airboat rides are one of the most famous ways to do so. The experience is something completely out of the ordinary and an adventure that anybody visiting South Florida should enjoy.


If You Go

  • Coopertown Airboats is located at 22700 SW 8th St., Miami, Fla. 33194.
  • You may contact the staff through its telephone number, 305-226-6048, or by e-mail at:
  • Prices: Adults pay $19 and children12 years old and under pay $12.
  • Tip: It is important to wear light clothing and to bring sun block since temperatures in South Florida can be in the high 80s (Fahrenheit) and the sun can be intense.

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