Discovering Everglades mangroves, wildlife
SHARK VALLEY, Fla. — Whether on your way to the Everglades National Park or in search for a quick afternoon getaway from the urban life of Miami, airboat tours are a must do. I decided to head to Gator Park, one of the numerous airboat tour locations situated west of Miami along U.S. 41.
For $23, Gator Park, located just 11 miles east of the national park Shark Valley entrance, hosts an airboat tour through the Everglades mangroves to learn about the wildlife present in its habitat, followed by a gator wrestling demonstration.
After parking in front of a comically large sign that reads: “Gator Park – Airboat tours!” in bold red letters, I made my way into the reception, which also serves as a gift shop.
|Alligators are the favorite must-see sight for visitors to see in the Everglades (Staff photos).|
“Tour starts in 15 minutes,” the cashier said nonchalantly as she handed me my ticket.
Dozens of Everglades visitors’ old license plates adorn the walls.
“Behind this, there’s the theater you’ll head to later. Yup. We also have a pit of alligators and crocodiles by the water.”
After boarding the airboat from a wooden deck, the tour guide handed out ear plugs before sitting on the highest chair, located in front of the engine. As we began to slowly glide onto a tight canal, our tour guide explained that the Everglades is a very unique wetland ecosystem formed from the overflow of rainfall into Lake Okeechobee, the wetland are home to many different species, from alligators, crocodiles, snakes, turtles and birds to a very diverse flora.
“And although there’s fewer than 100 of them in the wild right now,” yelled our guide over the noise of the engine. “The Everglades is also home to the endangered Florida panther!”
|The Everglades is a river of grass, flowing south from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay.|
Less than a few miles away from the dock, I sighted my first alligators feasting on a turtle. I couldn’t help but frown.
We then suddenly sped out of the canal and started gliding across what Miami author Marjory Stoneman Douglas called the “river of grass.” On the airboat ride, I saw a great blue heron and a few egrets, large turtles and of course numerous alligators. It’s advised by the guide to keep your arms inside of the boat at all times, rightfully so — the alligators do get extremely close to the group.
The guide took a minute to feed one of them and, as the alligator swam straight towards the airboat, a few of the passengers couldn’t help but gasp. Sadly, the ride was quite short and after approximately 20 minutes we found ourselves heading back towards Gator Park.
|An anhinga dries its feathers after searching for fish in the waters of the Everglades.|
In a short Crocodile-Dundee-meets-Tiger-King show, one of the park’s employees dragged in a fully grown alligator by its tail to the center of a wooden arena and explained some facts about the key differences between alligators and crocodiles as he played with the animal. Roughly one million alligators live in Florida and around 1,000 crocodiles, we were told.
“More often than not, while you’re enjoying a nice swim, an alligator isn’t too far, kids,” joked the alligator wrestler.
|Alligators can become quite large, growing up to 15 feet in length and as much as 500 pounds in weight.|
After the show, it was offered for kids to take a picture while holding one of the baby crocodiles born inside the park — for $15 of course.
As I started to walk back towards my car, I couldn’t help but notice a group of older men gathered around a large platter of what look like fried chicken.
“Is the gator good?” I wondered out loud.
“The best you’ll ever have!” one of the men yelled back.
|When water is low in winter, alligators gather in remaining canals and ponds of the Everglades.|
On this recommendation, I ordered a plate of gator bites from the small shack located next to the gift shop. Less than 10 minutes later, a Styrofoam box of small nuggets of gator meat and fries came out of the kitchen. If you’ve ever wondered what gator tastes like — picture chicken nuggets with a hint of fish and chips. I definitely recommend stopping for a quick bite before heading home or on your next adventure.
IF YOU GO
You can purchase your tickets to Gator Park at https://www.gatorpark.com/tickets.php or on Groupon for an extra discount at https://www.groupon.com/biz/miami/gator-park-airboat-tours.
Parking is free at the location and tickets includes both the airboat tour, access to the live alligator show. Make sure to bring some water and sunscreen, and don’t forget to try out some of the local foods after your adventure!