Red Eye Tour

Writing is the hardest way of earning a living, with the possible exception of wrestling alligators.

Olin Miller

“We are going to see wild Gators when they are happy, hungry, and horny!”

What I wanted to hear as I am being loaded on a boat and heading out to the Everglades in the middle of the night.  Okay, it was about 8 PM, and I am not in a horror movie.

Airboat at night
The airboat is waiting

I grew up with the image of gators being somewhat lazy, the idea of an active gator was intriguing.

The night of our tour arrived, and OJ (my boyfriend/husband/person I drag on my adventure) and I drove out to Sawgrass Recreation Center off US Highway 27 in Weston. It is as far as you can go out of civilization before being engulfed in the Everglades. The parking lot was empty except for a couple of raccoons and the occasional opossum. At this point, both he and I were wondering what we got ourselves into.

After checking in and filling out the “we understand that this is very, very dangerous and we might get eaten by an alligator, but if we do, we will not sue” forms. It was time to head down to the dock and our awaiting airboat.

I have been on airboats before, and they usually sit a little higher off the water, so the occasional tourist doesn’t put his hands in the water. Most airboats I have been on have a cage around you to protect you from the wildlife or the wildlife from you.

Guess what; these didn’t. We were warned before we headed out that gators are known to do two things at night, hunt and mate. That’s all I needed to hear, that we were going out into their territory, and they will be hungry or horny or both.

Generic Airboat
What I was used to
Sawgrass Nature Center Airboat
I got

Captain Jim greeted us and told us that there wasn’t much to the safety instructions except hold on, don’t stand up while the boat is moving, don’t fall in, and don’t feed the alligators. Also, no petting them because they are protected, and it is a lot of paperwork to fill out if we do.

Off we go.

Airboats are low watercraft that can pick up amazing speed and zip through the knee-deep water, weaving in and out of the sawgrass. 

A traditional airboat does not have any windshield; it is just you and the pilot out in nature. Airboats have great moveable capabilities, allowing them to do figure 8 and 360 turns with just a flick of the wrist.

Tonight, we weren’t going fast, mostly because once you pull away from the docks and head into the Glades, it is completely dark, except for the light from the boat. And for someone who grew up in the city, this can be a little terrifying.

It didn’t take long for us to find our first two gators. There is a reason why the tour is called the Red Eye Tour – when you shine a light in a gator’s eyes at night; they glow red.  And two of them were peeking out of the tall sawgrass about a couple of yards to the side of us.

The Captain stopped the boat and talked to us about the Glades’ history when we noticed those red eyes were coming towards us.

We are out in the middle of a very dark and very quiet swamp, and two gators are making their way towards us.

“Now folks, this isn’t normal. Usually, I spend half the night trying to get close to them.”

In a matter of seconds, we are surrounded by two of them, and another one shows up to see what all the fuss was about.

Alligator in Florida Everglades

They swim right next to the boat, and there wasn’t much separating us from them.

And before you click away thinking someone is about to get eaten, the most amazing thing happens.

Nothing.

While we stood there on 8 feet wide, 12 feet long, low to the water, no cage airboat about a couple of miles out, snapping our cell phone, nothing happened.

The gators were more interested in watching us. And we were memorized by the fact that we only stood a couple of feet away from this prehistoric predator. A couple of times, one of them would move or change directions, but other than that, they were happy to float and list to the Captain talking about them.

It is at that point someone said that they aren’t that aggressive.

“No mama,” said the Captain. “They are quite lazy; the only time they move is to feed or mate.”

All the news that you hear, and all of the stories told about them, and you wonder at that moment, were being misrepresented to us. Could it be if we left them alone, they would do the same?

After a half-hour of them just floating there, allowing us to take pictures, Jim decided that we got our money’s worth. He decided to take us for a midnight ride. Hearing the airboat blades starting up, the gators went back to whatever a gator does at 9:00 PM on a Saturday.

Alligator in Florida Everglades
I would have scratch her nose, but I don’t think I was allowed to.

We speed along the glades enjoy the dark, fast ride as Jim weaved the boat. We stop at another place to see if the Big Boy was there. Big Boy is a 12-foot bull gator (male) who usually hangs out at one of the sawgrass marsh islands. He wasn’t there, but we did spot two female gators poking their nose around. They weren’t as interested in the boat as those three were and continued to go about their business.

It was time for us to head back. We went slowly this time, allowing us to enjoy the quietness of the Glades at night. Once in a while, a strange sound would echo, and Jim would tell us what it was. A gator calling for his mate, a screeching owl, a panther (that was scary) getting into a fight with another one. But out among the swamp water, sawgrass, and cypress trees, watching the night sky light up with thousands of stars, you can imagine yourself back a hundred years ago in the Seminole time.

Many times, we don’t plan for something to happen; it just does.  I have lived in South Florida over 38 years, and I have never been that close to an adult gator before. I have seen them from behind a glass window or off in the distance, but never close enough to one where I could scratch its head. And I wonder if that gator, who was floating next to my part of the boat, never been that close to a human either?

I felt a connection; if we could sit there watching each other, maybe there was hope for the human/animal world.

If you are coming to Florida anytime soon and want a truly unique experience, I recommend taking an airboat ride. If you are in Ft. Lauderdale/Miami area and want something a little more adventurous, I would recommend the Red Eye Tour.

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