Back on the bus to Fort Lauderdale, my eyes are still dry from sitting in the front of a Florida Everglades airboat. I couldn’t close my eyes; they had been peeled open for the past hour as I tried to catch a glimpse of an alligator in the pitch-black darkness of night. A ride that had started as the waning sun sat over the edge of the Florida Everglades, this had been an experience unlike a typical daytime journey into this majestic river of grass.
I wouldn’t say nervous is the right word to describe the feelings before taking my first nighttime airboat ride in the Florida Everglades. Sawgrass Recreation Park is about 25 miles west of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, making it convenient for an Everglades introduction not far from the fun and sun of the beaches. It’s also long enough of a drive to contemplate a first experience on an airboat, the possibility of an up-close encounter with gators in the wild and that it’s all coming at night.
Not that I felt unsafe; in fact, this nighttime airboat ride in the Florida Everglades turned out to be safe, exhilarating and a fun way to get a taste of the this important ecosystem.
As the sun sat to our west our group of nine boarded an airboat and powered into the marsh. The front of the boat was equipped with headlights and our driver and guide, Gator Tim, scanned the marsh with a handheld light looking for alligators.
We saw a few from time to time, but for me that wasn’t exactly the point.
Seeing the Everglades has been a desire for years. And experiencing it at night in the darkness only illuminated by the cloudy moonlight and the boat’s lights was cool.
As we started I immediately realized why we were given earplugs. It’s our choice to wear them, but airboats are loud when the engine is at full throttle.
We zoomed across what seemed like small rivers in a sea of grass, stopping from time to time when the light caught a gator’s movement.
When we stopped, Tim immediately cut the motors and the silence as we drifted near the gator was surreal and peaceful.
I’m not sure how many gator encounters happen over a typical visit. We stopped several times for possible encounters, but had four true up-close sightings.
On one hand I’d say it’s easier to spot alligators during the day, but night is when they are most active. So I really can’t say which experience is best for those who want to see more alligators.
For me, spotting gators wasn’t the point. I think I would’ve had a blast without ever seeing an alligator. I wanted to speed through the river of grass, even if we were only on the far eastern reaches of the Florida Everglades.
Everglades National Park features wet sawgrass prairies, dry tropical hardwood hammocks and pinelands, mangrove swamps and Florida Bay and Gulf Coast estuaries. The Everglades National Park covers 1.5 million acres, and parks like Sawgrass dot the landscape.
For a deep Everglades experience, there are opportunities for biking, bird watching, boating, camping, canoeing, kayaking, fishing and hiking. The adventurer in me wants to have a deeper Everglades experience.
But for those travelers who either don’t want to have the full outdoors experience, or maybe time is short, spending time at Sawgrass Recreation Park is a good way to get a taste of the Florida Everglades without jumping all the way in.
Sawgrass Recreation Park has a variety of ways for visitors to the Florida Everglades to get a sampling of this beautiful landscape. There are nighttime experiences and daytime rides for as short as 30 minutes.
Sawgrass also features a reptile exhibit with alligators, turtles, iguanas, a saltwater crocodile and snakes.
Editor’s Note: I was part of a media tour of Fort Lauderdale and did not pay for my experience at Sawgrass. As a professional journalist, readers can be sure that all written views are my own.