Saturday, October 22, 2016

Alligators and Air Boats: Touring Florida's Everglades


Right now, at this very moment, I am sitting in a fuzzy white hotel robe, snuggled into a queen-sized bed of my very own, sipping wine from a water glass and very much enjoying my life. My husband's company is holding their annual AGM in Miami, Florida this year, and I got to tag along. We arrived a couple of days before the AGM began so that we could do a little exploring of this vibrant city and its surrounding areas, and explore we did! Today we spent the morning touring the Florida Everglades, which is an excursion you cannot skip if you find yourself in Miami.

Getting ready for our first ever air boat ride!

I had originally pre-booked a tour with a different company, but a few weeks ago, Hurricane Matthew swept through the state and wreaked a little havoc on the local landscape. My original tour company cancelled with us, because their area of the Everglades had high waters and the Florida State Parks department temporarily suspended their tours until the waters were at a safe level again. I didn't panic because I knew there were tons of tour companies that patrol the Everglades, and many of them operate from different locations, so someone was bound to be open.

And luckily, someone was. We booked a tour through our hotel concierge at the Fontainebleau (more on the hotel to come), and Guillermo sure knew what he was talking about! The Miccosukee tribe offers a package deal that includes a tour of their Indian Village, an alligator show, and an air boat ride. (Yes, they label it "Indian Village" so don't give me any flack over the terminology in the comments please - I didn't name the village!) The entire package was $60 per adult for a five hour adventure, including travel time to and from the village.

Our trusty yellow air boat.

We met our tour leader, Jimmy, at 8:30 a.m. in the hotel lobby. He ushered us onto a nicely air-conditioned coach bus, and then whipped us around Miami Beach to various other hotels where he picked up all of the other tour guests. After a few jokes about feeding tourists to the alligators, we were off - out of Miami and into the Everglades.

This is one sign I will most certainly obey!

It was about an hour drive, but the time passed quickly as we enjoyed the scenery. I even saw two alligators just in the watery ditches as we made our way! (I might have seen three, but one of those alligators may have just been a clump of dirt.) People were out fishing in little boats in those very same ditches, with an alligator just a hop, skip, and a jump away. I wasn't sure what to think!

We arrived at the Miccosukee (pronounced Me-co-sue-kay) Indian Village around 10:00 a.m. There we had a little free time before the events were scheduled to begin, so we shopped in the gift shop and checked out some of the kitschy statues out front.

Enjoying the tacky but fun sculptures outside the Miccosukee Indian Village.

Our first event turned out to be my absolute favourite thing of the day: alligator wrestling. Our demonstrator's name was Pharrell. (I think - if anyone from the Miccosukee organization reads this and I am wrong, please correct me in the comments below!) He was such a pro! He had zero fear of the alligators, he was super gentle and loving to them, he knew so much about their anatomy and behaviour, and he was an engaging entertainer. Top props to him and his fantastic show.

Pharrell explained to us that alligators are not inherently man-eaters - in fact, they aren't really that violent unless they are in the act of grabbing food. And they only really like to feed on smaller creatures that can actually fit in their mouth. What they DO like to do is to conserve energy. They can hold their breath for five to eight hours, and go for a year without eating. They also prefer to be submerged underwater, where they think no one can see them or bother them. Then they don't have to move and can conserve their energy even further!

An alligator, patiently preserving its energy.

Once Pharrell assured us that alligators can be quite passive and even timid, he then showed us some techniques on how to capture an alligator with your bare hands. These methods, he explained, come from early indigenous peoples who used to capture alligators without tools or weapons in order to bring them back to the tribe to use as food and more.

There are two things I want to be made clear. One: just because I am explaining these methods and sharing a video of Pharrell working with the gators does NOT mean any readers should go and try it themselves. Pharrell told me that he has been capturing alligators since he was ten, and is extremely experienced. So there's my disclaimer. You are not Pharrell. Don't capture gators. Two: Pharrell was always extremely gentle and kind to the alligators during his show. He showed great respect for the animals, and they never appeared to be terrified or pain. (One got a little hissy, but that was about it.) I was impressed by Pharrell's knowledge and appreciated his care towards towards the alligators. So don't watch the video and get upset thinking he was hurting them, because I assure you, he was not.

Our alligator wrestler teaching us about alligator anatomy.

First, our alligator wrestler literally drug one of the passive alligators front and centre for the show. He then taught us about some basic alligator anatomy. Alligator skulls are hard as rocks and hollow, the strong bones designed for crushing and clutching prey. They have very strong jaw muscles for biting; in fact, the strongest in the world. But they have weak jaw muscles for opening their jaws. This is why once a gator has its jaws tied together, it can't really snap its mouth back open and break its bonds. Alligators have large ears behind their eyes, and can hear just as well as humans. Their eyes can sink about an inch into their skull when they close them, which is why IF you are ever in the clutches of an alligator, poking it in the eye will not help you. There was so much more information, but you really should attend the show if you want to learn it all.

Pharrell then performed a couple of tricks for us. He showed us how to calm an alligator by applying gentle pressure to its back and covering its eyes. He was able to demonstrate how to tie an alligator's mouth shut, unaided, all the while keeping his alligator calm and relaxed. He even stuck his chin into the alligator's mouth. It was all quite impressive. I won't go on anymore about it - watch the video, and then go to the actual show to see it all in its amazing glory!

His chin is INSIDE the alligator's mouth.

After Pharrell's performance with the adult alligators, we each got to cuddle a little 4-year-old baby gator. It was so soft!

Marti... the next alligator wrestler? He WAS pretty cute!

We then toured the Miccosukee Indian Village, learning about patchwork, beadwork, silver smithing, wood carving, and much more. Our guide Cherice taught us about the original settlement of the Everglades and how the Miccosukee tribe was able to build a civilization in the middle of a swamp land. It was very interesting, and I loved the hut designs (the huts were called chiquis, pronounced chickies).

Some beautiful tortoise shells at the Miccosukee Indian Village

Cherice's favourite thing about her part of the tour was introducing us to "Tiny", the stuffed alligator in the Miccosukee Museum. Tiny had been gifted to the tribe after a short stint in the movie industry. He had been 'fired' for trying to bite people. And to paint a picture for you, "Tiny" was a 16-foot-long behemoth of an alligator. When he died, the tribe had him taxidermied (is that the term?) and preserved forevermore.

Tiny is not so tiny...

Finally, after the village tour wrapped up, we hopped across the highway to the air boats. Jimmy handed us off to Umberto, who loaded us onto a bright yellow air boat and handed us some squishy orange ear buds. Once everyone was ready, we launched away from the dock and the air boat fan revved up. Off we flew into the grassy swamps of the Everglades, lily pads and muhly grasses whizzing past us.

I LOVED the air boat ride. The boat was amazingly smooth - even when we bounded over thick patches of grass or lumpy outcrops of mud, you couldn't feel a single bump. The wind whipped around us, cooling us off from the hot Florida sun. We didn't see any alligators during that portion of the tour, but the ride was so exhilarating I didn't care. We got to sit in the front row on the first leg of our journey, so we had a fantastic view of the "River of Grass".

The Florida Everglades in all their glory.

My favourite part was when Umberto decided to give us a thrill and cut a corner a little too sharply, where we'd swish across the water sideways. I called it the 'side slide' and would throw my hands in the air whenever he'd do it. So he did it a lot. If I lived in the Everglades, I would own an air boat, and I would side slide all over the swamp with it. It is that fun.

Umberto let me sit in his seat!

Umberto took us to an 'island' created by a clan of the Miccosukee, right in the middle of the Everglades. Over years and years and years, this clan has built a series of wooden chiquis, platforms, and boardwalks over the swamp, using a remote patch of somewhat solid ground as a foundation. This is where the clan and its growing family would live (although now it is part of the Miccosukee tour package).

The man-made floating island in the Miccosukee-owned part of the Everglades

It was very peaceful and quiet, this little 'island' in the swamp. Copper-winged dragonflies buzzed in the air, purple flowers dotted the marshy ground, and that cool breeze warded off any mosquitoes or flies that might have wanted to bother us. Some funny signs captured my attention, and I enjoyed wandering around to find them all.

The gorgeous purple flowers in the Everglades - can you spot the dragonfly?
I don't care where the spider is from... squish it.

We only spent about 15 minutes exploring the island, and then it was back on the air boat and back to the tour bus. I sat next to Umberto on the way back and had a great view of the boat fan and the bubbling wake it left behind.

Bye bye, Everglades! I hope to see you again!

All too soon, we were back on the bus and headed home. I had such a fun morning today, and I completely encourage anyone who is in within driving distance of the Everglades to go out and really explore them and what they have to offer.

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