A Ride on the Wild Side
STORY AND PHOTOS BY MARIA IANNUCCI
There are many ways to experience the great outdoors in Central Florida, and one of these ways is to explore nature’s wonder and wildlife from an airboat. Polk County is home to an assortment of options for viewing beautiful landscapes and native animals in their environment while staying high and dry. A recent excursion proved to be a trip filled with sights and sounds not easily forgotten, but truly appreciated.
While each tour company is different, the general principle is to give an overview of the lake’s ecosystem and learn about what the “real” Florida is all about. Airboats should be designed for safety, carrying life jackets for all passengers and crew as well as equipping each person with ear protection. When the airboat propeller is running hard, the sound is significant; so hearing protection is wise while en route to different points of interest.
Airboats work best in wetland areas; these vehicles need a little water depth and can tolerate running through some vegetation, making it perfect for running the marshy edges of Polk County’s lakes. These boats are flat, have no steering wheel, and are controlled by a rudder handle that directs two fins just behind the propeller. The engine spins the prop, which is enclosed in a safety cage, forcing air through the fins at different speeds to gather forward momentum.
Entering a boat should be straightforward; there should be no need to wade in the water or balance awkwardly. The seats should be comfortable as many tours take at least an hour. Many airboats are outfitted with stadiumlike seating to ensure a clear view for each passenger.
Once on the water, your guide will make their way to a variety of spots likely to house an assortment of local wildlife. While the first creature to come to mind may be an alligator, it’s common to encounter birds like blue herons, cormorants, anhinga, snowy egrets, boat-tail grackles, snipe, several species of duck or even a flock of pelicans. My excursion was lucky to pull up to a group of pines and witness a mated pair of Bald Eagles with a juvenile still in its huge nest. This unique sight was definitely a highlight.
Aside from birds, a host of other animals can make an appearance on your tour as you skirt the land, including beautiful apple snails, snakes, bobcats, raccoons, and, of course, alligators. There was one about five feet long sighted on our excursion; the female gator had previously been seen tucked among the bulrushes and bald cypress.
The beauty of an airboat tour is this: It’s highly unlikely you will ever get stuck and entering remote and protected lake and swamp areas is relatively easy, increasing your likelihood of seeing some very interesting things. In addition to the wildlife, the landscape creates a gorgeous natural backdrop for your tour with monster pine and cypress trees and paths cut through reeds.
To enhance the visual experience, a good tour guide helps to explain the details. My guide, Captain Wayne Neidlinger of Captain Fred’s Airboat Nature Tours in Lake Hamilton, describes each trip as being serendipitous. “You can’t always tell what you will find or run into,” said Wayne.
“We run tours both during the day and at night, but to me, days are better because you can see much more.” It helps tremendously if you have a guide who knows a great deal about the details of the area, environment and anything you may come across, such as an old gator hole. Not only might you get to see where females have hatched some eggs, but guides can tell you some very interesting facts about the alligator’s ability to build a nest, gestation, and behavior and hatching practices.
When planning your airboat ride, remember that extreme weather, like storms that include lightning, can affect the safety of riders in open water; it’s best to call ahead both for a reservation and, on the day of your trip, to confirm that your ride is a go. Safety should always come first; and take the time to check out company websites and make calls to have all of your questions answered before you decide on a tour.
Whether you’re interested in bird watching, photography, or nature; or whether you have company from out-of-state or need a quick family getaway; an airboat tour may be just the thing for an afternoon of relaxation and excitement, right in your backyard.