Photos by Rosalind Cummings-Yeates
Along the abundant waterways of Fort Lauderdale, all sorts of boats float along, from tiny sailboats to yachts. It's not called "Venice of the Americas" for nothing. I thought I'd seen it all but it turns out that I'd never seen an air boat. In fact, I'd never even heard of an air boat until I stepped into the kitschy world of Billie Swamp Safari.
Located on a Seminole Indian Reservation in the middle of the Everglades, Billie Swamp Safari regularly hosts air boat rides through cypress domes and swamp grass. Watching the thundering propeller attached to the back of an open boat, I realized that I was really in for an adventure.
The other clue that I was about to experience something different was when I was handed bright orange ear plugs to stuff into my ears. Turns out that the noise from an air boat is quite deafening and I had to adjust my hearing to hear the guide's details of the swamp. I don't think it mattered that much because the visuals are what commanded most of my attention.
Gliding along Lake Okeechobee, the largest lake in Florida, I was struck by the eerie beauty of the swamp. Bright emerald lily pads dotted the water while cypress trees twisted above, casting a shadowy view of the wetlands. The murky water revealed alligators sunning themselves, turtles, catfish and storks searching for food.
Watching the alligators in their non-threatening pose, I learned a valuable lesson about the difference between alligators and crocodiles. First of all, crocodiles are saltwater creatures that show their teeth when their pointed mouths are closed. Alligators prefer freshwater and their teeth are hidden by their rounded snout when their mouths are closed. Most importantly, crocodiles are reputed to be the more aggressive of the two, going after anything that will fit into their mouths.
Although aggressive crocodiles also lurked, the guide explained that the most problematic critter for the Everglades was the Burmese python. Pet owners releasing the reptiles into the swamp has created a population of 10,000 Burmese pythons gobbling everything from birds to alligators and wrecking the ecosystem.
Fortunately, I didn't glimpse any of these snakes while I was on the air boat but I did see chickees or Seminole thatched huts on stilts, near the river. Demonstrating the traditional Seminole lifestyle which has thrived in the Everglades for centuries, the huts acted as a sort of open air museum that really helped give perspective to the complexity of the area.
Hopping off the air boat, I felt like I had experienced a part of Florida that visitors rarely see. The air boat supplied an up close view of the lake and swamp that I never would have witnessed otherwise.
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