Day 7: Alligator Alley
Yesterday, we woke up and got coffee and French toast from the cafe next to the hotel before grabbing towels and heading out to the beach. I’d never been swimming in the Atlantic before and I was pleasantly surprised at how warm the water was. Well, I wasn’t really surprised–I’d known for a long time that the Atlantic was a lot warmer than our California beaches. It’s just that I’d never experienced a swim in the ocean (on an overcast day nonetheless) that warm and comfortable. The water was also remarkably clear. The waves were maybe the smallest I’d ever seen in any ocean, not large enough to body surf. The white sand was made from bits of coral and shells that stuck to me for the rest of the day.
After the morning swim, we packed up and checked out. Back in Linda’s car, we drove up Miami Beach to Fort Lauderdale where we went for an airboat ride. An airboat is that iconic watercraft associated with the Florida Everglades, with the giant fans in the back and the gnarly redneck piloting the thing from atop an elevated seat. Along with an Irish couple and another American couple, the four of us piled into the airboat against the sound of campy tour guide humor. I plugged in the ear plugs we were each provided with, though the noise from the fans wasn’t so bad. The boat glided strangely over the water and grass that stood up over the surface. The water wasn’t more than a few feet deep anywhere.
A few minutes later the tour guide slowed the boat and circled around several times, slowly powering the fans and pushing the boat along in gentle bursts. We were looking for alligators. I scanned the swamp for anything that looked like what I imagined an alligator looks like in the water—similar to a floating log, I guessed from what PBS or National Geographic has taught me over the years. I didn’t spot one, but someone did on the other side of the boat. A six foot female alligator swam up calmly beside our boat, not moving much but maintaining an intense vigilance that was apparent in its eyes. It was bizarre to think this huge animal had anything to gain from floating alongside our boat, but it did, I suppose out of some kind of primitive curiosity. We snapped pictures and the left the little gator, saying (at the direction of our guide) “later gator.”
We set out again, arriving a few minutes later at another identical patch of the Everglades, where the boat once again circled in slow jerks, calling out the swamp’s scaly denizen. And sure enough, he emerged. This one was twelve feet and a male. Fortunately for my appreciation of death, this big fellow chose to pull his “float with reptilian scales, ominous dark eyes and monstrous jaws just above the water” routine right in front of me, perhaps three or four feet away—staring right at me the entire time. I could hardly break eye contact with the dinosaur. From my peripheral vision, I could see the guide as he rattled off a few reassuring stats about the killer in front of me: He was twelve feet long, could jump six feet out of the water, and my personal favorite “could be in your lap with one swish of his tail.” Thank you for the facts, redneck tour guide man.
I guess it’s good in our sedate, technological society to come literally face to face with that sense of instinctual, primal doom every now and then. However ominous it felt, I knew (or rather assumed and desperately hoped) that there was no real danger—how else could the tour guide reasonably delight in terrifying me like this? Nevertheless, I noticed I was the only one still sitting in my original place by the side of the boat—everyone else had stood up and edged back a bit. The gator never jumped on board and twisted away with chunks of Andrew steak and slid back into the murky shallows, though that scenario was pretty well developed in my imagination by the time the airboat pulled away. We headed back to the dock, took some pictures, tipped the guide and headed over to the wildlife exhibit. Talking to my brother as we walked, he revealed similar thoughts about the mega-gator. He was imagining how to deal with the beast once it jumped into the boat for a bite of my face.
We looked at the rest of the exhibit—Burmese Pythons (an invasive species), alligators large and small, pigs, parrots, panthers, opossums, mating tortoises, wolves and a bizarre creature half way between alligator and tortoise. The sky was darkening and graying now, so we got in the car and headed for a truck stop diner that served greasy dishes like chicken wings, gator tail and Italian sausage and stocked every table with Heinz 57, ketchup, hot sauce, Tabasco sauce, A1 and salt and pepper (lest someone actually taste the food). Nascar and Bud Light advertising was ubiquitous.