If you live in Florida (and I have), alligator sightings are about as rare and exciting as observing a squirrel in its native habitat here in the northeast. But Floridians know that northerners think it’s thrilling to see gators while we visit their sunshine-y state, so a whole subset of the tourism industry has evolved to give us that opportunity. One such business, Myakka Wildlife Tours in Sarasota, sweetens the deal further with a ride on the world’s largest airboat.
During our December visit, the weather was perfect for outdoor exploration; sunshine, breezes, and low humidity. We spent a happy, restorative day in Myakka River State Park, one of Florida’s largest and oldest state parks. Follow the signs to find the tour boat dock and ticket booth.
The world’s largest covered airboats are actually two identical twin boats, the Myakka Maiden and Gator Gal. Both are 53-feet long and 16-feet wide. Each can seat up to 57 people for the 45-minute cruise. There are three cruises offered daily in the slower (hotter) summer season, June 1 through December 15. Four or more cruises, depending on demand, are offered during the high season, December 16-May 31.
Jamie, our seasoned captain and narrator, steered us out onto the 2.5-mile long Upper Myakka Lake, pointing out visible wildlife along the way. Since these vessels have shallow hulls and are powered by air, they can venture into the shallow, grassy areas for a closer look at the creatures living along the shore. We saw several species of majestic birds we don’t get to see up north, like egrets and herons, as well as more familiar osprey and bald eagles.
Of course, the main attraction is the alligators. My northern-bred, squirrel-satiated children are always up for a good gator encounter — remember this? There are an estimated 1.7 million alligators in Florida – only Louisiana can claim more. Up to 1,000 of them live in Upper Myakka Lake, so it was easy to spot several peeking their heads above the water, or resting on the banks. The Girl was enthralled by all the gator data Jamie shared, such as the facts that alligators have been around for 200 million years, and that their brains are the size of a walnut.
So they may not be the most intelligent creature on Earth, but they do have a downward bite pressure of more than 2,900 lbs per inch; they can run up to 35 miles per hour on land; and they can jump the length of their body. Your best bet—should you encounter one in the wild—is to just back away slowly! They’re not normally aggressive during the day.
If you want to experience this ride (and I think you do), plan to get to Myakka State Park early to purchase tour tickets, which go on sale at 9:00am every day. All tickets must be purchased for the same day; they are not sold in advance.
While you’re at the park, leave time to enjoy a nature walk, canoe or bike ride, or take the narrated seasonal “Tram Safari” tour through shady oak and pine forests. Look for the Canopy Walkway, a pedestrian bridge suspended 25-feet high connecting two wood towers. You may be too chicken to walk across, but it’s worth seeking out!
Hey YOU! Go BIG!
Myakka Wildlife Tours
13208 State Road 72, Sarasota, Florida 34241