I like big noisy machines. And, I'm a fan of very large reptiles [including dinosaurs, which I sadly hear were really large feathered birds]. I sit awestruck by the beautiful, natural things that I see just a few miles inland on the Space Coast. You might call loud noises, alligators, and being outdoors the great Florida Trifecta.
A trip to the Space Coast without an airboat ride is like a stay at a beachside hotel without a walk on the beach. And, you'll have a great story to tell your friends back home. BTW, when speaking to grandchildren about your airboat ride be sure to exaggerate the size of almost everything you see.
Here are the basics:
You'll sit only a few feet from an insanely noisy gas engine attached to a huge vibrating propeller mounted on an aluminum flatboat resting on top of shallow water racing through alligator infested waters. I don’t think there’s a better way to spend a late afternoon on the Space Coast.
[BTW, we took an airboat ride years ago with the kids. It was a gorgeous Florida sunny day when we got on the airboat. However, 20 minutes later we were smack in the middle of a blinding rain squall. That’s Florida’s weather, at its finest.]
There are nearly a dozen locations to find an airboat ride on the Space Coast.
Here's what to expect:
- Experienced airboat captains know where wild animals hideout, where to stop for photographs, and they can regale you with local history about the people that have lived on St. Johns River. Do some on-line research.
- Airboats are very noisy. Pick up earplugs.
- You'll be in the sun. Wear sunscreen or a hat.
- Bring a hat that won't blow off.
- It’s a wild, bumpy, and can be a slightly damp trip. Don’t bother dressing delicately or fashionably. Alligators are not concerned about your footwear.
- Bring a good camera with a long lens. Smartphones don't seem to quite handle the longer distances.
- Female alligators don't get much bigger than 10 feet long.
- Males can grow much larger. The record on the Space Coast is 14 foot 3-1/2 inches [your small comfort pet would be a mere hors d'oeuvre, so leave the pet where you’re staying].
- Alligators are “cold-blooded,” meaning they can’t regulate their own body temperature. So they bask in the sun to control their body temperature. If it’s very cold or very hot they bask.
- They are most active when temperatures are between the low 80s and low 90's. They are dormant below the mid-50s.
The beautiful, natural things to see
- Think about arriving on the St. Johns River 120 years ago and settling in Florida. Try not to think about the mosquitos.
- Then imagine how tough it must have been. In the summer it’s damp, hot, muggy and buggy. In the winter it’s downright beautiful.
- Your airboat will be gliding on the St. Johns River. This is the longest river in Florida at 310 miles long. You'll be on the upper St. Johns, which by my way of thinking is really the lower St. Johns. Crazy as it seems, the St. Johns runs south to north. The St. Johns source is near Vero Beach in Indian River County [south of the Space Coast]. The mouth is in Jacksonville on the Atlantic Ocean.
- It was the last frontier of the U.S. to be developed on the east coast in the 20th century. How Florida developers missed this escapes me. You'll still see stands of big stately cypress trees in standing water with tangled roots and massive trunks.
- Alligators, frogs, salamanders, snakes, and turtles thrive on the St. Johns. You may see and hear them.
- Wading and water birds like the white ibis and wood stork need the St. Johns water to raise their offspring.
- The St. Johns River has lots of bass, crappie, bluegill, and catfish.
After your airboat ride
Trips usually last about an hour. You'll be thirsty after your ride. You'll want an ice-cold beer and a bite to eat. I look for Airboat ride proprietors that sell beer and cook gator bites [decide for yourself if they taste like chicken] on premises.
Here are a few good examples in south, central and north on the space coast:
- Camp Holly Airboat Rides, west of I-95 and Melbourne
- Lone Cabbage Fish Camp, west of I-95 and Cocoa
- Loughman Lake Lodge, west of I-95 and Titusville
Airboats are about as close to old Florida as you can still get for a few dollars, despite all the noise. You’ll understand why people that love the St. Johns and Florida love this place so much, and why they get so angry and vocal when pollution and development intrude.
We're headed south, back to the coast and the Sebastian Inlet.