Everglades Grand Heritage & Birding Tour - Ten Thousand Islands Area - Everglades National Park - Florida
The only way to properly explore the Ten Thousand Islands area of Everglades National Park is by boat. And we found this comprehensive one-day commercial tour that allowed us to get a great feel for the Ten Thousand Islands. It was a boat tour, kayak tour, bird-watching tour, dolphin-watching tour, historical tour, eco-tour, and sunset tour all rolled up into one seven-hour trip.
While looking around on the internet for a comprehensive tour of the western Everglades and the Ten Thousand Islands in southwest Florida, I came across Everglades Area Tours.
Located on Chokoloskee Island just south of Everglades City, Everglades Area Tours, provides a variety of Eco-Tours for many kinds of interests.
But what really caught my eye was the Everglades Grand Heritage & Birding Tour. The seven hour tour includes a motorboat trip, kayaking, and walking and covers several miles. Also, it's limited to only 6 passengers.
I called and booked the tour. Within seconds, we were emailed a confirmation with directions.
The tours generally leave around 10:30 a.m., but since we were a last minute addition, they gave us extra time. We arrived at JT's Island Grill & Gallery, where the tour office is located.
I have to admit, I wasn't impressed at first and the B52's song "Love Shack" kept running through my head. "Funky little shack ....".
But this is the Everglades and they say "time stands still in Everglades City, and it backs up on Chokoloskee". So we put our faith in Captain Charles and Captain Jason.
After signing the legal eagle disclaimer and waiver forms, we met the other couple going on the tour - just four of us today. Then we loaded up the six-passenger golf cart with our lunches and gear. We were told to bring lunch, water, sunscreen, sunglasses, bug spray, shoes we could get wet (not flip-flops), sunscreen, and layers of clothes.
The short ride from the office to the marina goes through a rough-looking section of the island, and once again I was wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. But it was such a beautiful day, with temperatures approaching 80, that we soon forgot about all that.
The low profile boat looked nice and there were comfortable seats for four.
Captain Jason, gave us some background and safety instructions and we were off.
You might not guess Jason is a former Marine. He's been guiding this tour for about four years.
We went out at low tide, and we were in water just a few feet deep most of the day. It became clear early on that Capt. Jason's local knowledge of the waterways and trouble spots would serve us well.
Soon, we were out among the 10,000 islands, a maze of mangrove-covered "keys".
Just beyond those islands is the Gulf of Mexico. The western Everglades are much different than what most folks think of when they hear "Everglades".
Our trip today was backwards of what was listed in the tour description on the website. The tides had an effect on the order in which we did things, and as the website says ... "Each day is different in this wonderful wilderness and so each tour is also different."
Early on, we saw most of the usual egrets and herons, brown pelicans, white pelicans, and several ospreys.
Capt. Jason gave us a lesson on wildlife viewing, and soon one of our co-passengers spotted a small pod of dolphins.
You have to be quick with good anticipation and luck to photograph or film dolphins. Linda caught them on video a couple times but it might make you dizzy as she pans around searching. :)
After our first dolphin encounter, we headed southeast along the coastal islands until we reached Mormon Key. There, Capt. Jason beached the boat so we could climb off the front.
He anchored the boat offshore while Linda filmed a little introduction.
She almost stepped on this Royal Tern as it didn't move at all.
Unfortunately it couldn't fly, but it could walk. It just chose not to.
We walked along the shore of Mormon Key looking for artifacts such as pieces of pottery from the Calusa Indians. Capt. Jason gave us a great history lesson about the inhabitants of these islands and he found a few remnants of pottery.
He also had great knowledge of all the shells along the beach - horse conch, clams, king's crown, fighting conch, etc. These two are a king's crown (left) and a fighting conch (right).
The shells were beautiful, but you aren't allowed to take any shells, dead or alive, out of the national park.
After departing Mormon Key, we headed up the Chatham River. In 2004, ESPN rated that area the "Number One Saltwater Fly-Fishing Destination In The World". Unfortunately, we weren't on a fishing tour.
We made a stop at a campsite called Watson's Place where there were picnic tables and a porta-potty.
Throughout the Everglades there are several back-country campsites on the islands. Some are "ground sites" like this one, while some are beach sites, and others are elevated camping platforms called "chickees". No matter what they are called it was good to have those bathroom options on a seven-hour tour.
We had lunch and learned about Mr. Watson and his sugar cane operation on this island. Then we were off again.
At our next stop, Capt. Jason anchored the boat and offloaded kayaks for some paddling. Linda and I boarded our kayak from the boat and waited for the others.
It's a great set-up having those kayaks neatly stowed on the front of the boat.
We paddled into Gopher Creek and Linda filmed our boat mates paddling in behind us.
Then she turned her attention to the narrow creek and the mangrove canopy in front of us.
Capt. Jason, explained how the mangroves are filters and how the red, black, and white mangroves differ.
As the creek opened up, we saw a few alligators, but none in a good position for photographs. Capt. Jason was quite excited to see several large snook working the creek. Apparently there were a few days of freezing temps here in January 2010, and there was a huge fish kill. He said the creek had been almost void of large snook, so he was happy to see them return.
Of course, there were several more birds. The most abundant seemed to be the belted kingfishers and the tri-colored herons.
Of course there were all the usual wading birds along with pelicans and ospreys. At one point we had two ospreys, two turkey vultures, and a bald eagle all circling around each other overhead.
Capt. Jason may have been the most knowledgeable guide we've ever had on a variety of subjects.
We've been on countless nature tours and we have a pretty good knowledge base, but he never mis-identified any birds nor did he mis-state any facts. He was never at a loss for an answer to a question and we learned a lot. And more than once, he described an animal behavior and, as if on cue, we would witness what he just told us.
Eventually, we paddled back up Gopher Creek through the larger lakes and the narrow channel to our boat.
Capt. Jason showed us how to safely exit the kayaks and climb onboard. And he had a nice little snack spread complete with red and white wine laid out for us.
Our gorgeous day was turning into a beautiful evening.
We were about thirty-five miles away from the marina, so we made one last bathroom stop and then hustled along the Wilderness Waterway (a 99-mile inner trail that goes from Everglades City all the way to Flamingo in the eastern Everglades).
On the way back, flocks of birds were flying into the sunset on their way to their roosting sites. Dolphins were feeding in the shallow backbay waters. And hawks and ospreys sat perched silhouetted against the sky seemingly watching the sunset with us.
Soon after the sun was gone, we were safely back at the Chokoloskee marina. What a great day we had!
So, when it comes down to it, would we recommend this tour? To be honest, $250 per person seems a little steep. But when we think about it in a couple different ways, the pricing is quite reasonable.
Most of the area airboat tour companies charge $40 a person for an hour. So $250 for seven hours and covering 70 miles doesn't seem so bad.
Then, when you consider that this tour is a boat tour, a kayak tour, a dolphin watching tour, a historical tour, an eco-tour, a birding tour, and a sunset tour, it's hard to imagine getting all those tours ala carte, for less. Certainly, it's not in everyone's budget, but if you have one day in the Ten Thousand Islands section of Everglades National Park, this is a great option. It's like a nature sampler-platter.
Our thanks to Capt. Charles and Capt. Jason at Everglades Area Tours.