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Our cruise only stopped for a short time in Miami, and we believed the best excursion to take was the airboat ride through the Everglades.
It wasn’t the only tour on offer. Miami was always a big draw for the rich and famous. There was a city tour which promised you peeps into the houses once owned by Paul Newman, Boris Becker and Oprah Winfrey … even a visit to the honeymoon cottage of Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher.
I was initially attracted to the walking tour of the Art Deco district … it’s long been one of my favourite architectural styles. But the alligators won. The only other alternatives were beaches and shopping, and you can do those anywhere. Then of course there was the famous Miami skyline - but we could already see that from the deck of the ship.
Gator Park is about half an hour's drive west of the Miami cruise terminal, and we didn't really see much of the city on the way. The park, although a little basic, was a delight … and I hope it remains that way, rather than becoming too much like an alligator-based theme park. The sole object is to see (and, hopefully, not get eaten by) alligators, which we saw both in the wild in the creeks from the airboat, but also, in case of the unlikely event of missing seeing them, in enclosures around the centre.
I’m in two minds about the airboat. It really doesn’t seem the most environment friendly way to get about the swamps; we were issued with ear defenders, so goodness knows how the wildlife feels about it. But we did see plenty … mainly birds and, of course, alligators, either sunning themselves or lurking in wait. For these, we slowed down almost to a stop.
When you think about it, the airboat is probably the best way to get around the Everglades. The shallow draught means that it rarely, if ever, runs aground, and there is no chance of the propeller getting fouled by weeds and things.
Like the Egyptian river cruise boats, it will probably sail on a heavy dew.
A big plus, though, is that the passengers are really close to the water, and get an excellent view of what’s going on. Unlike the pilot, who sits high up … presumably to get a better view of what’s ahead, but maybe, also, out of the reach of snapping jaws?
This poses the question: how do you tell an alligator from a crocodile? Well, the obvious one is, if you see a crocodile in the United States, it’s most probably an alligator. But, if you get attacked by an alligator in Australia, it’s almost certainly a crocodile! The easiest way to tell them apart, though, is when an alligator closes its mouth, you can’t see any teeth; with a crocodile, you can.
The Everglades National Park consists of 1.5 million acres of swampland around the southern tip of Florida. That’s a lot of swamp … and fortunately, efforts to drain it have, so far, usually been resisted, Of course, they were only able to show us the minutest portion, but it did contain a pretty fair cross-section.
When we finished the airboat ride, there are a few things to see around the Gator Park centre. They keep a few ‘gators around, presumably to cover the extremely unlikely event that you won’t see any from the airboat. They also have baby alligators to show … the general consensus was that they were ‘cute’, and it’s hard to imagine that they’d grow up into gnarly, mean killing machines.
And there was a demonstration of alligator wrestling, as practised by the local Native American tribes, who hunted the beasts for food. Anyone who’s ever seen the Crocodile Hunter series on TV will be familiar with the technique; you just drop on it and hold its jaws shut.
I can’t say I felt too happy seeing this procedure. I seem to remember the late Steve Irwin, on one of his programmes, saying it does stress the animal, and they only did it at Australia Zoo when it was essential for relocating or medicating, never ‘for show’.