As the early morning haze hung over the everglades I cruised east on route 41 and turned into the parking lot of the headquarters of the newly formed company, Everglades Adventure Tours Outfitter (EAT). Ed Bridle, a seasoned photographer friend, introduced me to the owner Jack Shealy who is a lifelong native of the everglades and a Big Cypress certified guide. Jack, who stands about 6ft tall was neatly dressed in khaki safari wear a cap and wrap around sunglasses. My first impression of him was that of a neat, polite, professional and competent guide. I was right on.
EAT is the first and the only company to offer private guided eco-tours in the western everglades Big Cypress region using the pole boat method. Moving through the watery sawgrass paths it’s easy to conjure images of ancient indigenous cultures and later gladesman who used skiffs and poles to hunt, fish and navigate the shallow marshes, rivers and cypress swamps. After 7 years of giving airboat tours Jack wanted visitors to experience the uniqueness and wild beauty of the glades in the most powerful and intimate way or what he calls “the maximum experience.”
Ed and I followed Jack’s SUV and trailerrig west to Rt. 29 continuing past Everglades City to the sandy shore and launch area next to Smallwood’s store on Chokoloskee Bay. In a flash Shealy had the specially made flat bottom metal skiff and hand hewn pole lowered into the water. With the front of the skiff on dry land he took my gear and held out a hand to help me step aboard. I settled into the front seat with camera and lens at the ready and Ed behind me. Jack positioned himself on the back transom, pole in hand and angled into the sand. He stood with his legs set firmly apart looking like a river of grass gladiator. The tide was low and the bay, smooth and still, shimmered before us like inky Jello. We were enveloped by an intoxicating motionless silence broken here and there by the piercing, “awwak” of a passing brown pelican. Jack pushed the pole into the sand and eased the skiff around and into the bay. The pole, fashioned with a flat paddle could be used as a rudder as well as a push tool. We slid across the bay as noiselessly and as stealthily as a gator crossing a swampy slough laser targeted on an unsuspecting prey. We passed two brown pelicans airing their wings atop a protruding piling.
Ed laughed, “They think they are anhingas”.
They paid us no mind – and we them because it was their northern cousins we were after — the, oh so grand, wintering white pelicans. Ed had been scoping them out for a couple of weeks now and we hoped they would still be there feeding and staging before their return to the lakes of northern Montana and Utah.
As we moved into the channel a motoring boat closed in on us shattering the daybreak tranquility. The engine slowed as they pulled up next to us and the captain chatted briefly with Jack. Most of EAT’s business comes from referrals from other guides and it was clear that Shealy was well liked and respected among this breed of savvy local aqua-mentors. As the motorboat moved on and disappeared in the distance we left thechannel and began to move soundlessly over the watery oyster flats of Chokoloskee Bay.
“There they are,” whispered Ed.
Sure enough, flocked together on a mud rise, were 30 or 40 white pelicans surrounded by some visiting brownies and a few errant cormorants thrown in like black beans siding up to a plate of fluffy white rice. I had seen these glorious whites twice before this season – once on a sand bar near Coon Key and again on Lump Key off of Cape Romano. Each time it was impossible to get close enough to shoot images with any detail because we ran the risk of running aground—in fact we did. Upon returning to these locations the great whites had moved on.
As we slid in closer the birds were unfazed. I couldn’t believe it. No one spoke and I know I was holding my breath. Click, click. They were so beautiful and majestic. Our own brown pelicans appeared diminutive next to their towering cousins whose wingspan nears six feet in diameter. Unlike our native pelicans who are lone fisherman and drop out of the air like a Kamikaze on steroids crashing into water and surfacing with dinner in their pouch the great whites fish as a community. They work together to surround the fish and herd them into the shallows. There they use their pouch like a net and scoop their prey.
Click, click, click. We are close enough to get some detail shots. I am using a Canon 5D Mach II with a 70 to 300 zoom. Although I have longer lenses it is almost impossible not to get camera shake in a boat, no matter how calm the waters, without the use of a tripod. The day is overcast and hazy there is no sun to drench us in early morning juicy light but the haze creates a soft even light that makes it easy to make beautiful images from any angle without tricky glare or harsh shadows.
We are careful not to spook the birds so we are communicating in hushed tones and hand signals. Ed (whose whispers could be heard in Sable Key) signals for Jack to movearound to the other side of the mini sandbar island. Click, click. We are ecstatic. The idea is capture them in the wild. It’s the glory of the hunt and the perfect image is the golden ring! Click, click, click, and click. We are into it now and like all passionate photogs we are getting greedy. I keep pointing in but Jack doesn’t seem to connect.
“Jack,” I whisper reluctantly, “Can you get us in closer.”
But the second part of our guide’s principle has kicked in “minimal impact.” “I can’t go any closer or we’ll run ‘em off and they are almost all gone now.” Opines, Jack.
Oh, well! (I am secretly happy and so pleased. I am a voyeur who gets the most amazing assists.)
He points out the large distinctive growth on the tops of the male’s bills, signaling that they are getting ready to breed and will be heading north very soon. Over the years he has developed a keen awareness of the sensitivity and fragility of the exotic, sometimes savage and always changing environment that has been his passion and his training ground.
Shealy’s family has a long history in and around Big Cypress. Both his dad and his uncle grew up in the glades and his grandmother was the postmistress at the Ochoppee post office for over 30 years. Well travelled and articulate, Jack knows the glades and 10,000 islands “like the inside of his pocket.”
Bridle calls him the new generation of gladesman. “He is internet savvy; he knows marketing and has a real appreciation of the eco-sensitivity. He can navigate the system and works well with the Big Cypress authorities.
“He’s enthusiastic and loves what he’s doing and where he lives.” Ed muses, “He’ll be darn successful in the long run!”
Everglades Adventure Tours offers a variety of options including a 7 mile everglades tour, overnight camping tours, sunset and full moon night tours as well as customized tours. You can go to their website at evergladesadventuretours.com or give them a call at 800 504-6554.
Kathleen A. Douglas is a contributing writer and professional photographer. She works out of Amantea Gallery at the shops of Olde Marco and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.