A surprisingly close encounter with a Florida panther

A Florida panther swims in the waterway between Little Marco Island and Cannon Island, between Naples and Marco Island.  THANKS JERRY BENO

A Florida panther swims in the waterway between Little Marco Island and Cannon Island, between Naples and Marco Island. THANKS JERRY BENO

I’m Captain Jerry (“Eco Jerry”) and I’m about to share with you a true story that could rival your Sasquatch story.

We operate sailboat and pontoon vacation charters from the islands of Capri with Cool Beans Cruises, and generally spend most of our time in the lush greenery of the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, located roughly from Everglades City and along the coastline to Gordon Pass in Naples.

On any given day, I’ll see dolphins frolicking next to my boat – perhaps throwing a fish in the air and jumping over to catch it again – or a graceful synchronized swim. Other days I see a manatee arching its back above the surface of the water and making a gentle splash with its tail fin. Or I see a dappled jet flying straight up out of the water like a flying saucer and plunging down in a second. The last one to do this was a week ago, hitting the bottom of our pontoon boat with a splash big enough to drench my guests. Some days we see a loggerhead sea turtle with its head above the surface – until it sees us, then it’s diving! to dive! to dive!

The panther ends his dive by heading to the beach and mangroves on Cannon Island.

The panther ends his dive by heading to the beach and mangroves on Cannon Island.

On a recent Monday, November 7th to be exact, we departed our port from the islands of Capri at 9:30 am and we started chatting nicely about who I am, who my guests were and where we want to go. . Keewaydin Island is usually the destination of choice, and the name alone sounds like a remote, exotic getaway that makes visitors curious enough to travel there. This was an extremely fun group of guests from the Boston area, and we kept our eyes peeled for anything in the water – including any floating debris from Hurricane Ian that may still be present.

At 10:12 AM we passed between Little Marco Island and Cannon Island in the Calhoun Channel, heading towards Keewaydin. One of the guests points to my port side of the boat and asks, “What’s swimming in the water?” I look back and see what I initially thought was a fox, and immediately turn the boat around to get a closer look.

When I look at the water, I noticed the tail the most, because it was quite long and almost bushy. As we got closer, we all decided it was a cat, based on the whiskers, pointy ears, and brown fur. While swimming, the cat turned to us and accelerated its race to the mangroves on Cannon Island. As they approached the boat, all phones were busy snapping photos and videos of this unusual sight. We saw him jump to the sandy shore, where he shook off the water and turned to look at us, as if he thought we were going to swim after him or something. He stood there staring at us for about 10 seconds, and we at him. Then he ran into the wooded mangroves.

It was definitely a big cat, say four feet long (excluding tail) and maybe eight feet high on its back. Long tail, brown fur and pointy ears clearly visible with the white inside. We didn’t know what to think. Bobcat maybe? Since I’ve been here less than a year, I’ve never prepared my knowledge base to determine what a Florida panther actually looks like.

For the next eight minutes in the no-wake zone cruise to Keewaydin, we talked like we were seeing Bigfoot. I put the boat on the beach and my guests continued their merry way on the beach, sifting through the huge amount of shells that had washed up from the depths. I stayed on the boat and scrolled through my phone to investigate this creature.

The difference between a bobcat and a panther? A bobcat’s tail is only 1-7 inches long, while a panther has a tail that is a third of its body length. One point for the panther. A panther has tan or brown fur versus a bobcat which has grayish fur with lots of spots. two points for the panther. A bobcat is the size of a medium-sized dog, or perhaps twice the size of a domestic cat. A panther is much larger and can weigh up to 160 pounds. Three points for the panther, based on our estimated size.

By the time my guests returned with bags full of pristine shells, I had determined that we had indeed witnessed a Florida panther.

Captain Kelly Callahan, owner of the Cool Beans Cruises boat company, has not seen a panther in over 20 years. His wife Sharon has never seen one. The staff working at the Rookery Bay Education Center that day had never seen one before and were very helpful in getting me to the right person who would want to record this valuable information. I got an email address from an environmental specialist at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, where I emailed my photos in hopes of contributing to their archival collection.

The other captains on our team call me ‘Eco Jerry’ because I’ve engrossed myself in learning so much about our amazing birds, sea creatures, shells, trees and local history. I am very fortunate to be the rare bird to have seen this ultra-rare Florida panther. Come out, explore nature and always keep your eyes peeled! ¦

Leave a Comment