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.  Courtesy Jerry Pino

A Florida panther swims in the waterway between Little Marco Island and Cannon Island, between Naples and Marco Island. Courtesy Jerry Pino

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

We operate sailboats and float pleasure charters from the Islands of Capri with Cool Pines Cruises, and generally spend most of our time in the luscious greenery of Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, located roughly from the Everglades and on the coast to Gordon Pass in Naples.

On any given day, I’ll see dolphins bobbing alongside my boat — maybe tossing a fish in the air and jumping to catch it again — or swimming in sweet syncopation. Other days, I’ll see the manatee arch its back above the surface of the water and make a gentle splash with its tail fin. Or I would see a spotted ray, which would fly straight out of the water like a flying saucer and scatter within a second. The last to do so was a week ago, hitting the bottom of our houseboat with a drizzle big enough to soak up my guests. Some days we’ll see a loggerhead sea turtle, its head above the surface – until it spots us, then dives in! Dive! Dive!

The tiger ends its swim by heading to the beach and mangroves of Cannon Island.  Courtesy Jerry Pino

The tiger ends its swim by heading to the beach and mangroves of Cannon Island. Courtesy Jerry Pino

On the last Monday, November 7th to be exact, we left our dock at 9:30 a.m. from the Isles of Capri, and began amiable conversations about who I am, who my guests are, and where we wish to go. Keewaydin Island is usually the destination of choice, and the name alone sounds like a remote and exotic getaway that makes visitors curious enough to travel there. This was an exceptionally pleasant group of guests visiting the Boston area, and we were keeping our eyes peeled for anything in the water – including possible still floating debris from Hurricane Ian.

At 10:12 a.m. we were passing 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 that swimming in the water?” I look back and see what I first thought was a fox, and immediately turn the boat around to get a closer look.

Looking out into the water, the tail was the one that stood out to me the most, for it was of a suitable length and almost bushy line. Getting closer, we all determined it was a cat, based on the whiskers, pointed ears, and brown fur. While swimming, the cat turned to us, and sprinted into the mangroves of Cannon Island. Still close to the boat, all the phones were taking photos and videos of this unusual sight. We watched him jump to the sandy beach, where he flicked the water and turned around to watch us, as if he thought we were going to swim after him or something. He stood there for about 10 seconds staring at us as we picked him up. Then speed off into the wooded mangroves.

Sure enough, it was a big cat, about 4 feet long (not including the tail) and maybe 2 feet high on its back. The long tail, brown coat, and pointed ears are clearly visible on the white interior. We didn’t know what to think. Bobcat maybe? Since I’ve been here less than a year ago, I’ve never really groomed my knowledge base of what a Florida panther looks like.

For the next eight minutes on the no-wake-zone trip to Keewaydin, we talked as if we had seen Bigfoot. I made the boat trip, and my guests went their merry way up the shore, to pick up the vast quantity of shells which swept up from the depths. I stayed on the boat, scrolling through my phone looking for this creature.

Difference between bobcat and tiger? A bobcat’s tail is only 1 to 7 inches long, while a tiger’s tail is about a third of its body length. One point for the tiger. A cheetah will have a brown or brown coat as opposed to a bobcat which has a gray coat with lots of spots. Two points for the tiger. The cat is about the size of a medium-sized dog, or maybe twice the size of a house cat. The leopard is much larger and can weigh up to 160 lbs. Three points for the tiger, based on our estimated size.

By the time my guests returned with bags full of pure shells, I had decided we had indeed seen a tiger from Florida.

Captain Kelly Callahan, owner of Cool Beans Cruises boat company, hasn’t seen a tiger in over 20 years. His wife, Sharon, has never seen him. The staff working that day at the Rookery Bay Learning Center had never seen one before, and they were very helpful to me in getting to the right person who wished to record this valuable information. I was handed an email address to an environmental specialist at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, who I emailed my photos in hopes of contributing to their record collection.

The other Captains on our team call me “Echo Jerry,” because I’ve delved into learning so much about our amazing birds, sea creatures, shells, trees, and local history. I am very fortunate to be the rare bird that has seen this very rare tiger in Florida. Come outside, explore nature, and always keep your eyes open! ¦

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: