Airboat tour firm closes due to safety concerns

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Courtesy of Mike Goyette
LAKE OKEECHOBEE — GatorMike Goyette went out alone on the lake last Wednesday night, “self-quarantining,” he said, and took this snapshot.

BELLE GLADE — Business was pretty good for the MasterGator Airboat Tours company this winter — until Lake Okeechobee levels started dropping to near-danger depths at the south end and “coronavirus” became the word on everyone’s lips.

“GatorMike” Goyette runs the business and says they decided to shut down last week but he referred questions to his father, Steve “MasterGator” Goyette, who’s a guide and alligator hunter.

Now, all the public saltwater docks have been closed in Palm Beach County; however, the elder Mr. Goyette says the business, which just was taking off before the coronavirus pandemic was declared, is closed mostly out of concern for public safety.

That, and when the lake is so low, it can be tricky to navigate.

“As of right now, the powers that be, the South Florida Water Management District, say the lake level is at 12-and-a-half feet. Um, I say the lake level is closer to 11-and-a-half feet. There’s so much more exposed land masses out there on the edge of the lake that are normally not exposed at 12-and-a-half. So I would say that the conditions of the lake … are, once again, still poor. But then, everything could always use improvement,” he finished.
It’s unworkable for folks to have to be seated 6 feet from each other on an airboat, in any case.

“The reason we’re shutting the business down is just obviously for safety precautions,” Steve said. “Because everybody that goes on the boat is sitting side by side. You know, but 100% of those taking those tours are all family, so…”
He says it’s a major challenge to stay safe when Lake Okeechobee is at this level and dropping.

“You just have to be very cautious of where you can and can’t go. It’s not as well as it was two years ago. There is more exposed ground. I don’t know why it’s this low, this early. I know they like to do it for hurricane season, but we’re a couple of months away from hurricane season. I don’t understand why they’re dropping it so low, but the powers that be obviously are supposed to be smarter than me,” said MasterGator.

They don’t plan to stay shut down longer than they have to, though.

“Yes, once we’ve got a handle on the coronavirus, I hope to open up right shortly thereafter,” Mr. Goyette said. “Once they say it’s safe to go back out in the public, that’s my game plan. Even though we’ve missed, you know, Mike and I have missed season, pretty much a whole month of it. Because everybody’s gone home!”

His son loves the lake and can’t stay away for long. Mike and his dad are the guys who organized and executed a reconstruction of the well-known Lake Okeechobee Tree House last summer and fall, which involved a GoFundMe campaign and dozens of volunteers.

Last Wednesday, March 18, GatorMike posted on his Facebook page: “Anyone want to slide around 6 p.m.? Has to be in a group of 10 or less (laughing/crying face)”
But a group was not to be rousted.

So he went out by himself anyway, on his newly repaired airboat that’s “too fast” to take tour visitors on.

The result was this picture.

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