A surprisingly close encounter with a Florida panther

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

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

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

We run sailboat and pontoon leisure charters out of the Isles of Capri with Cool Beans Cruises, and generally spend most of our time in the luscious greenery of the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, roughly located from Everglades City and up the coastline to Gordon Pass in Naples.

On any given day, I’ll see dolphins frolicking alongside my boat — maybe throwing a fish in the air and jumping over to catch it again — or some graceful synchronization swimming. Other days I’ll see a manatee arching its back above the water surface and making a gentle splash with its tail fin. Or I’ll see a spotted ray, flying straight up out of the water like a flying saucer and splashing down within a second. The last one that did this was a week ago, hitting the bottom of our pontoon boat with a splash big enough to soak my guests. Some days we’ll see a Loggerhead sea turtle, with its head above the surface — until it spots us, then it’s dive! dive! dive!

The panther ends his swim by heading for beach and mangroves on Cannon Island.  COURTESY JERRY BENO

The panther ends his swim by heading for beach and mangroves on Cannon Island. COURTESY JERRY BENO

On a recent Monday, Nov. 7 to be exact, we departed our dock at 9:30 a.m. from the Isles of Capri, and started the friendly chatter about who I am, who my guests were, and where we’d like to go. Keewaydin Island is usually the chosen destination, and the name alone sounds like a remote, exotic getaway that has visitors curious enough to travel there. This was an exceptionally fun group of guests visiting from the Boston area, and we’ve been keeping our eyes peeled for anything in the water — including possible floating debris still present from hurricane Ian.

At 10:12 a.m., we were passing between Little Marco Island and Cannon Island in the Calhoun Channel, heading toward Keewaydin. One of the guests points to my port stern side of the boat and asks, “What is that swimming in the water?” I look back and see what I initially thought to be a fox, and immediately turn the boat for a closer look.

Looking at the water, the tail is what stood out to me the most, because it was a decent length and almost bushy. Getting closer, we all determined it was a cat, based on the whiskers, pointy ears, and brown fur. While swimming, the cat turned to look at us, and sped up his race to the mangroves on Cannon Island. Still moving the boat closer, all the phones were out taking pictures and video of this unusual sight. We watched him leap to the sandy shore, where he shook off 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, and us at him. He then scampered off into the woody mangroves.

He was definitely a large cat, say 4-feet long (not including tail) and maybe 2 ½ feet high to his back. Long tail, brown coat, 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 as if we saw Bigfoot. I beached the boat, and my guests went on their merry way at the beach, picking through the vast quantity of shells that had swept in from the deep. I stayed on the boat, scrolling through my phone to research this creature.

The difference between a bobcat and a panther? A bobcat’s tail is only 1-7 inches long, whereas a Panther’s tail is one-third of its body length. One point for the panther. A panther will have a tan or brown coat versus a bobcat having a grayish coat with lots of spots. two points for the panther. A bobcat is the size of a medium dog, or maybe twice the size of a housecat. 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’d determined that we had indeed witnessed a Florida panther.

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

The other captains on our team call me “Eco Jerry,” because I have delved into learning so much about our amazing birds, sea creatures, shells, trees, and local history. I’m very fortunate to be the rare bird who sighted this ultra-rare Florida panther. Come outside, explore nature, and always keep your eyes open! ¦