Most people come to Vero Beach for the beach. But those willing to venture away from sand and surf to the wild expanses west of Vero Beach will find what Bob Montuoro calls “the prettiest wetland you’ve ever seen.”
He should know. For nearly two decades, Montuoro has operated Captain Bob’s Airboat Adventures, introducing generations of families from Vero Beach and beyond to the sights and sounds of Florida’s freshwater marshland.
Perched comfortably in cushioned stadium-style seats aboard a custom 20-foot Diamondback airboat, up to 15 guests can don aviation talk-around headsets for a fully narrated tour of the pristine, state-owned Blue Cypress Recreation Area. Located just north of State Road 60 on County Road 512, the 2,800-acre recreation area is part of the 61,574-acre Blue Cypress Conservation Area, which comprises a large mosaic of open water systems and floodplain marsh at the headwaters of the 310-mile, northern-flowing St. Johns River.
“Each trip is a treasure hunt,” Montuoro says of the 50-minute guided tour that is equal parts history lesson, biology class, and stand-up comedy routine. “You never know what you’re going to see because it changes every day. People enjoy our personalities, and we want to give them an educational and entertaining experience.”
As the airboat glides effortlessly over miles of wetland, guests learn fun and interesting facts about the ecosystem and its natural inhabitants seen along the way. Alligators, fish, turtles, snowy egrets, white ibises, herons, ospreys, anhingas, cormorants, and native flora such as bald cypress trees and lilies are just a few of the highlights.
As is the area’s rich history. The property was once owned by the Garcia family, who fled Cuba and operated a cattle ranch, farm, and horse racing stables on land that had been dug with canals and drained of water. In 1982, the St. Johns River Water Management District purchased the property, built a levee around it, reestablished the marshland, and incorporated it into the 777,912 acres it currently manages to protect and preserve Florida’s water resources.
On a recent morning, we joined two families for an airboat tour led by Montuoro’s son-in-law, John Calhoun, heir apparent to Captain Bob’s Airboat Adventures.
As we gently traverse the open waterways, great blue herons alight from tall cattail reeds, displaying their impressive 6-foot wingspan. Sizable alligators skim gently through the water or rest on raised marsh beds. Anhingas crane their slender necks and dive for fish.
“See the bumps on the alligator’s back?” asks Captain John, pointing to a 10-foot male. “They’re called scutes and they help protect him from attack. That might help explain why alligators have been around for over 150 million years.”
Gliding past a group of majestic cypress trees, affectionately named “Osprey Alley,” we spy pairs of ospreys and their enormous “penthouse nests.” Mesmerized, we watch resident couples Adam and Eve, Ricky and Lucy, Bonnie and Clyde, and Homer and Marge soar through the air and hunt for fish. “Ospreys are generally monogamous and remain together for life,” Calhoun points out. “They have a lifespan of 20 to 25 years.”
Rounding a corner, we encounter a rookery for great egrets. “Their numbers are coming back strong,” he comments, after decades of dwindling populations from the sale of their plume feathers for hats.
“This is a slice of Florida people don’t get to see every day,” Calhoun remarks as he points out a section of old fence from the Garcia ranch. “There was a mile-long racetrack over there, sanctioned by the racing federation.”
“People come here expecting to see alligators, but they learn so much more about the history and ecosystem,” acknowledges Montuoro. “We have many repeat customers who bring their friends and family to hear what they heard the first time. On each trip, you never know what will show up. That’s what keeps people so engaged, and we encourage them to ask questions.”
Engaging people seems to come naturally to the jovial Montuoro, an outgoing outdoorsman who moved from his birth state of Oklahoma to Vero Beach as an 8-year-old in 1966. “All four of my grandparents are from Italy, so I’m a second-generation Italian American. I tell everyone I’m the only Italian Okie Cracker you’ll ever meet. My dad was an aviator who built Brantley helicopters. After we moved to Vero, he became a vice president at Piper Aircraft. He described the Piper as the prettiest bird in Vero Beach.”
Following his graduation from Vero Beach High School, Montuoro met his wife, Lisa, and joined the Indian River County Fire Department, rising to the rank of lieutenant during his 31-year career. “Working for the fire department means working 24 hours on and 48 hours off, which means you have time to do something else.”
Initially, that something else was bass fishing. “I’ve always liked boats and I started a little bass club with my good friend Tim Ward. We traveled around the state doing bass fishing tournaments.” Those trips reinforced Montuoro’s love of the outdoors and the desire to introduce others to the beauty of Florida’s natural wetlands.
Several years after the birth of their children, Emily and Todd, the Montuoros purchased a small airboat and launched Captain Bob’s Airboat Adventures in 2004. In the beginning, it was a side gig during Bob’s days off from the fire department, with Lisa handling the bookings and administrative end of the business. Soon, they purchased talk-around headsets and developed a fully narrated tour with interesting facts about the ecosystem and history of the area. It set a new standard among airboat operators, who were using only basic ear protection and offering rides at the time. The Montuoros adopted the slogan “The difference is in the tour,” and it stuck.
“Word of mouth about our airboat tours spread like a small wildfire,” jokes Montuoro. “The phone kept ringing and we got a bigger boat. Then, the phone rang some more, and we bought a second boat. Holiday weeks and Presidents’ Weekend through early May is our busiest time of the year. Thanks to our loyal customers, we have not had to advertise in the last several years.”
Since retiring from the fire department in 2012 and running tours full-time, Montuoro, 65, is reflecting upon his past and planning for the future of Captain Bob’s Airboat Adventures. “Next year will be our 20th year. Lisa and I are ready to work a little less and play a little more. We love hiking and walking, golf, and tennis.”
Fortunately, Montuoro didn’t have to look far for his successors. For the past seven years, Emily and John have been gradually taking control of the business and the throttle. The pair knew each other when both attended Sebastian River High School, but they didn’t date until they reconnected one summer during their college years. Emily attended Florida Atlantic University and Indian River State College, earning a bachelor of science in nursing. John, a 6-foot, 3-inch former fullback with the University of Miami Hurricanes, was planning to attend law school … until he began to think long and hard about his future career path.
“I could see how Bob enjoyed life,” says Calhoun, a native Floridian who grew up surfing, fishing, playing football, and enjoying the outdoors. “I always wanted to be a firefighter and realized law wasn’t for me.” Instead of going to law school after college graduation, he enrolled in a local EMT training program, got hired by the St. Lucie County Fire Department in 2015—where he currently holds the rank of lieutenant, and got his captain’s license in 2016 to pilot the airboat. “Bob gave me a lot of stick time. I learned all the facts and history about the area, and I’ve been here ever since.”
“I couldn’t see my life any other way,” reflects Calhoun, now married to Emily eight years and a father of two. “It’s a gift from above to be able to do what we do.”
Those who have joined him on an airboat tour would readily agree.