OKALOOSA ISLAND — Frank Howell is a self-proclaimed hillbilly.
Born in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, Howell said the lure of the emerald water finally drew him to Destin.
“I vacationed here for years and just decided I would stay,” he said. “My love of the water is what brought me down here in 2003.”
Howell offers daily airboat rides with his company Destin Airboat Tours, which launches from the Brooks Bridge Marina.
An airboat is propelled by an aircraft-type propeller and is powered by a large engine at the stern. The flat-bottomed boat allows access to shallow water and creates less wake than traditional watercraft.
“It’s a fun ride,” he said of the tours. “It’s probably the most exciting boat ride in Destin because of the sensation of speed and the combination of that speed and the fact that you are closer to things.”
Howell said his customers are usually family groups, as his airboat seats up to six guests and himself. Howell said his tour involves four parts.
“I give a brief local history. Then I show them the peace and quiet of the sound where there are no condos," he said. "Once we get out there, we discuss the ecosystem, waterfowl and marine wildlife, and I introduce them to airboats and who invented them.”
This year, Howell said the marine life has been extremely diverse, and guests have seen dolphins, manatees, sharks and various species of fish and waterfowl.
But the most exciting part of the tour, Howell said, is the bonus of customers getting to try their hand at steering the airboat.
“I like giving people the opportunity to drive the boat,” he said. “It’s the most ecofriendly boat on the planet because we do not disturb anything on the bottom. The airboat is also used for extremely shallow water, so we get to go places no one else gets to go.”