“All aboard on the glass bottom boat, it’s the greatest show that was ever afloat. Take a ride on the tide with the guide and see, the way out wonders of the deep blue sea.”
Actress Doris Day sang these words in the 1966 MGM film entitled – no surprise – The Glass Bottom Boat. In this romantic comedy, she plays a glass bottom boat tour operator on California’s Catalina Island who also performs as a mermaid and is mistaken by NASA scientists as a Soviet spy. Producer-writer Everett Freeman claimed his inspiration for the film came after riding on one of Catalina’s famous glass bottom boats.
Tourists have taken rides on these vessels in Catalina since the 1890s. Many historians believe the concept for these boats originated on the rocky island 20 miles offshore and southwest of Los Angeles.
The story goes that an abalone fisherman named Charley Feige built a wooden box with a glass pane in the bottom. He’d hang over the side of his skiff and submerge the box in the clear water of Catalina’s Avalon Bay to search out mollusks below. One day, according to island lore, a local hermit saw Feige fishing and wisely suggested that he instead put a glass pane in the bottom of his rowboat. Feige took the hermit’s advice and subsequently so did other Catalina fisherman.
As tourism started to become a lucrative business on Catalina Island, Feige began ferrying visitors out in his small boat to peer down through its bottom and into the bay. Other enterprising men caught wind of this and soon built bigger, more comfortable wooden boats, some with poles and awnings to keep the sun off the tourists.
By the early 20th century, glass bottom boat rides were quite in vogue, according to the Catalina Island Museum. Visitors clamored to see the marine life in Avalon Bay, especially the lush kelp forests that were likened to a ballet with swaying leaves folding and unfolding in the water.
William Wrigley, who made his fortune from chewing gum and was the largest landholder on Catalina Island, got into the game, too. He commissioned a fleet of glass bottom boats to help promote island tourism. One of his boats, Phoenix, was 109 feet long, the largest glass bottom boat in the world. It looked more like a gentleman’s yacht than the other more modest boats.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans started to travel for leisure to experience the fast-growing country. They journeyed by rail, coach and boat, taking in the scenery, history and cuisine at their destinations.
The American West, especially California, caught the imagination of these adventuresome tourists, but so too did Florida, particularly the north central part of the state that is home to more than 700 freshwater springs that stay cool no matter how hot the air temperature. Americans read about these springs and the untamed wilderness in newspapers and magazines by popular writers of the day. They called inland Florida “America’s Garden of Eden,” long before beach tourism took hold in the state.
Silver Springs was one of the larger and better-known springs. It’s still operating today. Some Florida historians estimate that 50,000 people visited it annually by the end of the 1880s. It featured a 200-person hotel with dancing and concerts and — you guessed it — a glass bottom boat.
If you believe the folks at Silver Springs, a man named Hullam Jones built a small wooden boat and inserted a pane of glass in the bottom to help him search for fallen cypress logs in river and springs. The owner of Silver Springs, Ed Carmichael, supposedly took the idea and built a flat, glass bottom boat so his guests could view the aquatic life beneath the surface.
Many who documented Florida tourism have expressed doubt at this origin story. They point out that no glass bottom boat was mentioned in any late 19th century promotional writings about Silver Springs. The debate continues to this day.
Regardless of when the boat made its initial appearance in Florida, it’s safe to say slow-moving, flat, glass bottom boats were used at most Florida springs resorts by the early 1920s. While Florida spring water was crystal clear, the tourist attraction owners realized the glass in the bottom of the boat provided guests with a better look below, because it removed optically erratic surface disturbances, much like a diving mask.
In 1947, Texas entrepreneur A.B. Rogers introduced a glass bottom boat at Silver Lake in San Marcos, TX, after riding on one in Catalina. Like many glass bottom boat operators, he provided other entertainment to lure visitors, such as swimming pigs and attractive young women dressed as mermaids. In 1953, a glass bottom boat tour opened in Key West, FL, one of only a few attractions on the island. For most of the 1950s, Silver Springs was drawing more than one million visitors annually.
All aboard, all aboard, on the glass bottom boat, it’s the greatest show that was ever afloat…
One summer back in 1969, my grandparents took my brother and me to ride on a glass bottom boat. We left Miami in the morning and five hours later arrived at Silver Springs. We ate sandwiches my grandmother had packed and then after lunch boarded the boat. I remember looking down, excited to see a solid sheet of glass, beneath which would be alligators, sea cows and other exotic creatures.
As you might imagine, it wasn’t like that at all. Instead of a glass floor there was what looked to me like a wooden coffin in the middle of the boat with a bunch of adults peering down into it. When I finally took my turn and looked in, there wasn’t much to see except a swirl of fish eating food that the guide had dumped into the water to attract and excite them. We had driven hours to look at an aquarium! The experience was quite underwhelming. Luckily, a creepy reptile farm and a Seminole Indian village at Silver Springs was more to our liking.
I share this story, because by 1969 the golden age of the glass bottom boat was waning. Tourism was changing. Air travel was bringing faraway places closer. Interstate highways were slowly choking off quirky mom and pop attractions. Travel was becoming more about entertainment and modern luxury. Disneyland had opened in 1955, and Disney World would open in 1971. People who wanted glass bottom boat cruises, especially in Florida, were seen as old fashioned.
The glass bottom boat, however, proved to be resilient. It may have grown less popular, but it never disappeared. Many seaside destinations continued to offer glass bottom boat tours, including on Catalina Island where it all began. In fact, it’s fair to say we’re seeing a revival of glass bottom boats this century with the rise of eco-tourism and the rising popularity of water sports.
National Geographic Expedition cruises, for example, feature luxury ships with glass bottom compartments, so guests can safely and comfortably get up close to undersea life in places such as the Arctic and South Pacific. Canoes and kayaks are being manufactured today out of tough transparent polymers so users can observe marine life while gliding over it.
While the popularity of glass bottom boats has ebbed and flowed over the decades, their purpose — to provide a glimpse into the world below — remains the same today as it was 100 years ago.
GLASS BOTTOM BOATS – TOURS
Alpena Shipwreck Tours
Explore the shipwrecks of Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. (Opens in spring 2021.)
Catalina Island Company
Take a trip to the island’s colorful undersea life at the place where it all started. Charter night trips available.
Fury Water Adventure
Key West, FL
Combine a boat ride with a sunset cruise or reef eco-tour.
Glass Bottom Shipwreck Tours
Discover shipwrecks, cliffs, caves and wildlife on Lake Superior. (Opening date for 2021 to be determined.)
Hawaii Glass Bottom Boats
Visit Oahu’s south shore to see reefs and shipwrecks by glass bottom catamaran. Private events available.
Key Largo Princess Glass Bottom Boat
Key Largo, FL
Take daily tours to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary.
Kona Glassbottom Boat
Delve into the Kailua Bay coastline and nearby reef in a special handcrafted wooden glass bottom boat. Event charters and ash scatterings available.
Silver Springs State Park
Silver Springs, FL
Explore the country’s largest natural spring via a classic glass bottom boat, kayak or canoe. Camping, cabins, hiking and horseback riding are also available.