OCALA, Fla. — After 34 years and about 8,000 family-oriented fishing charters and sightseeing tours on the Ocklawaha and Silver rivers, Capt. Tom O’Lenick will retire soon and pass on the helms of his two pontoon boats to Capt. Debbie Walters and her fiancé and partner Adam McQuaig.
Since his first Capt. Tom’s Custom Charters tour on Nov. 11, 1983, O’Lenick has seen things like “mystical” circular rainbows during a drizzle of rain and the “magical lights” of the morning sun through trees along river banks.
He said he has saved several people from drowning and towed many disabled boats to shore.
O’Lenick’s tour talks span the history of the Silver River, from the paddle-wheelers of the 1800s to the five management companies he has seen operate the Silver Springs attraction, which is now a state park.
O’Lenick, 69, a resident of Eureka, moved to the area from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1952 and had a love affair with the local waterways, including the Harris Chain of Lakes. He said he has seen a change in the water quality as he grew up around Lake Weir and Sunset Harbor.
“When I first moved here, you could see fish from 150 feet away in Lake Weir,” O’Lenick said.
He feels that environmental concerns for the area waterways should be focused on the effect of gravity and managing water levels. He also decries the use of any herbicides and chemicals along the rivers and said that is why he quit his lawn service business and earned his U.S. Coast Guard license and opened the charter service in 1983.
“These rivers are part of my heart,” said O’Lenick as he loaded up five passengers on a recent day and steered his 24 foot pontoon boat away from the dock at Ray Wayside park onto the Silver River to make the roughly five mile trip to the head springs and Silver Springs attraction area, for a three-hour tour.
“But it’s not like Gilligan’s Island,” he said jokingly.
On the tours, he gives a combination history and environmental lesson wrapped in homespun humor, surrounded by constantly changing views of cypress trees, palms, gators, turtles and birds such as great blue herons and anhingas. He credits a 1966 book, “Eternal Springs,” as a reference of much of his talk about Silver Springs.
“The natural setting is so much better than Disney,” O’Lenick said. He said he tries to prod the few people who continue to use cellphones on the boat to get away from the screen and join the fun.
O’Lenick makes sure his guests get an up close look at the wildlife and even small things along the river, like tiny yellow and green “fly orchids,” which may require pulling up close to a tree. Bright yellow marigolds are part of the mid-November display. He said he has developed an eye for spotting objects and wildlife by “looking through the trees” not at them.
Several rhesus monkeys were spotted in the trees on the recent run. O’Lenick said spider monkeys in the Silver River area are reclusive and seldom seen.
“Gator on the right, see him?” O’ Lenick shouted to passenger Edith Kolb as he idled the boat down to even less than the usual 5 mph to get a good view of the mature reptile.
Kolb, a native of the Bronx, New York, moved to Ocala 27 years ago with her late husband, Henry, and both enjoyed hiking, paddling canoes and riding bicycles. She said she had taken the same tour with O’Lenick about 20 years ago and this time was on the boat with her adult daughters Kathryn Zukof of Manhattan and Susan Giglia of Manchester, New Jersey.
“It’s not a lecture,” Zukof said of the talk.
Giglia said O’Lenick is “great with kids.”
“Capt. Tom is funny and knowledgeable,” Kolb said.
As the tour looped around the main spring where the glass bottom boats are docked, O’Lenick pointed out several sunken boats, the site for filming the “Sea Hunt” television series, as well as statues used as props in several movies and television shows. He said five underground rivers join at the main spring.
He also pointed out an 81 foot deep spring a short distance from the main spring as the site of the filming of the 1954 movie “Creature From The Black Lagoon” and nearby spring called the Bridal Chamber which, he said, native American folklore states is the location of a tragic love story along the lines of Romeo and Juliet.
Frequent tour guest Wendy Welch, a retired nurse and self proclaimed “nature lover,” enjoyed the sunshine and spotting several species of birds and other wildlife.
According to O’Lenick, he and his tours have been spotlighted in publications and on television and in a former column in the Star-Banner.
O’Lenick said he worked with the director in the early phases of state purchase of land for the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway and was a member of the Silver River Society, which encouraged the state to purchase land known as the DuPont property, which led to establishment of the Silver River State Park.
Debbie Walters was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and moved with her family to Puerto Rico at age 8.
“That’s when the water bug bit,” Walter said, adding that she loves sailing and fishing.
Walters moved to Gainesville in the early 1970s and graduated from Gainesville High School in 1980. After a few years in California, she moved to Ocala in 1989 and began working for Marion County Public Schools in 1997 and taught second grade at Emerald Shores Elementary.
Walters and McQuaig will use O’Lenick’s two boats, starting with one and bringing the other online as needed. McQuaig, owner of Phoenix Construction, plans to get his captain’s license and operate one of the boats. Currently, one boat is used for fishing and one for sightseeing. The couple will retain the same business name.
Walters said she got the idea for the new undertaking when she saw an advertisement for Capt. Tom’s tours. She resigned from her teaching position in September to embark on the new adventure.
“The biggest challenge has been getting the license,” she said.
Walters said they have been learning from O’Lenick and that she and McQuaig, who is in the process of getting his license, are considering expanding fishing outings, possibly to the Lake Weir and Harris Chain of Lakes areas.
As for O’Lenick, he plans to move to the Sarasota area and perhaps take his easy-going tour style to the Peace and Myakka Rivers. He said the charter and tour business has been a wonderful life and that he basically has been “paid to play.”
Information from: Ocala (Fla.) Star-Banner, http://www.starbanner.com/