Everglades-area eco-tour operators dread effects of oil spill on environment, business

A group of eco-tourists led by Capt. Jason Sine of Everglades Area Tours, walks part of the beach of Pavilion Key in the Everglades National Park off the coast of Chokoloskee. Like the rest of Florida's coast, the area remains under threat from oil pollution from the northern Gulf BP spill.

Photo by QUENTIN ROUX, Staff // Buy this photo

A group of eco-tourists led by Capt. Jason Sine of Everglades Area Tours, walks part of the beach of Pavilion Key in the Everglades National Park off the coast of Chokoloskee. Like the rest of Florida's coast, the area remains under threat from oil pollution from the northern Gulf BP spill.

Everglades National Park -- Gulf Coast Visitor Center

815 Oyster Bar Lane, Everglades City, FL

— Eco-tour guide Capt. Jason Sine managed to hold off his exasperation until he and his group had reached the shell-strewn beach of Pavilion Key, one of the Ten Thousand Islands situated deep in the Everglades National Park.

Sine had drawn a map in the sand explaining the machinations of the now-infamous Gulf Loop Current, and how it could literally suck in and steer the BP oil leak right toward Southwest Florida, and indeed the park.

“All to save 10 cents on a gallon of gas,” Sine reflected grimly before resuming his educational tour on behalf of Everglades Area Tours.

On the trip, which included a 10-mile powerboat ride via Chokoloskee’s Rabbit Key Pass to Pavilion Key, followed by a 2-mile kayak paddle flanking the key, and then a hike on the beach, Sine fascinated the group by explaining how all the wildlife is inextricably linked in the overall ecosystem.

A former marine who has made eco-tours an equally inextricable part of his life, Sine said after the tour that the Loop Current was of great concern, but that he believed everything would have to be “perfect” for a true, catastrophic disaster.

“There would have to be a lot of oil, and the wind would have to be right,” he said.

“But,” he added, “you have to plan for it.”

Everglades Area Tours owner Charles Wright concurred.

Already plagued with some cancellations from out-of-state customers who believe the whole Florida west coast is awash in oil, Wright said local boat captains have offered their services to Rookery Bay and Everglades National Park officials.

“We have nine boats and captains here who could haul booms into shallow waters that they know backward,” Wright said.

“But,” he added, “hopefully this is all a waste of time and there won’t be a breach.”

Looking at the alternative, however, Wright said if the oil did arrive it would smother the mangroves because of their porous nature, and it would be virtually impossible to clean them up.

Drawing attention to the Everglades National Park’s myriad estuaries, he said 85 percent of the world’s harvestable seafood species spend some part of their life cycles in estuaries.

“And this is a giant, and unique system of estuaries,” Wright said. “It’s the nursery grounds for the Southeast and parts of the Caribbean, despite some people thinking that the Everglades is only about airboats and alligators.”

Capt. Ron Hagerman operates similar eco-tours out of Marco Island, but uses personal watercraft to ply parts of the Ten Thousand Islands.

Hagerman said oil pollution would obviously be devastating to the environment, but the business ripple-effect would be even more frightening.

One saving grace, he said, could be that prevailing winds at this time of year head northwest, and could hold off the massive slick that way.

But, as Sine pointed out, onshore winds also arrive like clockwork on the west coast around 3 o’clock each afternoon.

Hagerman agreed that oil-soaked mangroves would be an almost insoluble disaster.

“It’s almost impossible to navigate mangroves by foot,” he said. “You could traverse a whole island of mangroves and never get through.”

Hagerman said it was now basically a game of waiting.

“I survived $4.19 a gallon, but I don’t even have a plan — short of moving — if the oil came here en masse,” he said.

Out on the tour with Sine, it was possible — for periods — to push thoughts of the threats aside, and enjoy sightings of roseate spoonbills, a startled tarpon weighing in at more than 100 pounds, spotted eagle rays breaching the water with majestic bellyflops, and assorted families of osprey sounding the alarms as humans approached.

But it also was hard not to look at this great expanse of water — dotted with emerald green mangrove islands as far as the eye could see — and imagine everything saturated with stinking, sweet crude.

All — as Sine noted wryly — to save 10 cents on a gallon of gas.

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