Eco-boating class tutors local captains in wildlife stewardship

Andrea Stetson
Special to Coastal Life

Some local boat captains and kayak tour operators now have a better understanding about how to enhance the eco-tourism experience and become better stewards of Estero Bay.

Boat captains and kayak tour guides learn more about how to give customers a good experience seeing dolphins and manatees while not getting too close and disturbing them.

Ten participants completed all four sessions for the Ecotour Provider Environmental Education Program offered by the Florida Coastal Office division of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Visit Florida.

John Kiseda, founder and past executive director for the Florida Society of Ethical Tourism, former sustainability director for Lee County Parks and Rec and currently a private consultant, was one of the guest speakers.

“We really want them to learn sustainable practices and to give them any information and experience that can better themselves, and that can lead to a better environment,” Kiseda explained. “It is also about them educating their visitors on how to act responsibility when they are visiting down here.”

Boat captains and kayak tour guides take the Ecotour Provider Environmental Education Program to learn more about how they can be better stewards of Estero Bay.

Local and state experts presented a huge menu of ideas from ways to get customers more involved in the environment to how to operate their business while protecting the aquatic preserve in Estero Bay.

The 11,000 acre Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve is bordered on the west by a chain of barrier islands, which include Estero Island, Long Key, Lovers Key, Black Island, Big Hickory Island and Little Hickory Island.

It’s a nursery for young fish and other creatures, a feeding ground for manatees and dolphins and a nesting area for thousands of birds.

Maureen Goranson of Goodtime Charters said she learned a lot.

“All of the speakers that have come have really been good,” she said. “Lots of the general information you might have heard before, but it is a reminder. It’s good awareness for the water and just being more aware of the opportunities for educating our visitors and our guests.”

Get close to dolphins

Andrea James, a mate and biologist for Goodtime Charters, said she learned things such as how close you are allowed to get to dolphins and birds.

“I definitely learned some better ways of taking care not to get too close to the dolphins and being able to look at them from a distance,” she said. “There were a lot of things I didn’t know about how close you can get and what their movements mean and the different signals the dolphins give.”

Scott Hall, a captain, operates the Estero Bay Express pontoon boat out of Fish Tale Marina.

He said he has already started implementing some of the things he has learned.

“I think we got an overall view of things that would enhance not only our way of doing the eco tours but also enhancing how we do businesses,” he said. “We learned to broaden our areas with other tour guides in the area. There is so much to offer. I learned how to put it into perspective that people are a part of the tour and not just hearing my speech but feeling like a part of the environment.”

Hall said he learned about how one man’s effort led to the establishment of the aquatic preserve and he uses that story during his tours.

“One man’s effort has had millions of peoples rewarded,” Scott said. “One man’s effort got this protected. He had no idea what he created. Now there are 42 aquatic preserves in the state of Florida. This was the first one in the state of Florida. To me it made Fort Myers Beach what it is today. Someone could have wiped that out.”

Teaching kids

Kiseda also gave tips on encouraging customers to spend more time exploring the area by networking with other eco tour operators. He suggested tour guides have a separate way of informing children about the things they see instead of using a watered -own adult version of their speech. And he gave them tips on starting the experience with information on a website and through brochures.

“It’s important what do they see before going on the tour too, “ Kiseda said.

Most of the participants operated kayak tours. They were looking for answers on how to have better access to Estero Bay. Most of them start their tours from the fringes along the road since they don’t have rights at the state boat ramp. While they didn’t get any help on finding launch locations, they did get tips for making their tours better.

“It’s a great way to brush up on our ecology of the region and stay up to date on eco-friendly practices and tips on how to run a better tour,” said Tim Martell of Manatee Guides. “We learned better techniques with interaction with wildlife.”

Gee Novontny of Adventure Kayaking said he is concerned about all the people he sees getting to close to dolphins and the bird rookeries. He takes a video of it, but officer Stuart Spoede of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said he can’t issue a ticket unless he sees it himself.

Spoede said one problem is the high turnover of tour guides, and many don’t know all the rules. Another problem is sees are people who buy a few jet skis and then offer tours without setting up any type of business or getting any training.

“The problem is a guy buys two jet skis puts it on Craigslist. And this guy out of San Carlos Park just puts two jet skis in the water and does a tour,” Spoede explained. “We have always had a problem with them and we will probably always have a problem with it.”

Spoede and officials with the aquatic preserve were hoping that personal watercraft vendors would attend the sessions, but none signed up.

“We are hoping,” said Cheryl Clark, aquatic preserve manager. “It just helps with the protection of the bay by educating tourists and the people who use the bay. We tried to get fishing charters and jet skis, but we could not get them here so we hope to get them in the future. We are hoping to make it an annual event.”