NA­TURE WATCH

As the pop­u­lar­ity of eco­tourism in the sun­shine state reach new heights, out­fit­ters are dream­ing up fresh ad­ven­tures for na­ture lovers

RSWLiving - - Beauty Trends - BY ALAN SMITH

Ican’t think of any­thing more won­der­ful than sit­ting qui­etly in the mid­dle of a bayou, watch­ing the an­tics of a nearby young dol­phin. Or, and al­most equal, pad­dling through the skinny wa­ters of some man­grove tun­nel past the watch­ful eyes of a night heron. Some­times I just stay com­pletely land- based and walk the quiet trails of places like Corkscrew Swamp Sanc­tu­ary. But to put it very sim­ply, I’m an eco­tourist. Week af­ter week, South Florida news­pa­pers, es­pe­cially Sun­day edi­tions, print ads invit­ing read­ers to take var­i­ous naturalist- guided wildlife tours like “Kayak with the Mana­tees,” “Watch Dol­phins at Play” or “Ride an Air­boat through Al­li­ga­tor- filled Swamps.” Prices, times, lo­cales and con­tent may all vary but each and ev­ery one seems to pro­vide a gen­uine eco­tourism ex­pe­ri­ence. Sounds won­der­ful, no? But just what is eco­tourism? Is it some new form of sales hype? Well, the an­swer is “no.”

Eco­tourism is not just some re­cently in­vented catch phrase dreamed up by a mar­keter. It ap­pears to have been first coined in the mid- 1960s by Claus- Di­eter Het­zer, a West Coast ( Cal­i­for­nia) aca­demic, who of­fered eco­tours to the Yu­catan. Pop­u­lar­iza­tion of

Pine Is­land Sound is an­other fa­vorite with the eco­tourism crowd. Full of fas­ci­nat­ing is­lands, the wa­ter­way is great for kayak­ing.

the term, how­ever, didn’t re­ally come about un­til the early 1980s when Hec­tor Ca­bal­los- Las­cu­rain, di­rec­tor of the Mex­i­can Min­istry of Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment and Ecol­ogy, be­gan us­ing it in a lob­by­ing ef­fort to con­serve north­ern Yu­catan wet­lands for the breed­ing and feed­ing habi­tat of the Amer­i­can flamingo. So much for his­tory.

To­day there is an in­ter­na­tional eco­tourism or­ga­ni­za­tion, along with many na­tional and lo­cal ones. South­west Florida, in fact, gave birth to its own: The Florida So­ci­ety for Eth­i­cal Eco­tourism ( SEE), a non- profit ed­u­ca­tional group in­cor­po­rated in 2001 to es­tab­lish and main­tain an eth­i­cal code of lo­cal eco­tourism. SEE was the out­growth from a 1998 South­west Florida eco­tourism work­shop and has re­struc­tured it­self to be­come statewide. It is now of­fi­cially Florida SEE. The name, of course, So­ci­ety for

Eth­i­cal Eco­tourism begs the ob­vi­ous ques­tion, “Is there such a thing as un­eth­i­cal eco­tourism?” I asked John Kiseda, SEE’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, and dis­cov­ered that it was not a sim­ple yes or no sort of thing. “Eco­tourism,” he told me, “doesn’t mean just tak­ing people out into na­ture . . . there’s a lot of ‘ green wash­ing’ ( un­true eco­tourist claims) go­ing on.”

True eco­tourism works on sev­eral lev­els for the eco­tourist like you and me and for the eco­tour provider. For us, as in­di­vid­u­als, it’s a fairly sim­ple code: Be as one with the en­vi­ron­ment, do noth­ing dis­rup­tive, take only mem­o­ries ( pho­tos, too) and leave only foot­prints. In other words, don’t ride the back of a man­a­tee, throw marsh­mal­lows to a sun­bathing al­li­ga­tor or leave an area lit­tered with sand­wich wrap­pers and soda cans.

For tour providers it’s more in­volved and goes well be­yond sim­ply pro­vid­ing in­di­vid­ual tourists with safe, in­for­ma­tive tours or tour fa­cil­i­ties. As an ed­u­ca­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion Florida SEE is very much con­cerned with the con­cept of sus­tain­abil­ity or pro­vid­ing for the en­vi­ron­ment. And en­vi­ron­ment in this in­stance is a very broad term. Are the op­er­a­tor’s busi­ness prac­tices eth­i­cal? Is he or she ac­tively sup­port­ing one or more of the lo­cal ser­vice groups like the Cham­ber of Com­merce, Kiwanis, Lions or Com­mu­nity Fund? Do they con­trib­ute fi­nan­cially to the area? Buy sup­plies and equip­ment ocally or hire lo­cally? And, on a strictly eco­log­i­cal level, how are they tak­ing care to min­i­mize their im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment? Are there any con­trols over the num­ber of daily vis­i­tors to an area? Do they limit the num­ber of tours given or the size of in­di­vid­ual tours? And fi­nally, how well trained or in­formed is their staff?

A few years ago, in ad­di­tion to sim­ple ed­u­ca­tion, Florida SEE be­gan a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­gram. Tour oper­a­tors who meet, or be­lieve they can meet, Florida SEE’s eth­i­cal eco­tourism stan­dards can ap­ply to be cer­ti­fied. Since only a rel­a­tively small num­ber of oper­a­tors have thus far ap­plied for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion it should not be as­sumed that a not- yet- cer­ti­fied op­er­a­tor is in any way less eth­i­cal or will pro­vide a less sat­is­fac­tory ex­pe­ri­ence for you.

Ask ques­tions. How ex­pe­ri­enced are the tour guides? What train­ing do they have? How long have they been guid­ing and can they guar­an­tee you’ll see any­thing spe­cific, such as dol­phins, mana­tees or a par­tic­u­lar species of bird? This last point is es­pe­cially im­por­tant be­cause you’re ask­ing about wildlife and no eth­i­cal op­er­a­tor can guar­an­tee what or when you’ll see some of it. ( If one tries, time to look else­where.) And, of course, when­ever prac­ti­cal, find out what other cus­tomers are say­ing with a quick visit to In­ter­net sites like yelp. com and tripad­vi­sor. com.

Now, what does all of this have to do with us in South­west Florida? Well, very sim­ply, we have the good for­tune to sit in the midst of an eco­tourist par­adise, which an in­creas­ing num­ber of vis­i­tors come to take ad­van­tage of it. Tourism, as ev­ery­one knows, is a ma­jor fac­tor in the Florida econ­omy, and eco­tourism is a rapidly grow­ing seg­ment within it.

With the Gulf, rivers and lakes around us, it’s only nat­u­ral that wa­ter­borne eco­tourism abounds here. If you’re lucky enough to have your own kayak or pad­dle­board then, to para­phrase an ex­pres­sion, South­west Florida is your oys­ter. There are an al­most in­fi­nite num­ber of bays, bay­ous, rivers and the like to ex­plore at your leisure. But for the less ad­ven­tur­ous or those with­out their own equip­ment, the area is home to a mul­ti­tude of out­fit­ters and tour oper­a­tors. And if it’s wa­ter you’re headed to­ward, the choices are end­less.

First, do you want to rent equip­ment to go out on your own or would you rather be part of a tour? If you’re one of the for­mer types, then a few words of cau­tion. Be­fore start­ing out, ask ques­tions. Where should you go? Where are you most likely to see what­ever it is that in­ter­ests you? And, per­haps even more im­por­tant, where should you not go? Ask also about the tides. In some cases they’ll make lit­tle or no dif­fer­ence to you, but, for oth­ers, it’s an­other story en­tirely.

Parts of the Es­tero River, for ex­am­ple, are tidal. A down­stream pad­dle with an out­go­ing tide or just the gen­tle river cur­rent can be very pleas­ant. But, if the tide’s against you, then re­turn­ing up­stream is not nearly so ef­fort­less. Ask ad­vice. The out­fit­ter on that river can be most help­ful.

The J. N. “Ding” Dar­ling Na­tional Wildlife Refuge is an­other ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple of where tidal aware­ness can be im­por­tant. It may have lit­tle ef­fect on your pad­dle if you’re merely plan­ning to ex­plore the main ar­eas of Tar­pon Bay— the shore­line or the Rook­ery Is­lands. If, how­ever, you want to pad­dle along the Com­modore Trail, a well- marked wa­ter path through man­grove tun­nels and some in­te­rior parts of the wildlife refuge, then tides may very well af­fect your plan. There are times, ac­cord­ing to Wendy Sch­napp, gen­eral man­ager for Tar­pon Bay Ex­plor­ers, the con­ces­sion­aire at the refuge, when “we have to let them [ kayak­ers] know that the trail is not ac­ces­si­ble and tell them when it will be.” For­tu­nately, tides and times can be pre­dicted well in ad­vance. So ex­cept for weather changes, op­ti­mum pad­dling con­di­tions can be an­tic­i­pated quite ac­cu­rately.

The grow­ing in­ter­est in eco­tourism is forc­ing the in­dus­try to ex­pand along with it. Many out­door en­thu­si­asts are no longer sat­is­fied to spend only two or three hours ex­plor­ing their nearby en­vi­ron­ment or tak­ing the same wildlife tours year af­ter year.

Greg LeBlanc of Captiva Kayak Co. & Wild­side Ad­ven­tures leads a tour through the man­groves.

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