Florida Eco-Boat Tours: Science and Pleasure
By Colette Bancroft
It’s a glorious day to be out on the water, a sunny morning with fresh breezes and little jade-green waves rippling across Sarasota Bay.
The Sarasota Bay Explorers eco-boat tour at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium is more than a sweet ride, though. It’s an up-close way to learn about natural Florida.
The aquarium itself is a delight to visit, especially with youngsters, and it’s easy to combine a trip here with this boat tour in one day. Eco-boat tours let visitors see marine creatures and other wildlife in their natural habitats, with low-key science lessons on the side.
The aquarium is the public face of the Mote Marine Laboratory, an internationally renowned marine research organization founded in 1955 by a famed shark researcher. It’s now the base for more than 200 employees in 20 diverse research programs aimed at helping us to understand the watery parts of our planet.
The aquarium and several of the laboratory facilities are on City Island, between St. Armands and Longboat Key, west of downtown Sarasota.
The tour group gathers in front of the aquarium (lots of free parking there) and meanders through a back lot to the dock. The steady, comfortable pontoon boats hold about 45 passengers on bench seats. There’s a restroom on board. A canvas roof keeps off the sun’s glare, but if you go, you’ll still want sunscreen – the bay reflects the rays.
As the captain turns the boat to head south into Sarasota Bay, a cheerful young marine biologist named Leah starts a running commentary. Keep an eye out, she said, for dolphins and manatees.
“How many of you think manatees are fat?” she asks, and all the little kids’ hands shoot up. (Some of the adults’, too).
“No,” Leah said, “they’re big-boned.” Manatees have much less body fat than humans. Ours runs about 15 percent of our total weight; a manatee’s fat is as low as 2 to 5 percent. Because they’re herbivores, they consume very little fat. That’s why, in cold weather, manatees cluster in warm waters, especially near warm springs and around power plant water outlet areas – they have almost no body fat to keep them warm.
She asks the passengers to guess the average depth of Sarasota Bay, and the estimates start at 25 feet and go up (or down) to 75 feet. Not even close – the average depth of the bay is only 6½ feet. Veer out of the channels of the Intracoastal Waterway while boating and you might run aground.
But the shallow bay also is ideal for dolphin spotting – visitors can easily see their sleek, muscled bodies and curved dorsal fins arcing out of the water, often as they race each other in a boat’s wake. Watch for them along the seawalls of residential areas, Leah said. They have learned to use those walls to catch fish, driving a school into the concrete and stunning them for easy pickings.
Sarasota Bay, an estuary more than 50 miles long, is home to about 200 resident dolphins, Leah said. Mote Marine Laboratory is home base for the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, which began in 1970 and is the world’s longest-running study of dolphins in their natural habitat. It is a collaboration between Mote, the Chicago Zoological Society and scientists from around the globe.
The long-term study has produced a wealth of information about dolphin behavior. Scientists have learned that dolphins form different kinds of groups, such as nursery groups of mothers and calves. There are also bonded male pairs that hunt together and serve as each other’s “wing men” in seeking mates – and, Leah tells us, those pair bonds are formed for life when the dolphins are young calves. “If a male loses his partner,” she said, “he’ll seek out his nursery group to find another one.”
The boat makes a landing on Little Edwards Island, a park off Siesta Key, for a lesson in conservation gone haywire. In 1960, the island and its twin, Big Edwards (which is actually smaller), were created when the bay bottom was dredged. But the sand kept slipping back into the water, so officials planted Australian pine trees and Brazilian peppers to stabilize the land. The trees not only did that; they took over the islands, outcompeting almost all native plants.
Those two trees are now understood to be aggressively invasive species that are very difficult to get rid of. Leah leads the group down a shady path to show us some mid-sized Australian pines and explains that their wood is so dense that cutting down one of them can use up three chainsaw blades. And right behind those trees is a grove of dozens of saplings springing up. The pines and peppers cover almost all of the islands; the only native plant with much presence is a vigorous hem of black mangroves, with their strange little roots rising out of the water. Those mangroves, Leah reminds the group, are essential nurseries for marine life. If you ate seafood for dinner, it almost certainly began its life among mangrove roots.
Still moving south, the boat passes near a rookery island where hundreds of seabirds nest. Brown pelicans and great blue herons fly by with bundles of twigs in their beaks, landing next to their squawking mates among the branches. Cormorants dry their wings, a glimpse of pink means a roseate spoonbill, and here and there above the greenery the distinctive white crown of a snowy egret waves in the breeze.
Those lovely feathers, Leah notes, almost doomed many Florida bird species a century ago, as plume hunters killed them by the millions to harvest their feathers for fashionable hats. Their robust rebound is a conservation success story.
On the way back to the dock, Leah casts a net over grass flats and hauls aboard small creatures for the passengers to examine. She passes around tubs and jars holding a tiny sea cucumber, a strange-looking sea hare (a type of sea slug), delicate jellyfish and a couple of cranky-looking crabs.
For each one, she delivers a description of its place in the bay’s ecosystem. All the specimens will go back into the water, she notes. And the tour’s passengers will go home with a better understanding of the living bay.
When you go…
Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium Eco-Boat Tours
Up to 45 passengers can tour Sarasota and Roberts bays on a covered pontoon boat, with a captain and a marine biologist. Sarasota Bay Explorers at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Pkwy., Sarasota.
Here’s a selection from the many eco tours available around Florida.
(Many have lower ticket prices for children, seniors and/or veterans. And, it’s always a good idea to book in advance.)
One-hour or 2-3 hour eco tours through mangrove islands and shallow flats around Indian Key, Lignumvitae Key, Alligator Lighthouse and Everglades National State Park. Wildlife may include saltwater crocodiles, dolphins and iguanas. The captain of the 21-foot deck boat is a marine biologist. Private charter, prices vary. Robbie’s Marina, 77522 Overseas Highway, Islamorada.
Participate in Florida International University’s shark research program. Watch as researchers catch, tag, measure and take blood and tissue samples from sharks as guests learn about and participate in the process. Miami Beach Marina, 300 Alton Rd, Miami Beach.
Tours of one of the state’s most diverse estuaries on a 35-foot covered pontoon boat. Captain is a Coastal Florida Master Naturalist with 20 years’ experience in Indian River Lagoon. Wildlife may include dolphins, manatees, sea turtles; each tour visits a bird rookery and nets microscopic sea life for viewing. Pirate's Cove, 4307 SE Bayview St, Stuart.
Two-hour nature tours explore the river twice daily on a 35-foot hybrid catamaran that accommodates 28 passengers. Wildlife may include alligators, manatees, deer, raccoons, bobcats and black bears; many birdwatching opportunities. Highbanks Marina, 488 W. Highbanks Road, DeBary.
Cruise the Gulf of Mexico or Choctawhatchee Bay in an 80-foot, double-decked, glass-bottomed boat that holds 149 passengers. Wildlife on the two-hour tours may include dolphins, sharks, rays and sea turles; seabird feeding is featured. Harborwalk Village, 100 Harbor Blvd., Destin.
The 90-minute Caloosahatchee River tour on a covered pontoon boat with a naturalist-historian whose subjects include the nearby homes of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Wildlife may include dolphins, manatees and bald eagles. 2360 W First Street, Fort Myers.
Take a 75-minute tour of Tampa Bay aboard a 72-foot catamaran. Dolphins are featured; other wildlife night include manatees, sharks and seabirds. 701 Channelside Drive, Tampa.
Various eco tours, ranging from one-and-a-half to four hours, take passengers through the Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge, the Suwannee River and coastal marshes. Captains of the company’s vessels are historians and naturalists. Wildlife may include dolphins, sea turtles and migratory shorebirds. 302 Dock St., Cedar Key.
Experience scenic, 90-minute eco-boat cruises that include searching for wild dolphins, sea birds and other marine life as CMA’s marine biologists narrate the tour of Clearwater Bay. Stop at Shell Island to collect seashells and take part in citizen science with a net pull and sea creature presentation aboard the Sea Life Safari tour, or learn about members of our local dolphin population through the Wild Dolphin Research Program during the Dolphin Adventure tour. 249 Windward Passage, Clearwater.
Explore the salt marshes of Talbot Island State Park with a naturalist-led kayak ecotour. This starts a short paddle instruction and planned to go with the current. Commonly seen: Egrets, herons, rosette spoonbills, skimmers, sea turtles. Kayak Amelia 13030 Heckscher Dr, Jacksonville
In operation since the 90's, this is one of the original tour providers certified by the Florida Society for Ethical Ecotourism. Offers nearly two dozen authentic eco-eduactional experiences ... by walking, boating and padding. All tours are led by formally trained Florida Master Naturalists. 238 Mamie St., Chokoloskee Island.
Located in Wewahitchka, situated at the northern tip of Gulf County in Northwest Florida, Dead Lakes invites you to join them on a journey back to the past, where you can experience nature in an untouched, serene state. While the Tupelo and Cypress trees may look desolate, the Lakes are full of life. Gliding through the water, you’re likely to see an osprey or an eagle roosting on a branch. Maybe a wild pig or an alligator will watch you from the shore of a tiny island that won’t be there tomorrow. And the way the sun plays with the fog, you’ll swear it’s alive, too. Check out www.visitgulf.com/wewahitchka/ and www.visitgulf.com/dead-lakes/ to find tour operators.
Paddle Florida is a non-profit that promotes water conservation, wildlife preservation, springs restoration, and waterways protection via fun and educational multi-day paddling trips in Florida’s most spectacular river and coastal environments. Through a partnership with Florida’s State Parks System, Paddle Florida stages supported paddling events across the Sunshine State in each of Florida’s five water management districts from October to April each year.