Eco Tours: A Monumental Company Offering Unforgettable Experiences!
Zach McKenna is living the dream. The only difference however, between this gentlemen and a lot of others out there, is that he strives every day to share his dream with others.
Down in the beautiful world of St Augustine, Florida – which is truly a combination of incredible history, stunning wildlife, and a mesmerizing wealth of natural beauty that only Mother Nature at her finest could provide – is a company by the name of Eco Tours. This is not your everyday tour company, Eco Tours offers far more than the kayak and boat excursions and tours that tourists are always interested in embarking upon. What they do is offer an education; a chance for people to see the incredible ecosystem that we need in order to survive.
We all know that the environment is harmed on a daily basis, but Zach McKenna is part of a ‘team’ that has been able to turn their passion for nature into a way to save nature. Recently, we sat down with Zach to learn everything there is to know about St. Augustine and the truly beautiful area that is home to animals and species of birds, grasses and nutrients, estuaries that need to thrive – so that each and every one of our readers can not only learn about a vacation spot to die for, and a company that provides unforgettable moments in time that will be ingrained in your brain for life – but also provide you with the knowledge and information that will make you realize what we, as a country, need to fight for.
Zach, it’s great to meet you. Can you tell us a bit about how this all began?
Well, there is a lot to sum up, but Eco Tours has just celebrated our six-year anniversary which is truly amazing. I have to say, when we first began here on our mission, there were some who gave us two weeks tops before it would fold. Our mission is, quite simply, conservation through education. We utilize kayaks, small research boats (the ones that Jacque Cousteau made famous), and even a new 27-foot catamaran to get people out on the water and teach them about the beauty surrounding them, as well as let them enjoy a truly vibrant and interesting tour. We show them the estuary, the outlying environments, the ocean – and how they all tie back into our daily lives.
In a way, what we do is selfish. You see, my wife and I were raised in these environments and we want to do everything we can to keep the balance between humans and the other organisms out here as fair as possible.
I, for one, find ecosystems and the maintaining of them to be so important and something people don’t get. I mean, we were so fortunate to see baby dolphins this morning, and Zach you are doing a lot of the dolphin research here in St. Augustine. You certainly have an edge on the competition as to what’s going on and how we can make sure these animals thrive.
I appreciate that. It’s been an interesting road as far as what we’re accomplishing here as we attempt to quantify the abundance of various animals, plant life, etc. When we first arrived in St. Augustine, a number of different biologists – some federal and some state – came to us and spoke about their own ambitions in this area, but did not have the ability to progress with their programs. We began to look at all their questions and the one that kept coming up the most was: Were you aware that you are in an area where the dolphins have not been studied before?
I had already begun photographing their fins, keeping an eye on the ‘hot spots’ for foraging, where they ate, and what their patterns tended to be, but the idea that we had data on dolphins from North and south Florida but not here was amazing to me. There was a huge void in data, so it made sense that we should be the company to begin studying the dolphin. We were on the water more than anyone else, taking people out and showing them these magical creatures from a safe distance, etc., so we were a good company for the job.
It has become a truly competitive endeavor out there over the years with now, nine other organizations and thirty different people participating in this academic study of dolphin abundance running from the Georgia coastline all the way down to Cape Canaveral. Many of these ‘teams’ were already doing the studies in their neck of the woods before we began the St. Augustine data set – so it’s grown in interest, and we are amassing all that baseline data that is so important to the study.
And you share with other researchers, building the data?
While I continue my graduate studies at the University of North Florida, it’s nice to know that the ground floor data – how many animals are here – is now checked off the list. We put this information into our catalogue and definitely share with the other scientists.
You say the abundance of aquatic life, as well as the abundant nutrients in this estuary is quite high – having to do with the back marshes and rivers, etc. Does the water temperature of the tide help with developing grasses, and other things that this ecosystem needs in order to operate at a healthy capacity?
Absolutely. What’s fascinating about what we call an estuary, actually goes by many names. Such as, in South Carolina they call it the ‘low country’ on the coast, whereas in Georgia it’s referred to as the Golden Isles. This comes from the fact that the sun shines on thousands of acres of that stunning spartina grass making it absolutely glow.
These estuaries are so full of bio mass, and the tides you mentioned actually drain and fill these particular habitats four times every twenty four hours and 48 minutes, making the lunar cycle almost 25 hours compared to the 24 hour solar cycle. So with each incoming tide this water becomes nutrient enriched by the salt marshes and then exits six hours later. This water can reach places like Nova Scotia and Brazil, allowing these nutrients to travel and help other ecosystems. Without these and the marshlands and vegetation, nothing could be here. The spartina grass offers shelter to the micro crustaceans, oyster spats, even multiple species of fish that are able to hide in there long enough to mature and stay away from predators.
Tell us about the dolphins here in St. Augustine.
We have a specialized group of dolphins that make their home on the inside of the estuary, which says a lot about the productivity of this area. We need to remember how expansive this ecosystem is – from Charleston down to Daytona Beach. These are incredibly fertile salt marshes that have actually been around 4500 years and only studied for the last 50 of those years. So, basically, this is all a brand new branch of science that began on Sapelo Island, Georgia.
I would assume that it is hard to say how much this area has changed considering we didn’t begin to look at it until fifty years ago?
This is very true. It’s all very new and the things we discover every day become more and more interesting.
So are the dolphins on the inland passage smaller than their coastal counterparts?
We’re right on the line of qualifying that data – so as we move forward and talk about eco-types, we need to insert the word ‘anecdotal’ into our research, because there is no peer-reviewed literature for this neck of the woods that talks about that. What we are seeing is that the ones living offshore are considerably bigger than their inshore friends and even the colors are a bit different. You can also see physical attributes, such as the fin on inland dolphins being a bit more compact.
So, although the size of an in-shore dolphin may be smaller, the fins are bigger?
Their overall size decreases, but the control surface increases – this data would be fantastic to prove because it would also make a great deal sense seeing as that a coastal dolphin needs a lot more maneuverability than the ones living offshore. Offshore there are no oyster beds, sand bars, mudflats. So these are some of the differences we are looking at. We will often see in-shore animals head out a bit further and fish behind shrimp boats with their offshore counterparts, but less than once a year will we see an offshore dolphin inside. Again, it’s a burgeoning field of research, but these are observations being compiled, not facts as of yet.
Can you tell us about the manatees? Are they here year-round?
The Florida manatee is absolutely amazing, but the abundance numbers for the manatee provided by the state are a little less than 4,000, which puts them in a pretty bad spot as far as population goes. The movement of the manatee is controlled by water temperature, and as a general statement, anything below 65 degrees Fahrenheit could be life-threatening to them. You look at these wonderful mammals whose closest relative is the elephant, and you truly are mesmerized. They are vegetarians, and you would think that their fat is evenly distributed. But, like humans, this is not true, so they run into a harmful condition called ‘cold stress.’
The beauty of the manatee’s relationship to the Florida peninsula is that we have these wonderful springs that bubble up from the aquifers that actually come up at 72 degrees Fahrenheit. This allows the animals to know that when the estuaries begin to cool then it’s time to go back to protective waters for the winter and hold up there. They are quite adventurous creatures; they’ve even been found in New York, Memphis, moving up the Mississippi, but Florida is truly a good home to return with.
You should remember that being vegetarians, SAV (submerged aquatic vegetation), occurs in the most nutritious amounts in and around central Florida, so we have quite a few. What we don’t have, unfortunately, are slow zones, so it is really risky for the manatee because our power boats are not told when to slow down in areas where there is a high abundance of the animals.
Yes. And when you’re dealing with a population of less than 4000, we need to get people to slow down! We are really trying to document this scientifically so that we can go to the state and show that this would save animals being struck by boats, which will eventually help increase the manatee population.
When I was out with you, I also learned about the sea turtles. They only lay nests on the ocean side so the little ones can go straight into the ocean? Is there an issue with these turtles getting hit by speed boats, as well?
It’s another red flag. Humans use these highly fertile areas for recreational purposes, but how much freedom is too much freedom and at what point do you begin to catastrophically change things? Juvenile sea turtle habitats set back in the very narrow creeks and rivers are being affected. Think about it. Should we be running boats back there at 80-90 MPH? even remove the animals from the equation. There could be kids kayaking out there in that small creek and could also be harmed.
Even the lake erosion comes from boats running at those speeds, correct?
Absolutely. The shoreline erosion is something that is very obvious in this area at low tide, but I’m under the impression that if we can’t get people to change their ways for an endangered species or a child, how can we sell them on erosion? After all, this is recreation, so why are you in such a hurry?
I agree. Now let’s touch on Eco Tours.
Well, for the past six years we have truly evolved into a success, with an amazing staff of locals and travelers who were once trying to find their way like me. Both my wife and I have worked across the country with environmental education companies – some highly ethical, some not so much. Through all this, we noticed that there was a direct correlation to profits and what was actually being saved.
When we began Eco Tours it was our mission to measure our company’s success and its currency at the end of the day, and NOT only in monetary terms. Beginning with outreach programs, we dove into bird rescue and put in other petitions, such as working in the field of sea turtle rescue. We actually did that last night, by rescuing a green sea turtle after it was struck by a boat. I’ve also completed state courses for marine mammal response, and we are able to help dolphins that are entangled in crab traps, or stranded on the beach. Because we’re always on the water, we are qualified to be the first on the scene to let everyone know what to expect when they arrive. We are the first call for manatee who is struck or injured, which is a true learning experience for us. And just to be able to use our resources to help others is a big part of making this company so successful. We’ve accomplished a lot in 6 years, and this dolphin study is very critical.
For the tours, we have a team of kayaks – very stable craft with rudders – that allow people to get right on the water from a great perspective. Not only do you get to see the beauty surrounding you, but you’re also provided with some really great exercise!
One of the greatest things is that our clients are 50 % local and 50% visitors, so that says a lot about the community’s willing to support us.
What do the trips entail?
With the kayaking, we cover three-and-a-half miles on those trips. It’s pretty easy going and we paddle with the least number of people. Eco Tours never takes crowds – it has always been quality over quantity.
Our Dolphin and Nature boat tour is easily the most famous trip we offer. It is not affected by wind, current, or tide, and on these trips our customers see the most. They literally witness everything that’s possible out here. For fifteen miles, they can see everything from the bald eagle’s nest to the dolphins and there are underwater microphones installed on the boat which is really fun. People of any age or condition can sail with us and we give them a true experience. You can see these animals in their habitat and truly walk away with a newfound respect for them.
The 27-foot Stiletto sails mostly in the afternoon because that’s when the wind is better. Very silent, we turn off the engine under the bridge and let the wind take us into all the different habitats. From the dolphins to the turtles to the over 250 species of birds – it‘s truly magnificent.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers?
I’m living the dream, and I thank everyone who has supported us. This has been so amazing. I have a 2 ½ year old and this young girl already knows her boats, she can identify different dolphins and whales, and is set to make the best out of this little enterprise that we built for the greater good.
You can change the mindset of people who don’t really understand why certain elements of the ecology are so important. And with just one trip on our boat, they will not only have fun but they will also have a new outlook on what we’re trying to save.
I also have to say that the amazing and humbling reviews Eco Tours has received on places like Trip Advisors is fantastic for me. At all times I’m wearing about seven hats in this business – from kayak rudder repairman to guide psychologist – and it is so nice to sit back and read all the kind reviews that families and people have made about our trips.
I like to think of it as the modern world meets the natural one, by having the technology to get the mission of Eco Tours out to everyone!
There you have it, readers. We all know – even the ones of us who say we are too busy – that nature supports us and we must find a way to support it at all times. Eco Tours is a truly outstanding company that not only gives the tourist a chance to have a fantastic time and build lifelong memories, but they are also working incredibly hard to keep the beauty and the majesty of St Augustine in tip-top shape for a long, long time to come.
Make your next vacation a part of all this! And make sure to support Eco Tours!
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