Vol 6 No. 44 - July 26, 2006

Ecotourism: riding a wave of success

Sights such as this mother dolphin and her three-month old baby surfing the wake of a tour boat near Cortez have helped ecotourism become increasingly popular around Anna Maria Island.

By Cindy Lane
sun staff writer

CORTEZ – "One, two, three," counts Matthew Wynne, 12, his voice shouting over the engine of the Lil’ Toot as it bounces up the Intracoastal. "Four, five… awesome!"

Two of the dolphins riding the wake behind Randall Stewart’s boat are leaping out of the water side by side, a mother and baby.

"The kids are going to be remembering this when they’re 100 years old," laughs Eileen Wynne, visiting Bradenton from North Carolina with her husband, Bill, and two more of their six sons, David, 18 and Stephen, 16.

Scouting from the top deck, David spots the pod again.

"They’re on the right!" he calls down to Stewart, who is headed back toward the Seafood Shack after a non-stop romp with the playful marine mammals.

Stewart doesn’t venture far from the waters off Cortez, which provide almost daily sightings of dolphins and, frequently, manatees. Sea turtles, sting rays and sea birds also are a treat for visitors, usually from out of state, and sometimes with their local relatives in tow, he says.

A half-dozen times a day in the off season, less when he’s teaching math, chemistry and physics at Edison Academic Center, he runs sightseeing tours with a 21st-century moniker – ecotourism.

"This is the closest you’ll get to dolphins outside Sea World," says Stewart, adding that on the rare occasions that no dolphins appear, visitors can come back the next day without paying the $25 price.

The waters around Cortez are now as much a prime stomping ground for ecotourism as they have always been for fishing.

At Capt. Kim’s Charters, based at Star Fish Co. in Cortez, women tour guides offer both nature and history tours for $15 per person per hour.

"Our most popular ride is the two-hour eco sandbar ride," says Capt. Kathe Fannon, who takes her swimming spaniel, Pup-Pup, on her tours.

Anchoring at sandbars, she encourages guests to jump off, get wet and scoop up sea critters like seahorses, hermit crabs and starfish in dip nets, identifying them and maybe taking a photograph before returning them to their environment.

On historical tours of the Cortez fishing village, she takes visitors to the commercial fish houses, explains how fishing boats and equipment are used and offers a history of the mullet net ban and its effect on the village.

Other tours feature fishing, sunbathing, birdwatching and shell collecting.

The Manatee County Tourist Development Council has started to get its feet wet in ecotourism promotion. Karen Fraley, of Around the Bend Nature Tours, heads the council’s Nature Heritage Initiative and is developing promotions to lure visitors to the area, dangling sparkling waters, hiking and history as bait.

"We’re working on itineraries we can put on the (Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau) Web-site so people can plan their vacations around ecotourism activities," she says.

Itineraries will include events such as the Florida Outdoor Festival on Coquina Beach, held June 24, which featured kayaking and canoeing, and the Florida Maritime Museum’s Great Florida Gulf Coast Small Craft Festival in Cortez on April 1 and 2, which featured traditional wooden boats.

Boating and fishing history are intertwined with nature in Cortez.

On her historical walking tour of the fishing village, Fraley points out the 1912 schoolhouse, recently renovated as a maritime museum, and the Florida Cracker architecture of the national historic district’s fishing cottages.

"We catch the museum folks working on wooden boats," she says, a history lesson in itself because the boats are reproductions of traditional watercraft used for fishing, and are built with traditional tools.

Fraley says she also plans to add a nature walk to the tour when work is complete on clearing out trash and non-native plants from the FISH Preserve on Sarasota Bay at the village’s eastern boundary.

For more information on ecotours, contact Lil’ Toot Charters at 761-3300, Capt. Kim’s Charters at 920-3307 and Around the Bend Nature Tours at 794-8773.

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