Friday, April 10, 2020

Biologists Offer Small Group Tours of Rookery Bay


Photos by Scott H. Shook | A Rising Tides Explorers kayak excursion.


There are a lot of boat tours in the 10,000 islands area surrounding Marco Island. Setting yourself apart can be challenging, but there’s an ecotour company operating in cooperation with nearby Rookery Bay National Estuarine that has been able to do just that. 

Ryan Young, the owner of Rising Tide Explorers, has quickly—yet thoughtfully—grown what started out as a one-man kayak tour company into a thriving ecotour business with a unique twist. 

“We’re the only 100% biologist-guided ecotour company in the region,” Young stated. “All of our guides are either pursuing a master’s degree, or already have one, or have relevant field experience doing actual research in environmental science in the area.” 

Young, who said he started his business 4 and a half years ago with “$50 and zero kayaks and a bunch of nerds,” says it’s easy to substantiate his claim of being the only eco-tour company that is 100% biologist led. 

“We know we’re the only ones with the biologist guides because we cover the entire industry with all of our people,” he confirmed. “If there’s somebody out here doing science, we know ‘em. We are the science community basically. Most of us graduated from Florida Gulf Coast University. I think only two of our guides didn’t go to FGCU.” 

Young was working as a bartender and waiter when he decided to make Rising Tide Explorers a reality. 



“I used to do all of the tours myself,” he recalled. “I was a one-man band for a little while. I was doing two tours and working at the bar or restaurant or country club until sometimes 2 AM, then getting up early in the morning and doing it all over again. 

“When we first starting out, we literally had no kayaks and we were renting kayaks from different outfits at a wholesale rate to do our tours. Eventually we got one kayak, then we got two, and eventually we had four. Now we’re up to 65 kayaks—or more. So we’ve had some exponential growth going.  

The Rookery Bay partnership came about organically and seems to be a marriage that’s fulfilling for both parties. Young steadily built his team, then saw an opportunity at Rookery Bay and was able to seize it. 

“We’ve been building our teamBecause of that growth and because of the programming we’ve put together over the last 4 and a half years, we just recently entered into a partnership with the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and the Friends of Rookery Bay. So that’s what kind of opened us up to more opportunities to get people out on the water in different ways. We have had our own kayak program for a long time. We have added some additional kayak tours after joining up with Rookery Bay. And we adopted Rookery Bay’s tour boat program as the official ecotour partner of the reserve. We have a contract together where a portion of the proceeds go to support the Friends of Rookery Bay—they’re the support organization for the Rookery Bay Reserve for all of the research and education efforts and staff positions. They help staff those. Government dollars only go so far.  



“Their existing ecotour program had one guy running the whole thing. His name was Randy McCormick, who was the old director back in the day. He was semi-retired, and he was seasonal here. He ran the ecotour program here for 7 years, just doing one kayak tour and one boat tour a day, five days a week. And that was only during season. He was getting ready to retire. I approached the reserve and said, ‘We might have kind of a cool opportunity here. With the background of our guides, we can pretty much represent the reserve with the same mission, the same goals in mind, with the qualifications to educate people in the right way. 

Biologist Sarah Norris shows passengers a graphic of how the coastline has changed over the years.

Young and his staff of biologists went to work and added kayak tours and small boat tours to the Rookery Bay schedule. 

“We took their program and increased the capacity to be able to do up to five kayak tours daily and up to three boat guided tours a dayPlus, we offer kayak rentals, with free delivery in Marco and South Naples. So their capacity to educate people and raise funds has gone up pretty significantly because of our partnership—which I think is pretty cool.” 

One of Young’s guides is Sarah Norris, an ambitious young lady who is in charge of Rookery Bay’s sea turtle program, which lasts from May through October. During the rest of the year, she is more available to serve as a guide at Rising Tide Explorers. 

“Sarah is finishing her master’s at FGCU,” Young said. “She runs the sea turtle program at Rookery Bay, and that’s where a lot of her data is coming from for her master’s thesis.” 

Norris is a Florida native who has lived in the Naples area for 6 years. She studied sea turtle nesting abroad as an undergraduate at FGCU. She then interned at Rookery Bay, eventually taking over the sea turtle nesting program at Kice Island and Cape Romano, south of Marco Island. She is a USCG Captain and starts her boat tour groups in a classroom located on Shell Island Road. After a quick, but informative, educational session, Norris takes the group out onto the waters of the estuary at Rookery Bay. 

Norris is young but impressive with her encyclopedic knowledge of the Rookery Bay estuary that she shares with her eager passengers. A recent sunset tour of the estuary provides plenty of thrills, including the sighting of a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. After the first sighting, Norris carefully maneuvers the Carolina Skiff around while passengers have the unique opportunity to see the beautiful turtle no less than five times. All the while, Norris entertains everyone with her depth of knowledge about the Kemp’s ridley turtle and the other sea turtles who visit our beaches and lay eggs every year. She answered a myriad of questions enthusiastically and respectfully. 

Biologist Sarah Norris starts each boat tour in the classroom.

Other highlights of a day on the water with Norris include the sighting of four American Oystercatchers feeding on an oyster bar during an incoming tide. While speeding along Norris, who seems to notice every animal around her, spots three Black-necked Stilts as they fly by in the opposite direction. Later, the passengers enjoy viewing, presumably, those same stilts joining several oystercatchers at the oyster bar. 

Other highlights were watching dolphins feeding for a lengthy time. The cherry on top of the evening tour came when Norris anchored the skiff in front of a mangrove island so her passengers could enjoy watching—and hearing—hundreds of birds coming into roost. Norris provided interesting commentary about the Brown Pelicans, cormorants, ibis, Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, Tri-Colored Herons and Great Blue Herons as they flew in with an orangey sunset as a backdrop. 

News of passengers enjoying the natural beauty of Rookery Bay makes Ryan Young happy. It also makes him want to get on the water. As his business grows, his ability to be hands-on with customers dwindle. He’s no longer a one-manband. 

“Now, basically, I’m not even on the schedule to be on the water at all,” Young remarked, “even though that’s where I love to be, obviously. But I’m doing a lot of the administration and scheduling and growing in the background. And I fill in wherever possible. We like to give our guides days off so I can go do the fun stuff. We’re planning on hiring some more permanent positions that will allow me to get back out there a little bit. I’m itchin’ for it. 

You can visit Rising Tide Explorers at risingtidefl.com or by calling 239-734-3231. 


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