Days of the Dolphin
Zach McKenna’s St. Augustine Eco Tours
Any nature lover who has gone on a big-boat dolphin-watching tour probably got a sinking feeling quickly. No, of course, the boat wasn’t going down, but the experience can be pretty dismal. The interpretive knowledge imparted often amounts to something like “Two dolphins are on the port side,” and you find yourself jostled by dozens of people clicking point-and-shoots. Such excursions are often absurdly described as a kind of ecotourism.
“Ecotourism” is now so widely used as a marketing term, it is almost meaningless. But Zach McKenna’s St. Augustine Eco Tours, in northeastern Florida, puts the “eco” back where it belongs. McKenna offers intimate, nonintrusive excursions in the estuaries around St. Augustine, with each tour limited to six people. There are myriad bottlenose dolphins, abundant shorebirds and the occasional manatee or sea turtle.
But such trips are only really made compelling when one learns about other animals’ behavior, their habitats and the local ecology, and McKenna is a font of information. A certified interpretive naturalist as well as a boat captain, he grew up on South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island, whose environment is very similar to the tidal areas of St. Augustine, and spent his youth exploring barrier islands in the region.
“A lot of kids were unhappy there,” he said. “There were no bowling alleys, no movie theaters. But for me it was heaven on earth; I was always going on adventures with friends. Some islands didn’t have bridges. The Gullah people looked after us.”
McKenna was also deeply influenced by the local naturalist, author and illustrator Todd Ballantine ( Tideland Treasure: The Naturalist’s Guide to the Beaches and Salt Marshes of Hilton Head Island and the Southeastern Coast ). Following in his mentor’s footsteps, McKenna has begun writing nature columns for local papers, illustrating them with his own photographs.
From the age of 15, he worked on sailboats out of Hilton Head. “I was the guy who talked about dolphins and birds,” he said.
McKenna said that some charter boat crews would hand-feed dolphins frozen bait, which sometimes contained rotten fish that would sicken or kill the dolphins. It was a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and McKenna asked the act’s enforcement agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to investigate and monitor the situation. “I hated seeing dolphins that I’d grown up with die,” he said. The practice has been virtually eliminated at Hilton Head Island.
And just last year, when the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission considered taking the manatee off the state’s endangered species list, McKenna fought it tooth and claw by mounting an email campaign. The commission recently voted against delisting the manatee. 
McKenna holds a degree in business from Flagler College, but wasn’t happy with the traditional corporate life. “It had great pay, benefits, and security. But the moral dilemmas in that world made it easy to walk away. I guess I always knew I would be in environmental education,” he said.
At college, he met his partner, Gracie. She has “an amazing love of the outdoors,” he said. Together they moved to St. Augustine, where he started his ecotourism business in 2006.
McKenna is also conducting the first-ever population survey of bottlenose dolphins in the St. Augustine area. He photographs them, identifying individuals by their dorsal fins. People on his boat tours often help with the work.
“This project will include the first use of GPS-enabled cameras and software designed to identify photographs of dorsal fins within seconds like fingerprints,” McKenna said. “The importance of the GPS-enabled cameras and computer identification programs is that the data can be taken anywhere in the world, and documented individuals will come up as a match even if they were last seen thousands of miles away. It may change the way population studies are done globally.”
Next on McKenna’s very ambitious to-do list forming a nonprofit organization to provide schoolchildren with an opportunity to take the boating trips at little or no cost. He would like to give them a vegan lunch as part of the package.
To learn more about St. Augustine Eco Tours, call 904-377-7245 or visit www.staugustineecotours.com.