Key West tour company puts environment first

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Honest Eco's new electric tour boat now leads four-hour dolphin and snorkeling tours.
Honest Eco's new electric tour boat now leads four-hour dolphin and snorkeling tours.
Holly V. Kapherr
Holly V. Kapherr

Biologist Billy Litmer first traveled to Key West from his native Kentucky in 2005, when he was 22 years old. He fell in love with the island and returned with his wife to found Honest Eco in 2014, a tour company dedicated to environmentally friendly kayak, dolphin and snorkeling tours.

Three years ago, Litmer began working with David Walworth, an MIT graduate, to design the very first electric tour boat to take guests out on the company's signature four-hour tours. The 35-foot boat can hold 20 people, and has a close-to-zero environmental impact. The motor is virtually silent, and hull is narrow enough to cut through the water without producing wake, in order not to interfere with the dolphins' daily behaviors. The boat runs on lithium-ion batteries engineered by BMW, fueled by Sunflare solar panels on the top of the boat.

Litmer takes tours out twice a day, 364 days a year (he takes off only on Election Day each November, he said). He charges $97 for the experience.

"We have been running trips for two months now," said Litmer. "We've been out on the water with it every day, and the response has been tremendous. We are the first in the country with a near-coastal certification from the Coast Guard for a lithium-ion-powered boat, and our guests have really grasped the import of what we're doing."

The ecofriendly boat allows for responsible wildlife viewing and low-impact dolphin watching. The propellers are tucked up into the hull to minimize impact to the sea grasses on which turtles and other sea creatures depend.

"So far, we've been doing the snorkeling and dolphin-watch tours from the new boat, but there's potential to also take kayakers in the future," said Litmer. Guests can request to go out on this boat through the HonestEco website, and private charters are available.

Litmer said that education is his biggest motivator when it comes to conservation and environmentalism. "Jacques Cousteau said that 'people protect what they love,' and this is a way for my guests to develop love for nature and want to protect it," he said.

The Florida Keys is full of ecologically important spots for tourists, including the Eco Discovery Center in Key West, run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "They have a very cool way to teach guests about mangroves in particular, and how important these mangrove forests are to Florida's ecology," said Litmer. He also suggests guests visit the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. "It's a great place to learn about rehabilitating and releasing sea turtles. When I go on that tour, I see it as an inspiration for my own work."

While Florida's coastline has been ravaged in the last few years, Litmer sees it as an opportunity to keep nature top of mind for guests. "With our success with the new boat, I hope people will be more interested in this kind of tour instead of gimmicks like free booze. I have seen that millennial tourists in particular are very interested in an authentic experience, and we offer that."

Litmer said that as he has rolled out the new electric boat to his guests, he sees other companies changing their messaging toward more environmentally friendly marketing. "Yes, it's competition," he said, "but it's the kind of competition that makes the whole experience better for everyone, so I welcome it."

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