Many of the most scenic places on Georgia’s coast are best experienced by boat. These locations also often serve critical purposes for coastal ecology.
Ecotours are an ideal way for nature lovers and visitors to the coast to see these areas. A new certification program developed by the University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, in collaboration with Manomet, Inc., aims to ensure that ecotour guides educate visitors about nature and how to protect coastal areas.
The Coastal Awareness and Responsible Ecotourism, or CARE, program is led by UGA marine educators and provides ecotour companies with tools to implement best practices for water-based tourism activities.
“We talk about coastal ecology and some of the extreme tides that we have,” said Katie Higgins, environmental educator and volunteer coordinator at UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, during a recent tour of the Wassaw Sound in Savannah. “We talk about human connections to the coast, and we also talk about what it is to be a responsible eco-tour guide.”
A group of coastal tour guides were the first to be certified earlier this year. Each took a 16-hour course that focused on recreational use and potential disturbance of coastal habitats, which has serious implications for wildlife, specifically shorebirds.
“One of the things we talk about in the course is really how can you get to see these cool spots near the wildlife and not disturb them?” said Abby Sterling, a shorebird biologist with Manomet, Inc., and co-creator of the CARE program.
Course participants also received a waterproof field guide.
“It shows where you can go and the different regulations,” Sterling said.
Brooke Vallaster, a tour guide with Coastal Outdoor Adventures, based on St. Simons Island, was among the first cohort to complete the CARE certification.
“I really love seeing efforts made just to make us better stewards of the coast, so to be a part of that was really cool,” Vallaster said.
Coastal Outdoor Adventures offers charter fishing and ecotours, which include marsh tours, birding programs and more. Vallaster also leads children’s science and fishing camps as well as the Ocean Lab program at St. Simons Elementary.
“A lot of our local species are really unique to the Georgia coast, which is fantastic, and people come here from all over the world to really enjoy those things and soak it up,” Vallaster said.
Participants in the UGA certification program, who offer tours by kayak, paddleboard or boat, graduated ahead of the the spring birding migration and summer tourist season, allowing them to share information learned from the program with tourists.
Georgia’s coast is extremely important for migrating shorebirds, which use areas along the coast to rest and feed during their long journeys from the Arctic to South America and back again.
A recent tour included a stop on a spit of land in Wassaw Sound formed by a large storm and made primarily out of oyster shell. This temporary resting place is among many chosen in coastal Georgia by birds as they complete their migration.
“Spots like this are awesome because if you’re taking folks out and you get to show them something like that, and you know the backstory behind the birds and you can say this bird just came from the Arctic and it was nesting on the tundra, I feel like that creates so much excitement for people,” Sterling said.
The CARE program also hopes to create extra sets of eyes on these important areas and build connections with tourists, ecotour guides and the conservation community.
“If somebody who makes a living taking people to see shorebirds and to see all these other places understands all of these implications, they can be the ones to say, ‘Hey right here is really sensitive,’” Sterling said.
The CARE program, which is funded by a Coastal Incentive grant provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Coastal Resources Division, focuses significantly on shorebirds as well as other coastal ecology and marine education topics.
“That was really one of the main reasons why UGA Marine Extension and Manomet wanted to build this program, is because these places are so important and really sensitive,” Sterling said. “We wanted to kind of help educate folks and raise awareness about how important they are and tell people these stories behind those places so that they can share those stories with all the tourists that come through but also access them in a way that doesn’t create disturbance.”
The coast supports on average about 300,000 shorebirds throughout the year.
“We’ve got a great mild climate, which makes it wonderful for tourism and ecotourism, but it also means that birds need our coast really the entire calendar year,” Sterling said.
Higgins and collaborators at Manomet plan to offer the UGA course again in February 2022.
More information about the program as well as a map of certified guides is available at gacoast.uga.edu/care/.
“It’s important for folks who are coming to visit the Georgia coast that they should be looking for those guides that are certified with the CARE program because they’re the folks that are making that extra effort to make sure that they know what is going on,” Higgins said. “They’re very knowledgable about the coast, and they’re dedicated to making sure that all of us have access to the coast.”