Osprey diving for fish, roseate spoonbills foraging in tidal creeks and American oystercatchers tending to their nests on barrier islands are just a few things visitors may see while exploring the Georgia coast by water.
A new certification program developed by the University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, in collaboration with Manomet Inc., is ensuring that ecotour guides educate visitors about nature and how to protect it.
Led by UGA marine educators, the Coastal Awareness and Responsible Ecotourism, or CARE, program provides ecotour companies with tools to implement best practices when it comes to water-based tourism activities.
“The program has long been a goal for shorebird biologists and others, including veteran ecotour guides, involved in wildlife conservation,” said Katie Higgins, environmental educator and volunteer coordinator at UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. “No other program like this exists to strengthen the growing community of ecotour guides along the coast.”
In spring 2021, 15 water-based Georgia coastal tour guides were certified after taking the 16-hour course that focused on recreational use and potential disturbance of coastal habitats, which has serious implications for wildlife, specifically shorebirds.
Georgia’s beaches provide vital habitat for shorebird species throughout the year. Many of the more remote habitats used by shorebirds are also areas used by recreational boaters and serve as a destination for guided tours. Beachgoers enjoying the warming weather may unintentionally disturb shorebirds’ nesting, resting and feeding behavior. Increasing awareness among boaters and beachgoers on how and why to give shorebirds space is a key step in conserving these animals.
“CARE began with the idea that if those leading ecotours know more about coastal ecology and wildlife, they can in turn teach those participating in their tours more about this critical balance and how best to preserve these resources,” Higgins said.
Participants in the UGA certification program, who offer tours by kayak, paddleboard or boat, graduated just in time for the spring birding migration and summer tourist season, allowing them to share information learned from the program with tourists.
Some of the certification participants are new to the profession. Others, like Cindy Dennard, owner of SouthEast Adventure Outfitters in St. Simons and Brunswick, is a veteran tour guide.
“I’m always interested in continuing education and it’s always hard to stay current on what the latest info is that everybody is passing around. I feel like it’s really important to stay on top of that kind of stuff,” said Dennard, who participated in the course along with three of her employees.
“It seems like this area is going to be continuing to grow and people are going to want to get outdoors,” Dennard said. “If the main folks that are taking people out have a similar standard of what behaviors should be and what’s communicated to visitors, that seems like it would help protect what people are trying to enjoy.”
Funded by a grant from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Coastal Resources Division, the course has the potential to expand in the future to include other topics related to coastal stewardship. Higgins and her 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 online.