Kayaks floating along the scenic back bays and waterways offer up-front views of the region’s unique environmental landscape and wildlife.
Local businesses have grown to specialize in this brand of eco-tourism, offering kayak rentals and guided environmental tours describing the region’s rich natural assets.
Nature-based tourism has become a significant portion of the state’s $36 billion tourism industry. In Cape May County, eco-tourism generated $522 million in 2011, tourism officials announced at the Cape May County Tourism Conference in March.
“We really honed in on high-quality kayak eco-tours as our bread and butter, geared toward any age but families especially,” said Jeff Martin, owner of Aqua Trails, a business focused on kayak rentals and environmental tours based in Cape May.
Martin, who also teaches marine science at Lower Cape May Regional High School, bought the business from a friend in 2003, partnering the seasonal venture with his love of nature, and his work schedule.
“It’s a summer thing. It’ll never make me rich, but it dovetails to what I do as a teacher,” he said.
The region’s major tourist attractions are its beaches and boardwalks, along with some adrenaline-fueled amusement rides and other activities. As typical vacations go, there are hundreds of ways for tourists to spend their time.
But one niche that grew out vacationers’ fondness for the outdoors has been businesses that promote calm paddling and guided tours highlighting the birds and marine life in the region.
“The nice thing especially about the kayaks is it forces you to slow down,” said Don Pussehl, who owns Bay Cats, an Ocean City business on Bay Avenue that also rents sailboats and offers guided tours. “In this day and age, everyone lives with such a scrambled time situation and jammed up with appointments, but once you get out there, it kind of makes you slow down. And the slower you go, the more you see,” Pussehl said.
Bald eagles, ospreys, snowy egrets, tricolored herons, glossy ibises, oyster catchers and yellow-crowned night herons are among the birds paddlers can catch of a glimpse of, Pussehl said.
Kayak-rental businesses tend to draw a variety of clients, from the ardent bird-watchers to family vacationers.
Several nonprofit nature organizations put out waterproof maps for those who take wildlife spotting to the water.
Martin, who was working for the business in the 1990s, said he noticed a trend starting in the mid-1990s, when more families and younger people were being drawn to kayaking as environmental experiences.
“There’s people spending a lot of time outdoors and getting environmental lessons and natural-history lessons at the same time,” he said.
Meanwhile, the business has been partnering with environmental nonprofit groups and other businesses catering to bird-watchers and nature seekers, he said.
Nearly 18 million people took part in paddling, including with kayaks, in 2008, according to the Outdoor Foundation, which said participation had increased in recent years. The Mid-Atlantic region is one of the most popular for kayakers, according to the Outdoor Foundation, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization promoting outdoor recreation in the United States.
In southern Ocean County, Capt. Mike’s Marina in Little Egg Harbor Township got into guided kayak tours and kayak rentals four years ago, supplementing its longstanding boat rental, crabbing and fishing business.
As a competitor went out of business, adding kayaks to the marina seemed a logical option — and a low-risk one from a business standpoint because kayaks are relatively inexpensive to buy and keep up compared with boats with engines.
At that time, increasing gasoline prices were driving some boaters away from the water, and diversification made sense, he said.
“You’re losing boaters because gas prices were up, the economy was down. It was an inexpensive way for me to try to generate some revenue,” he said.
“The most successful thing was the eco-tours. People like to learn about the local area,” said Tim O’Mara, who lives in Little Egg Harbor Township.
Crabs and starfish can be seen through the shallow water, as can terrapins sunning on the banks and dipping into the water, offering sights land-based tourists would otherwise miss.
“People can look from their hotel windows and look at the back bays, they want to get out there,” O’Mara said. “We try to accommodate them.”
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