Ecotourism booms in Ocean State

Photo courtesy The Nature conservancy<br><br>
<b>KEVIN ESSINGTON,</b> borderlands landscape manager for The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island, kayaks through one of the nonprofit's properties. The group, which acquires land to preserve natural habitats, is increasingly offering tours and nature walks.
Photo courtesy The Nature conservancy

KEVIN ESSINGTON, borderlands landscape manager for The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island, kayaks through one of the nonprofit's properties. The group, which acquires land to preserve natural habitats, is increasingly offering tours and nature walks.

By land or by sea, tours spotlight nature’s best

How would you like to be on a boat as sharks swim up all around it? No, it’s not a horror movie – it’s called the Shark Safari, and it’s offered by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island on four dates this summer, for $88 per person.

The adventure begins at 7 a.m., when the fishing boat Seven B’s departs from Galilee. The rest of the day is spent attracting sharks to the side of the boat by scooping chum over the side, learning how to tag sharks, and checking out all the other wildlife.

The Shark Safari is one of a growing array of ecotourism tours available in the state – from boat trips to nature hikes to canal tours, all showcasing Rhode Island’s natural resources.

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“We have focused on nature-based tourism for at least two decades,” said David C. DePetrillo, the state director of tourism. “We made a strategic decision to focus on two areas: culture and nature. Those are Rhode Island’s strengths, and they happen to also be growing areas.”

Many local organizations have followed that lead and are finding that there is a healthy demand for nature tourism.

“We do a lot of programs, from local bird walks to mushroom walks to family programs to some of our bigger trips,” said Kristen Swanberg, senior director of programming for the local Audubon Society.

As well as the Shark Safari, the society sponsors whale watches on Cape Cod Bay and in Plymouth, Mass., kayak tours in Charlestown and Bristol, birding weekends on Block Island and numerous nature and bird-watching-walks.

The Nature Conservancy offers nature walks at various Block Island sites, at Goosewing Beach in Little Compton, and at the Francis C. Carter Memorial Preserve in Charlestown.

Save the Bay offers a “sunset series” of evening cruises, including lectures on everything from science to salt-marsh restoration. “Because we have such a Bay presence, a lot of our ecotourism is Bay-based,” said Russell Hirschler, director of education at Save the Bay.

The organization also sponsors seal-watch tours in Newport every weekend at low tide, from Thanksgiving through the end of April.

Although both the Audubon Society and Save the Bay originally intended their programs for members, other organizations have always targeted nature-loving tourists.

The Blackstone Valley Tourism Council has been offering ecotourism programs since 1989, starting with tours on a 20-passenger rented glass-bottom boat that would cruise the Blackstone River, which runs from Worcester to Pawtucket.

“People used to laugh and say, ‘What are we going to see through the bottom – a rusted fender or a shopping cart?’ ” recalled Robert D. Billington, president of the council. “But I used to call the boat The Convincer, because you could take the biggest skeptic out on the Blackstone River and they would be automatically convinced that the Blackstone was a beautiful river.”

Though the Blackstone’s dark waters meant there wasn’t much to see beneath the boat, the topside view – edged with trees and flowers, and brimming with birds and other wildlife – made it hard to believe the city streets were just a few yards away.

As interest in ecotourism grew, the council built its own 50-passenger boat, in 1993 –without the glass bottom. Since then, more than 300,000 people have been out on the river for its 45-minute educational cruises. “We took an industrial landscape and morphed it into an ecotourism landscape,” Billington said.

For those who want to spend more time on the river, the council has an overnight canal boat trip. Up to four people can rent the boat for the night, have a clambake and breakfast delivered, and cruise whenever they want.

“It’s your private yacht for the night,” Billington said. “It allows people to enjoy the Blackstone at night. [The river] really changes at night. The deer come right down to the water – and on the hot days, they bathe in it.”

Billington also has high hopes for the new bicycle path that, when fully completed, in about four years, will connect with the East Bay path, allowing riders to bike the entire state.

“Our No. 1 venue is our bike path, which is close to our premier environmental asset, the Blackstone River,” he said. “It will eventually be 16 to 17 miles long. Not only is it a wonderful amenity for residents, but it brings in visitors.”
To help those visitors plan their ecotourism activities, the R.I. Tourism Division has posted a travel planner on its Web site, “Visitors can plan itineraries based on what’s in there,” DePetrillo said. “They can completely customize what they want to do each day.” n