They spend their days kayaking over sponges and soft corals, sailing across Key West's clear, blue backyard or watching ospreys circle their nests from atop a stand-up paddleboard. They snorkel through shallow-water fish nurseries and paddle silently through shaded mangrove tunnels.
And those are their work days.
As owners of Key West Eco Tours, longtime locals George and Carla Bellenger have an admittedly cool job exploring the waters that surround one of the world's coolest islands. And anyone who sails, snorkels or paddles with Key West Eco-Tours feels immediately like one of the cool kids in a middle school cafeteria, regardless of their sailing expertise, snorkeling experience or paddling skills.
"When we're hiring people, we know we can teach someone how to DO anything," said Capt. George. "Drive a boat, launch a kayak or identify a bird species; but you can't teach people how to BE nice, and that's one of the main things we look for. We make sure we're on a first-name basis with our tour groups, and we pride ourselves on our small, personalized groups."
Key West Eco Tours is the Bellengers' collection of low-impact water tours and activities that provide an intimate and eye-opening introduction to the underwater world.
The shallows of the Lower Keys put on quite a show, especially when narrated by one of Key West Eco Tours' enthusiastic guides striking a balance of education, entertainment and enthusiasm. On the other hand, they also know when to just shut up and let the surroundings make an indelible impression.
"People have seen us for years, and have known that we worked on the water, but they don't know what we actually do," said Capt. Carla Bellenger, who previously worked as a captain and mate for companies such as Sunny Days, Wild about Dolphins and Stars and Stripes.
Since 2006, the company's 31-foot catamaran Java Cat has been taking up to six passengers, along with kayaks and snorkel gear, on a 4 ¬½-hour trip that includes shallow-water snorkeling in a marine nursery that literally shimmers with tropical fish, and a guided kayak tour around and among uninhabited mangrove islands that are home to thousands of bird, plant and marine species.
Participants can sail, snorkel and paddle - or they can simply sprawl out under the sun and soak up the rays on the catamaran's trampoline.
The Java Cat departs twice a day from Key West Bight behind Turtle Kraals.
The company also offers backcountry kayak tours featuring downwind trails that let the paddler travel with the wind, and then be picked up at the end, thereby eliminating the dread of turning around and paddling against the wind.
The backcountry kayak tours leave from Geiger Key Fish Camp, just six miles up the road from Key West, but it may as well be a world away, given its remote setting.
Key West Eco Tours' Paddle Hut is located at the fish camp, where kayaks and stand-up paddleboards are available for hourly, daily and weekly rentals. Kayak tours also depart from the Paddle Hut on one of six different trails.
"We can tailor a trip based on the clients," said Capt. George. "If people are into birding, or would rather look for small sharks and rays, we have a route for that. Our competitors in Key West pretty much have one route they always take. We have so many options. We don't even have to leave from the marina up there. We can take the van to another boat ramp if it looks like that'll be the best option for that day's wind and weather conditions."
The stand-up paddleboards are also available for rent at the Paddle Hut, with a monthly Paddle Pass available for locals only. For $50, paddlers receive unlimited monthly access to either kayaks or paddleboards, Capt. Carla said.
"We really want to help out and support the locals," George said, adding that they're the ones who usually end up recommending a tour to friends and visitors.
Key West Eco Tours regularly donates kayaks for school trips or coastal clean-ups.
"As a company, we're concerned about the environment," he said, adding that Carla Bellenger is currently a member of one of the marine sanctuary's working groups, while he launched the Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERTS) in the wake of the Deepwater HOrizeon oil spill to get local volunteers trained for proper disaster response.
"Back when I was a mate on the Fury, I realized when I was giving snorkel lessons on the boat, and telling people not to touch the coral, many of them may not speak a word of English and had no idea what I was saying."
With the help of Reef Relief, George worked to get laminated flashcards on each boat that provided a phonetic pronunciation for sentences in various languages that asked people not to touch the coral.
"We want to leave places better than we found them," he said, emphasizing the importance of the shallow water ecosystems that are crucial to fisheries and bird migration.
With small tour groups, personable guides with years of experience in the Keys and a long-term commitment to the community and environment, George and Carla Bellenger have been educating and entertaining their sailing, snorkeling and paddling guests since everyone started adding the prefix "eco-" in front of every outdoor experience.