Alumnus Zach McKenna, ’97, has spent the last 25 years honing his skills as an interpretive naturalist for the purpose of conservation through education.
As owner of St. Augustine Eco Tours with wife, Gracie, ‘98, McKenna gets to use those skills every day educating people on the importance of the area’s marine estuaries.
And now Eco Tours has partnered with Flagler’s coastal environmental science program to provide internship and other hands-on opportunities.
The McKennas opened their business with the hope of sharing their knowledge and passion for the estuaries of the Southeast with residents and visitors to the area. For Zach McKenna, it’s a passion that goes back to his childhood.
When he was younger, a friend’s father was famous naturalist and illustrator Todd Ballantine. He learned a great deal about the flora and fauna from Ballantine and fell in love with the ecology — the relationship between animals and their habitats — of South Carolina’s Lowcountry. When he was 14, he put that passion to good use while working as a mate on a charter sailboat. He was expected to interact with the much older guests, but found he had little in common with them. So he put his knowledge to work.
“I used the information I learned about ecology as my go-to subject matter,” McKenna said. “The guests were fascinated with the scientific anecdotes about fiddler crabs, osprey and bottlenose dolphins.”
It was his love of the Lowcountry estuaries of his childhood that gave him the idea for St. Augustine Eco Tours. McKenna found that both areas had important ecosystems — rivers, creeks, small islands, pristine beaches, rare bird and dolphins in the wild — but there was one major difference.
“St. Augustine contained all these elements, but had no ambassadors to tell the story of the importance of the habitats, plants and animals,” he said.
But before St. Augustine Eco Tours booked its first tour, McKenna spent years researching curriculum, vessels and marinas, as well as developing a business plan. In 2006, he opened his “mom-and-pop” operation, a moniker he proudly uses. Through their business, the McKennas, both business administration majors, provide boating, kayaking and sailing tours of the area’s waterways while educating guests on the importance of the ecosystems contained within them.
It’s that family-run philosophy, combined with McKenna’s love for educating people about ecology, that made a partnership with Flagler’s first full-fledged science program — and professors Barbara Blonder and Terri Seron — an easy fit. St. Augustine Eco Tours provides students access to the rivers, creeks and ocean via boats and kayaks for field research.