The shortfin squid inhabits the continental shelf and slope waters of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean, from Newfoundland to the central east coast of Florida. Though the shortfin is predated on by the bottlenose dolphin—another aquatic resident off of the Floridian coastline—there is one type of squid that benefits from a surprisingly symbiotic relationship with the playful cetaceans…

Conceptualized by biologist boat captain Billy Litmer and built by MIT-trained naval architect David Walworth, SQUID is one of the first lithium ion battery-powered charter boats in the United States. She is also one of the very few hybrid electric boats that has received certification through the U.S. Coast Guard as a small passenger vessel. This innovative feat in marine engineering was accomplished through an amalgam of components—all thoughtfully combined with a single goal in mind: to observe wild dolphins in their natural habitat with the lowest possible environmental impact.

After raising his family on the water, Litmer was inspired to create a novel way for tourists to ethically engage with Florida’s marine life. In 2014, he founded Honest Eco Tours with the mission to “Spread the Value Of Conservation” through educational encounters in the ocean. The ecotourism company is backed by a team of passionate biologists and coastal ecologists who inspire passengers to foster a healthy planet through transformative wildlife experiences in the lower Florida Keys.

The Lower Keys is an idyllic haven for 200 bottlenose dolphins which splash, feed and sleep in the warm, shallow waters year-round. The pods have never been fed nor trained, thus allowing up-close interactions that are not influenced by harmful human activity. From a respectful distance, passengers can watch authentic dolphin social behaviors unfold. Those who wish to share more intimate moments with these mammals can put on snorkeling gear and let the tide carry them. The loudest noise that SQUID generates is from her water-cooling pumps, but these can be turned off. The electric drivetrain—provided by Torqeedo—allows the catamaran to operate at very slow speeds, which means proximity to the dolphins can be increased significantly without disturbance. Litmer says their tours help guests “understand and interact with wildlife from a curious yet courteous proximity.”

Though the amount of energy SQUID consumes varies depending on the location of the dolphins, even the farthest distances only burn up to three gallons of diesel fuel per trip—equating to approximately one-quarter gallon of fossil fuel per guest. The previous dolphin-watching boat consumed about 2.3 gallons per person. The secret to SQUID’s success is a dozen solar panels customized by Sunflare, which function in harmony with her two BMW i3 batteries. The modules produce two-thousand watts of power and weigh as little as 120 pounds combined. That’s an impressive fourth of the weight of traditional solar panels! As a result, Sunflare’s carbon footprint is 80 percent less than traditional solar, and they also require less fuel to transport. Electricity is stored in the batteries, which can be recharged overnight from the shore, passively with the Sunflare panels, or when the dolphins are hard to find—with a top-tier EPA diesel range extender generator.

Bottlenose Dolphin in Florida

Bottlenose Dolphin

The bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncates) inhabits a wide variety of habitats, including harbors, bays, gulfs, estuaries, nearshore coastal waters, and deeper waters over the continental shelf and the open ocean. In the United States, bottlenose dolphins are found off the coast of California, Oregon, Washington and in the Hawaiian islands; along the East Coast from Massachusetts to Florida; throughout the Gulf of Mexico; and in the Caribbean.

Because bottlenoses live close to shore and are distributed throughout coastal and estuarine waters, they are one of the most well-studied marine mammals in the wild. This behavior makes dolphin-watching an exciting and accessible activity for tourists, but it can also put dolphins at increased risk of human-related injuries and death. They are vulnerable to many stressors and threats such as biotoxins; plastic pollution and noise pollution; habitat alteration like freshwater incursions; vessel strikes; human feeding and harassment; ingestion of rod-and-reel gear and entanglement in fishing nets; as well as energy exploration and oil spills. For these reasons and more, bottlenose dolphins are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

You can observe dolphins without compromising their comfort and experience Florida’s wild side aboard SQUID on Natural Habitat Adventures and World Wildlife Fund’s Florida Nature Safari! On day 6 of our itinerary, we navigate through Key West National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1908 by Teddy Roosevelt. In the clear depths, you can spot dolphins, barracuda, stingrays, sea turtles, small bonnethead sharks, conchs and sponge gardens. The sky bursts overhead with 250 species of birds, including great white herons, ospreys, frigates, pelicans and mangrove cuckoos. Enjoy the sunset on deck, then return to Key West for dinner and two nights at our boutique inn in the heart of the historic district.

Nat Hab is ecstatic about our partnership with the tour operator Honest Eco. The electric boat is just one more eco-friendly goal we have accomplished. In 2018, Nat Hab gifted 85 brand new, 7-speed Propella e-bikes to each office employee for the company’s holiday gift. And in 2019, we completed the World’s First Zero Waste Adventure on the July 6-12 departure of our Yellowstone safari. We are dedicated to paving the way with our small-group tours and specialty vehicles—sparking sustainable initiatives on all our nature safaris across the planet.

Dolphins seen from the boat SQUID in Key West

Biodiversity Hotspot

Florida boasts a mosaic of habitats that hold myriad discoveries for nature seekers. From the largest untouched mangrove ecosystem in the U.S. to the 7,800-square-mile River of Grass that is the Everglades, a vast subtropical wilderness awaits your exploration. Home of the elusive panther and sanctuary to grazing manatees, Florida is also a biodiversity hotspot.

Biodiversity hotspots refer to regions that are high in biological density and diversity, and are highly threatened. To qualify as a biodiversity hotspot, a region must meet two strict criteria: It must contain at least 1,500 species of vascular plants found nowhere else on Earth (known as “endemic” species). Around the world, 36 areas qualify as hotspots. Their habitats represent just 2.5 percent of Earth’s land surface, but they support more than half of the world’s endemic plant species and nearly 43 percent of bird, mammal, reptile and amphibian endemic species.

In February 2016, the North American Coastal Plain was recognized as meeting the criteria and became the Earth’s 36th hotspot. Found almost entirely within the United States, the North American Coastal Plain reaches from a small section of northern Mexico along the Gulf of Mexico and up the East Coast to southeastern Massachusetts. Deborah Keller, senior policy representative at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), clarifies why the Florida Panhandle is considered one of the five richest biodiversity hotspots in North America: “Its rivers run clean; its coastal estuaries and forests are productive. It has changed more slowly than peninsular Florida, so species and natural ecosystems have survived.”

Ecologist Bruce Means, founder and executive director of the Coastal Plains Institute and Land Conservancy in Tallahassee, points out that no area of its size in the United States or Canada has more species of frogs (27) or snakes (42), and it ranks about third in the world for turtle species (18). The diversity of salamanders (28 species), birds (approximately 300 species), and plants (more than 2500 species) is also exceptionally high.

Bottlenose Dolphins in Florida

Anne Rudloe, managing director of the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in Panacea, Florida, confirms that the Florida Panhandle has one of the most biologically diverse coasts in the continental United States. “Its denizens include attention-getting manatees, bald eagles, and sea turtles, but also tarpon, grouper, pink shrimp, and all the thousands of smaller marine species that support the larger headliners.” Florida’s Big Bend, which extends beyond the panhandle all the way south to the Withlacoochee River, sustains one of the largest seagrass beds in the world and is surrounded almost entirely by publicly-owned lands. Rudloe explains that “like coral reefs, seagrass beds are especially rich because they combine abundant food and shelter with a relatively stable physical environment. The result is an underwater meadow teeming with life.”

Why not join Nat Hab & WWF on our next departure? Together, we will explore a vast network of protected habitats across eight national parks, wildlife refuges and marine reserves and enjoy a rare visit to the Dry Tortugas by private seaplane. To prepare for your upcoming adventure, read about the top sea life to see on a Florida nature safari!