Florida Gulf Coast University is committed to environmental education and stewardship, and some graduates discover that love and respect for nature can also be a rewarding career when it comes with knowledge.
Take Ryan Young, (’12, M.S. Environmental Science), a lifelong outdoors lover from New Jersey who moved to Southwest Florida as a junior in high school. Young not only parlayed his passion for the wilderness into two higher-education degrees (he also has a B.S. in environmental science from Florida State), but the young entrepreneur also figured out how to build his own nature-tour paddling business — Rising Tide Explorers — by making the beautiful flora and fauna around Naples, Marco Island, the Everglades and the Ten Thousand Islands his everyday workplace.
In starting his Rising Tide tours through the sloughs and swamps of Collier County, Young has carved himself a nature-trip niche unlike any other in the region by taking guided kayaking adventures to another level. Young and his staff of similarly educated guides turn water adventures into true educational journeys led by biologists with multiple certifications — many of whom are fellow FGCU grads — who share what they’ve learned in the classroom and in the field with locals and tourists paying for the privilege. Rising Tide offers a mangrove tunnel-and-mudflats tour ($65 adults, $55 children) and a sunset bird rookery tour ($75 adults, $65 children) each lasting 2½ to three hours.
“We provide a different experience — putting you on the water with a guide who has spent a lot of their life learning about the area and doing real research in it,” Young said. “We all have a relationship with this area, and we love to share our favorite things about it in depth with you. This is a chance to get out in the water with someone who is passionate, a local biologist who truly loves this area. Our tagline is, ‘You can’t see Florida from a lounge chair.’ You can go to resorts, sit by the beach and go to the pool, but you’re missing the best things about Southwest Florida. Our goal is to connect people to these awesome outdoor places.”
The clients have noticed, as Rising Tide Explorers is ranked the No. 1 tour business in the Naples area by TripAdvisor, with a 4.9 out of a possible 5-star rating. Young says 30 percent of his business comes from returning customers and referrals, “which is pretty powerful.”
That’s quite a meteoric rise for an enterprise that started just two years ago, when Young took his last $50 to register as a limited-liability company and started a kayak business — with no kayaks. “I had no idea what to expect,” he said.
He took the chance after working three years as a biologist for the state Department of Environmental Protection following his graduate studies at FGCU, doing research on water quality and aquatic vegetation. “There wasn’t a lot of room for growth, and I realized with a master’s degree in environmental science and my experience, there wasn’t anybody as qualified as I was to share information with people,” he said. Young also could draw from his experiences during two summer internships with Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in land management and other projects (“I learned a ton from the volunteers; they know everything there is to know,” Young said) and another internship doing sea turtle monitoring and research with Rookery Bay Reserve.
“That was my introduction to environmental interpretation,” Young said. “FGCU gave me the opportunity to study the areas I had become familiar and fallen in love with.”
And so Rising Tide Explorers was born. “I was a one-man show … I built the website myself from scratch and designed the logo,” Young said. “I worked as a locker-room attendant at a golf club and as a server and bartender in Naples to support my livelihood, while revenue from the business went back into the business.”
Then there was the matter of getting some help. “I thought about my fellow students also looking for work,” Young said. So, he went back to his FGCU roots and gave a talk in a class taught by environmental studies professor Win Everham, “to put the word out that we were looking to put together a super team of guides unmatched in Southwest Florida ecotourism.”
Today, that “super team” includes, among others, FGCU grads Jeannine Windsor (’12, Environmental Studies), who is Young’s fiancée, Nick Roach (’18, M.S. Environmental Science), Sarah Norris (’13, Environmental Studies) and Matt Metcalf (’17, M.S. Environmental Science). And the kayak business that started with no kayaks now has 30 single and 14 tandem kayaks, two trailers and two trucks. Rising Tide Explorers also will deliver rental kayaks and paddleboards along with detailed guide maps to a home or vacation spot for do-it-yourself types.
“It’s so rewarding to connect people with the outdoors, the local ecology, and to develop the outdoor culture of Southwest Florida,” Young said. Significant words from a man who, despite his relatively young age of 31, has literally paddled and backpacked the world, having toured the wilds of Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, South Africa, Malaysia, Vietnam, India, China, Japan, and, most recently, the Patagonia region of southern Argentina and Chile. “I’ve been very fortunate to be able to paddle and explore the outdoors in all those places,” he said. “We’re still working to explore as much of the planet as we can.”
And if you can build a business around that passion for exploration, all the better.
“Nobody gets into science for the money,” Young said. “But in following your passion, it’s important to also think outside the box. Many science people pursue teaching, work for the government or do some research or consulting, which are all very rewarding. I’m here to tell you there are more options than that. Identify your strengths, follow your passion, and you can make it whatever you want to make it.”