Plenty of ecotourism options at Shore

Eco-tourism is a popular alternative to hanging out on the the beach at the Jersey Shore. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Eco-tourism is a popular alternative to hanging out on the the beach at the Jersey Shore. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: August 17, 2014

CAPE MAY - Ten miles from the dock and getting close to the 21/2-hour mark of a three-hour whale-watching excursion, captain Jeff Stewart needed to turn the big red Cape May Whale Watcher around and head toward the shoreline if the boat was to make it back on schedule.

But Stewart, who has been operating such trips for more than 40 years so tourists can get an up-close look at marine creatures, wasn't quite ready to give up.

Neither were the passengers.

Sure, some marine mammals had already been spotted that day - including a "super pod" of hundreds of bottlenose dolphin. In what was probably a better show than what you'd see at Sea World, the gray-skinned dolphins swam around the boat, leaped out of the water in unison, and cavorted while they gobbled silvery menhaden that schooled near the surface.

Stewart's son, Jeff Stewart Jr., provided the play-by-play by loudspeaker, explaining what the passengers were seeing and a litany of fun facts about dolphins.

But still there had been no whales.

And they were the magnificent creatures for which the boat had been named - and the passengers had paid $40 each to see.

"I'm going to go up to that yellow buoy and swing around to the right where I can see that slick," Stewart said, explaining his proverbial needle-in-a-haystack strategy and pinpointing about a mile out a whale in the vast Atlantic Ocean.

Within a few minutes of Stewart Jr. spotting the very faint appearance of a misty spout possibly rising up from a whale, Stewart Sr. was cutting the engines and guiding the 110-foot whale watcher close - but not too close - to where a 40-foot humpback, about 30 years old and weighing perhaps 40 tons, was indeed feeding on menhaden.

"We were wowed by the entire thing," said Ralph Rivero of North Wales, Pa., who was vacationing in Cape May with his wife and two college-age daughters. "We were skeptical we'd even see a whale out here, but this really made our vacation."

Such is a day on the water at the southern tip of New Jersey, where, according to last year's figures, ecotourism is a $544 million-a-year business, according to Cape May County tourism director Diane F. Wieland.

In a year that still saw recovery from Hurricane Sandy as a factor that brought the numbers down by as much as 30 percent in other sectors of the tourism industry, ecotourism was up 11 percent from the year before, Wieland said.

Ecotourism - including birding, fishing, boat excursions, and even visits to the county's six wineries - continues to be among the fastest-growing tourism segments in the region. Last year's figures more than doubled from a mere eight years, ago when ecotourism was bringing in about $220 million a year, Wieland said.

"Many visitors want one more layer, one more dimension of experience when they vacation here," Wieland said. "And ecotourism helps extend our season beyond the beaches and boardwalk during the shoulder seasons on the spring and in the fall. It brings in people from all over the world."

Birders - people who want to see their feathered friends in their natural habitat - have found a haven at the southern New Jersey Shore, which as many as 200 species of birds and the migration of the monarch butterfly make a premier spot in North America for wildlife viewing.

The cape on the geographic southern tip of the Garden State acts as a funnel for migrating species twice annually as the birds and butterflies make one last nutritional stopover before embarking on their journey of thousands of miles between the North and South Poles.

New Jersey Audubon's Cape May Bird Observatory has been at the forefront of various species-research programs, including its Monarch Monitoring Project, which was begun in 1991 to track how varying environmental factors affect this canary-in-the-coal-mine butterfly. The standardized count for the monarchs, conducted three times a day annually between Sept. 1 and Oct. 31, is the longest continuous quantitative study of migrating monarchs in the world.

Visitors can take part in a variety of workshops and programs throughout the year led by the bird observatory's staff and other experts, including an upcoming Butterfly Bonanza on Thursday. The one-day workshop, which costs $85 for Audubon members and $125 for nonmembers, will be led by expert Will Kerling and will focus on various locations where butterflies are in abundance while participants are taught observation and identification techniques.

Birding by Boat is another tour sponsored by the observatory and is a perfect way to see herons, egrets, ducks, loons, and other shore birds nesting in the wetlands. The tour, on board the skimmer boat Osprey, costs $20 a person and leaves Sundays and Mondays from the Miss Chris Marina in Cape May for a 21/2-hour ride through the Cape Island Creek Preserve.

"We've been here two weeks and done the beach and boardwalk thing and really love the Shore," said Marie Romano of Yardley, Pa., who was vacationing recently in Ocean City and took the Birding by Boat tour. "But I think this tour of the salt marsh has really been my favorite thing we've done this year. I learned a lot about the Shore that I never knew before."


Shore Nature

Nature abounds at the New Jersey Shore, and there are plenty of great spots to see it, as well as tours and programs featuring it. Here are several:

 NEW JERSEY AUDUBON'S CAPE MAY BIRD OBSERVATORY

This venerable organization has been leading the charge in observation and conservation of birds, butterflies, and other creatures in the Cape May region for decades and provides a plethora of tours and programs in three locations in the area. Prices vary. Call 609-861-0700 or go to www.njaudubon.org

 WETLANDS INSTITUTE

Founded more than 40 years ago, this Stone Harbor educational organization offers opportunities to explore the Shore's natural area by kayak, paddleboard, or pontoon boat for $49 each. Sunset kayaking is a two-hour paddle through the marshes before twilight sets; Full Moon Paddling is a two-hour after-dark kayak adventure for those 16 and older; Back-bay Paddle Boarding is a 11/2-hour jaunt to learn about the coastal marsh ecosystem. Dates and times are available from the Wetlands Institute, 1975 Stone Harbor Blvd., Stone Harbor. 609-368-1211 or www.wetlandsinstitute.org

Compiled by Jacqueline L. Urgo


Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com.

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