16:18 PM

Billy Litmer: Steward of Sustainable Eco-tours

Billy Litmer, founder of Key West's Honest Eco tours specializing in wild bottlenose dolphin­-watching and nature charters, grew up in landlocked Edgewood, Kentucky, just south of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Billy Litmer, founder of Key West's Honest Eco tours specializing in wild bottlenose dolphin­-watching and nature charters, grew up in landlocked Edgewood, Kentucky, just south of Cincinnati, Ohio.

The son of a pharmacist, Litmer worked in the family's two pharmacy stores and majored in biology at the University of Kentucky. A trip to Florida with a friend landed him in Key West, where Litmer booked a Sunny Days catamaran excursion that changed his life - and future career.

Litmer's "early life crisis" at age 21 prompted a stint working at Sunny Days for a year and a half, followed by a return home to earn his biology degree. There he met future wife Jen, who planned to join the Peace Corps. Jen studied yoga in India and Litmer hiked the Appalachian Trail.

To fulfill requirements of working together in the Peace Corps, the young adventurers secretly married. But the agency lost Billy's application. They took that as a sign, Litmer said, to fulfill the dream of moving to Key West.

Litmer designed, built and launched Key West's first lithium-ion battery-powered hybrid charter boat with electric motors. Docked at the Historic Seaport on Margaret Street, the boat can be recharged through shore power or, if necessary, a diesel generator.

Honest Eco operates two Coast Guard-certified vessels: the innovative 22-passenger electric SQUID for daily nature eco-tours; and the 42-foot, 35-passenger catamaran Blu Q, offering all-male clothing-optional day trips three times weekly. The company recently added a new six-passenger Glacier Bay catamaran for private snorkeling and sandbar charters.

Plans for Honest Eco include expansion. Litmer, who believes building boats is "about the coolest thing you could do," is currently designing a new fuel-efficient vessel. He also enjoys mentoring young crewmates and environmentalists in their 20s.

The Litmers and their two young children - daughter Anila, 9, a sailor, and son Darwin, 6 - savor their time together on the water.

Keys Traveler: When did you first come to the Florida Keys and why?

Billy Litmer: I got dropped off by a Greyhound bus on the side of the road on Stock Island in 2005, a day after Hurricane Katrina passed by. My goal was to get a job working on the water.

KT: What aspects of the Keys environment or way of life matter most to you?

BL: I love that I can be in the Key West National Wildlife Refuge in less than an hour for snorkeling, kayaking, sailing or dolphin watching. I also love that I can bike around town and that it is a relaxed atmosphere.

KT: Who or what inspired you to become passionate about respecting and protecting the Keys' natural world?

BL: I have a biology degree, so the cumulative efforts of my teachers. Also, people like David Attenborough, Carl Sagan and Jacques Cousteau, who are powerful communicators.

KT: How does that passion influence your work or profession?

BL: It's what inspired me to start Honest Eco, to try and share my love of the wildlife with visitors who could miss it otherwise.

KT: What are some of the ways, personally or through your work, that you connect with and/or help protect the local environment and unique lifestyle?

BL: Our mission with Honest Eco is to "Spread the Value of Wildlife Conservation." Our guests choose us because we care about the environment. Jen and I also try to raise our kids with a compassion and love for wildlife - both animals and plants.

KT: What keeps you energized, challenged and focused on your path?

BL: The good people who work with us are huge motivators and I get a lot of inspiration from them. I'm also a fan of writing down long-term goals and keeping them hanging around for reminders. As Yogi Berra says, "If you don't know where you are going, you might not get there."

KT: What do you hope your positive environmental actions will accomplish?

BL: I'd like to see the eco-tour industry trend move toward education and away from an "all-you-can-drink" party. I think it is headed that way and, as young operators enter the industry, it will continue in that direction of quality and impact.

KT: What message do you want your actions and example to communicate to people you encounter?

BL: Just to view the environment as something worth cherishing and passing on to the next generation. These are amazing resources and they can last forever with a bit of common sense.

KT: What's your favorite natural or eco-friendly activity in the Keys?

BL: That's easy! Our "All the Above" trip is kayaking, dolphin watching, sailing and snorkeling. It's all of my favorite things!