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Tarpon Bay Explorers celebrate milestone as ‘Ding’ Darling concessionaire

By Staff | Dec 6, 2010

Explorers staff members gather on their dock last week to celebrate the eighth anniversary operating in “Ding” Darling. Pictured in the back row, from left, is David Lombardi, Patricia Clark, Charlie Frese, Bill Burch, Margie Klein and Stephanie Ray. Front row, from left, is Mari Hanley, Wendy Schnapp and Brieanna Coffman.

For the most part, the primary mission for the residents of Sanibel is to preserve the island as much as possible, protecting the environment and keeping growth to a minimum.

But since Tarpon Bay Explorers was launched on Dec. 3, 2002, the scope of their services has continued to flourish and grow. And grow. And grow.

And, in their case, growth is a good thing.

The official concessionaire of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Tarpon Bay Explorers recently celebrated its eighth anniversary. Owners Winston and Barbara Spurgeon and Wendy Schnapp are thankful for their continued partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Winston and Barbara owned Sarasota Bay Explorers, and Wendy worked with them,” recalled Stephanie Ray, a nature guide for Tarpon Bay Explorers. “When the ‘Ding’ Darling concession came up for bid, they submitted a proposal of tours, activities and amenities.”

In late 2002, a panel of five Department of the Interior concession experts selected the Explorers’ proposal from among eight detailed proposals.

Over the past eight years, TBE has offered visitors to the refuge a variety of nature-themed activities, including Tram Tours of Wildlife Drive, a Nature & Sea Life Cruise, kayak, canoe and bicycle rentals, educational programs (including their Touch Tank) and Sunset Rookery Paddle Tours.

Over the years, the concession has grown, in the number of staff, the number of programs offered and the amount of equipment available on site. In fact, TBE quickly outgrew their former headquarters, constructing a brand new facility in 2008.

“The original pontoon boat only had a capacity of 29 passengers. The Explorer III can carry up to 40 people,” added Ray. “We’ve increased the number of tours we offer and the number of times a day we offer activities when it’s busy.”

Additionally this year, the Explorers increased their support of the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society – the non-profit “Friends of the Refuge” group – by offering every visitor the opportunity to make a donation to the Society. So far in 2010, the Explorers have helped collect more than $7,500 for the Society.

Guests can rent a bike to tour the four-and-a-half mile Wildlife Drive through the heart of the Refuge, a kayak to paddle the Commodore Creek water trail, or a pontoon boat to tour and fish Tarpon Bay.

According to Ray, many of the Explorers’ staff naturalists state that one of the best things about working in the Refuge is that every day is a different adventure with new wildlife sightings and things to learn about the environment here.

“As the business has grown, we have been able to offer more Tram Tours — we have three vehicles now — and more bicycles (33) just arrived last week,” she said. “Our boats have been upgraded and refurbished. Our naturalists are always getting the latest information that’s out there. They provide the best wildlife education and research to our customers.”

The Explorers also operate a Gift & Nature Shop, selling a wide array of wildlife and nature-themed items. There is a vast selection of books for children and adults, clothing, toys and elegant home décor and jewelry.

“Our selection of merchandise has grown tremendously since we moved into the new building,” said Ray. “We’ve got a greater variety of marine life in our Touch Tanks and, especially in the past year or so, we’ve been able to dedicate more time to it.”

Stop by to see what the Explorers have to offer at 900 Tarpon Bay Road, seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information on tours and rentals to explore the Refuge, call 472-8900, visit www.tarponbayexplorers.com or www.facebook.com/TarponBayExplorers.

“We’d like to provide our guests with the best customer service experience possible,” Ray added. “Our main goal is to educate people about conservation and the environment and ecosystems around us. We want them to go home wanted to do something about it. Paying more attention to recycling and protecting nature right in their own back yards.”