Meet The Coasties Behind Your Boat Tour

When you’re in a Louisiana swamp, that life vest better work.

Philly has duck boats. Massachusetts does whale watching. In the Florida Keys, you might go on a snorkeling trip. But here in Louisiana, we do it right with swamp tours.

Innocent enough. If you’re boarding a tour boat to search the bayou for alligators, it seems like your biggest danger is, well, the alligators. And as long as you stay in the boat, you should be fine, right?

At least that’s what I thought.

“Fire, flooding, malfunctioning equipment, structural issues within the boat, faulty life jackets…” Elton Morris, a Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG) for the U.S. Coast Guard, quickly ran through a rather threatening list of potential hazards we could encounter when stepping off the dock.

But that’s his job: to see every potential for danger and negate it. I met with LTJG Elton Morris and Chief Warrant Officer Mark Senna on a sunny November day at a boat launch to walk through the steps of a Coast Guard inspection. As a mere civilian, I had no knowledge of what goes into that Coast Guard Certified sticker. What I did know was that thousands of tourists gladly take their lives in their hands every year when they lean over the sides of a tour boat to greet alligators (those gators, by the way, can reach 10 feet long and weigh over 500 lbs). So I arranged to meet two Coasties in person at Cajun Encounters, one of the largest, highest-traffic swamp tour companies in Louisiana, to see for myself how the Coast Guard ensures these boats are safe for the tens of thousands of tourists who look forward to seeing alligators, raccoons, and wild pigs by boat, in their natural habitat.

Enter Elton Morris, whose 12 years in the Coast Guard included an incident with a Liberian boat that was leaking toxic gas; and Mark Senna, who has served the Coast Guard for 16 years in Cape Cod, Boston, Puerto Rico, and now, the Louisiana Bayou.

Your boat captain knows them, even if you don’t.

“People don’t really know what we do, since we work directly with businesses and industry.” Elton was ducking down to check out the life vests. But behind the scenes, these guys are one of the main reasons you can board a boat, bob out into a murky bayou whose toothy gators are waiting just out of sight, and know that you’re actually quite safe.

In fact, the Coast Guard inspects every single commercial vessel that seats 7 or more passengers, from the smallest swamp tour boat to thousand-foot container ships. And they do more than just check for life vests on that yearly inspection: they carefully examine life rings, check the structure itself for weaknesses, test out the equipment, and quiz boat captains to make sure they’re up to snuff. Sometimes the inspection even includes a man overboard drill (an exercise that is no doubt performed with dummies. I was still relieved, as the only person on board who had no real purpose being there, that today’s mock-inspection would include no such test of our captain’s abilities).

I noticed Elton examining one of the life jackets from every angle, brow furrowed. We’ve seen some companies try to fix their own life jackets, even sometimes filling them with cheaper material that makes them ineffective. He explained that to a trained eye, it’s easy to check for that sort of thing by pressing the life jacket and applying pressure to ensure it’s the correct filling.

They’re an ally to the tourism industry.

One might assume that the Coast Guard and boat tour companies are at odds. Especially at a time when the general public seem increasingly wary of law enforcement, a tour operator may be less than thrilled at the idea of men in navy jumpsuits investigating every square inch of their boat, the means to their livelihood.

But Mark emphasized that the Coast Guard’s goal is not to impede industries or get boats off the water, but to help companies keep their passengers and employees safe. “Our number one goal is safety: to protect the families taking these tours, and the crew. This is their workspace.” Any issues that don’t put anyone in immediate danger earn a citation until the problem is corrected. And in a majority of cases, there’s nothing malicious going on: boaters and tour companies who receive a citation were often unaware of the problem, and simply want to find the best solution.

And rest assured, a Coastie performing a routine boat inspection will be armed only with a hammer (smaller than the one you got from Home Depot), a flashlight, and little else.

So what should you look for when you take your next boat tour?

Be aware of your surroundings. Look for the Coast Guard certified sticker, which should be displayed somewhere on the inside of the boat. And if you don’t see it, feel free to ask your boat captain if the boat has been Coast Guard inspected (if there are more than 6 paying passengers, it’s required by law). They’ll be able to show you the latest Certificate of Inspection,which is required to be on board.

And yes, this boat is up to code.

Cajun Encounters works closely with the Coast Guard to ensure all of their boats are inspected on a yearly basis.

No one thrown overboard. No holes in the bottom. Life vests are the right amount of squishi-ness. But do keep your hands and feet inside the ride, please. The Coast Guard can only do so much.

How A Few People Are Saving Louisiana’s Wetlands

Living along a disappearing shoreline, perpetually at risk of extreme flooding, New Orleans residents are painfully aware of the risks that come with living in a city that’s almost entirely below sea level. Protecting the coast itself, and the natural habitats therein, is a huge part of protecting the communities that live there. The task of preserving Louisiana’s wetlands poses complex problems, and requires multifaceted solutions. One small non-profit with a devoted volunteer following, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation (LPBF), has taken on the challenge.

Lake Pontchartrain covers 630 square miles of southeastern Louisiana, and is only one piece of what is known as the Pontchartrain Basin: a network of wetlands that support a unique variety of plants and wildlife, as well as a thriving fishing and tourism industry. Unfortunately, Lake Pontchartrain and the surrounding wetlands are threatened by pollution and coastal land loss, both of which endanger the diverse plant and animal life unique to the wetlands, and make our communities even more vulnerable to devastating floods. The LPBF was founded to protect the wetlands and the many plants, fishes, and wildlife that live there.

Understanding the Problem

Well, more accurately, the many problems.

Take a look at Lake Pontchartrain’s troubled past for an idea of what we’re facing:

  • The lake used to be the site of extensive oil and gas drilling. Even after the drilling ended, oil and gas structures were left in the lake to deteriorate.
  • For 60 years, the lake underwent shell dredging, which took a harsh toll on the ecosystem.
  • Due to lack of education and knowledge around wastewater management, small businesses and residents have released harmful pollutants into the rivers.
  • Urban development has led to paving over hundreds of acres of wetlands, exacerbating flooding problems.
  • The cypress swamps, hardwoods, and native species have been greatly diminished by logging.

Thanks to all these levels of human intrusion, the entire wetlands habitat is at risk. And because the wetlands serve as a natural sponge for rainwater, that means we’re putting our own communities in greater danger of flooding – that is, if we don’t actively work to correct the trends.

The Solution

Well, again, it’s not that easy: there are many solutions. That’s where LPBF comes in.

  • Since 2001, LPBF has monitored the water quality of the lake on a weekly basis, and to this day is the only organization that routinely tests the water and measures pollutants. They test the lake in multiple sites for salinity, temperature, and other measures that demonstrate the overall “health” of the lake.
  • LPBF also partners with businesses to educate them on proper handling of wastewater. To date they’ve partnered with over 800 local wastewater treatment plants, which have now significantly reduced the amount of contaminated water flowing into the rivers.
  • LPBF has been a pioneer of “green infrastructure” in the area, a process that incorporates absorbent, grassy areas into the city as an effective (and literally “green”) solution to overflowing rainwater. For example, concrete canals are being replaced with grass-lined ones, and green spaces are being built next to parking lots to naturally absorb runoff.
  • The Director of LPBF’s Coastal Sustainability Program developed the Multiple Lines of Defense Strategy, a framework for using both natural defenses (such as barrier islands and marshes) and man-made protections (including flood gates and levees), in combination with wetland and habitat restoration, to create better hurricane protection. Louisiana’s State Master Plan now uses this strategy to protect and improve the coast.

What You Can Do

Join the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation to help protect the wetlands. LPBF is always looking for help to raise awareness at local festivals and events, and participate in litter clean-ups. Become a member or volunteer.

Join LPBF

Make a donation. Even a small amount can go a long way to supporting the LPBF, and protecting the environment.

Donate

Make positive choices for the environment. Consider the environmental impact of your next vacation. Support local eco-tour companies that share your concern for protecting the habitat. If you’re planning a New Orleans trip any time soon, take a guided tour of the Honey Island Swamp, where professional boat captains share their knowledge of the ecosystem and wildlife. Our staff members also take part in cleaning up the swamp and surrounding area on a regular basis to keep our swamp healthy and our gators happy.

Book an Eco-Tour

Take a trip to the lighthouse. The LPBF has created a museum highlighting local environmental issues, and the actions that they and other organizations are taking to solve those problems. Impressively, all of this information has been condensed into a beautiful lighthouse on (where else?) the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Take a trip to the New Canal Lighthouse Museum to see everything they’ve done for the area, and take in the beautiful views – it’s a museum experience like none other!

Why We Choose to be Eco-Friendly

You may not want to jump into that thick, green blanket of the Honey Island Swamp, but many rare species call our Louisiana swamp home. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of critters like the snapping turtles, herons, lizards, snakes, and of course, gators, that make up this delicate ecosystem.

Our specially-designed swamp tour boats allow us to share the beauty of this unique environment with visitors and locals alike in a peaceful way: we believe that by providing guided eco-tours, we are not only giving our guests an unforgettable experience of Louisiana, but also inspiring them to notice the amazing natural world around them, and help to preserve it.

Why do we choose to be an eco-friendly tour operator?

As a locally-owned and operated, family-run company that values the natural world around us, it is important for us to give back to our community and to make it a better place. We worked hard to design boats that are perfectly to navigate through the Louisiana swamps, and that are non-disruptive to the animals that live there. Some commercial boats, such as airboats, have been criticized for creating noise pollution, unknowingly hitting sea life, and otherwise disturbing the fragile ecosystems in the water bodies they travel.

But what are we doing to protect this gator habitat?

  • Our boats are efficiently built to glide through the swamps with minimal drag and low emission engines. The flat bottom ensures that we don’t unknowingly disturb the swamp life beneath us.
  • Our employees participate in local waterway cleanup efforts, on land and in the swamps. Our boat captains are passionate about keeping the swamp as pristine as possible, and they make sure to grab any debris they see floating in the bayou.
  • As a partner of the The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Foundation (LAWFF), we are constantly looking for ways to raise funds and provide support for specific projects and programs as well as contributions for general conservation use.
  • We limit our interactions with the gators. And not just because of those teeth! Aside from the occasional gator treat, our boat captains never handle, chase, or corral the gators. They do their thing, and we just try to catch them in action.
  • We’re strengthening our partnerships with other environmental groups and eco-friendly organizations in and around New Orleans, so we can find new ways to help protect the land around us.

Ultimately, the reason we exist is to share our love of all things Louisiana with our guests. By offering a fun, educational experience of the swamps, we like to think we’ve inspired others to take an interest in the world around them, and all the other living things that share this earth with us.

Dedicated to Making a Difference

We’ll continue to share the steps we’re taking toward a greener, gator-friendly future. Until then, we encourage you to think about the environment when planning your next vacation, and support local, environmentally conscious organizations.