In Sitka, a tour company reflects on sustainability through snorkeling

Alyssa Russell and Ellie Schmidt prepare three tourists for a snorkel tour (Tash Kimmell/KCAW)

It’s low tide, on a clear blue-sky morning, as Ellie Schmidt leads a group of visiting cruise ship passengers to the waterline for a snorkel tour. But the group isn’t in the tropics and they aren’t in their usual beach day attire. Instead, they’re wearing thick wetsuits on the rocky shores of Sitka, Alaska’s Magic Island State Park.

Strands of bull kelp on the surface of the water. Below, a thriving kelp forest with vibrant starfish, urchins and jellyfish awaits. Back at the shop, when I ask the snorkelers how they chose this somewhat unusual attraction, one of them says, “Who can say they’ve snorkeled in Alaska?”

A starfish clings to a rock in the frigid waters of Sitka Ocean
(Photo courtesy of Ellie Schmidt)

Another remark he had never heard of snorkeling in Alaska until this trip.

Even on a summer day like today, water temperatures do not go above 55 degrees. But Schmidt—founder of Selkie Snorkels in Sitka—says it’s part of what makes snorkeling in Alaska special.

“I think there’s this kind of post-snorkel high that you get when you get out of the water, the cold water,” she said. “There’s this incredibly rich and nutritious water that creates an incredible abundance of biodiversity and animals that are really amazing and unique compared to, even tropical countries.”

Selkie Snorkels opened this June, just two short months after Schmidt conceived the business. While snorkeling may not be a quintessential pastime in Alaska, Schmidt hopes Selkie Snorkels can be an eco-friendly attraction for summer visitors.

“I think from the point of view of a tourism industry that’s very focused around fishing — which of course is great — it’s kind of cool to have tourism that’s just focused on looking and maybe taking pictures,” she said.

Ellie Schmidt at the Selkie Snorkels showcase (Tash Kimmell/KCAW)

The idea of ​​’eco’ or ‘sustainable’ tourism is not a new idea, but in rural destinations like Sitka, it remains especially relevant. According to Cornell professor and sustainable tourism expert Megan Epler Wood, sustainability looks different in every community, but the framework is always the same.

“The idea would be that tourism doesn’t harm the environment…where visitors visit and that it doesn’t harm local people’s chances to prosper,” explains Epler Wood.

As tourism returns to Sitka in record numbers this summer, the city is embroiled in conversations about how best to deal with the pressure on local resources. It’s unclear what the future of tourism in the Southeast will look like, but according to Wood, businesses like Selkie can play a role in protecting vulnerable ecosystems.

“We have a lot of good research and ecotourism because it’s been around longer, where you see it’s really contributed to the conservation of natural areas, it absolutely provides income and a reason for people to preserve the natural environment.” said Epler Wood.

Snorkel gear hangs in the back room of Sitka-based snorkel shop Selkie Snorkels (Tash Kimmell/KCAW)

Fred Drake runs a snorkeling operation in Ketchikan, possibly the first in the Southeast. His company Snorkel Alaska has been in operation for nearly 20 years. Like Schmidt, he fell in love with the intricate ecosystems beneath the cold waves of the Southeast.

“There is more marine life in our intertidal zone than many places in the world. And people don’t understand that you look at the surface of the water, it looks black, it looks cold, hard. As soon as you put your face in the water, there’s all this color,” Drake enthused.

While he has never positioned himself as a sustainable tourism company, his goal has always been to share and educate people about the beauty of Alaska’s ocean life.

“These creatures are harvested by commercial divers like extremes here in Southeast Alaska – cucumbers, sea urchins, giant geoduck clams. I mean, they take so much of it out of the water and they ship it all over Asia and Japan for profit,” he said. “We’re educating people about them, letting them handle them, take pictures with them and then we’ll bring them back again.”

A fish swims in the waters of Magic Island State Park
(Photo courtesy of Ellie Schmidt)

Like Selkie, Drake’s customers are mostly cruise ship passengers, but he said his business still has value for locals

“I can’t tell you how many locals have come back and thanked me for introducing them to the underwater world here,” Drake said.

Schmidt hopes that in the coming summers, her business can also benefit the community, making snorkeling more accessible to locals and tourists.

“It would be great if we could do some kind of educational tour in the future. Or we have kind of a more collaborative style where we’re sharing equipment and making the ocean a little more accessible,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said she plans to return for next summer’s tourist season. And while it’s unclear exactly what Selkie will look like in the future, it’s clear that snorkeling in Sitka is here to stay.

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