Tarpon Bay Explorers Reopening Feb. 1

Tarpon Bay Explorers will reopen Feb. 1 with kayak and paddleboard rentals. Photo provided

Four months after Hurricane Ian struck and devastated the island, Tarpon Bay Explorers, 900 Tarpon Bay Rd., has announced it will reopen Wednesday, Feb. 1 with limited hours and offerings. Kayaks and paddleboards will be available to rent from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and the nature-themed gift shop will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

“We don’t know exactly what the demand will be, but we hope we get a lot of local support,” said TBE Managing Partner Wendy Schnapp. “We have employees who have gotten temporary work and are anxiously awaiting our reopening so we can get to the point of hiring them back.”

Schnapp explained Tarpon Bay Explorers usually employs 30 to 35 individuals depending on the time of year. Right now, there are just two employees. And prior to the storm, Tarpon Bay Explorers offered a variety of recreational activities and tours, from rentals and fishing charters to tram tours and nature-themed boat tours.

Ian’s storm surge flooded the company’s entire ground level and a majority of their equipment. The standing water underneath the gifts shop was estimated to be four to five feet. The 40-passenger tour boat broke free from its slip spot and was found on the deck area. But the five pontoon boats managed to stay in their slips, but were declared a total loss.

The touch tanks, which prelude the boat tours, were completely destroyed by the surge, too. All animals had been released before the storm, Schnapp noted. The three trams and fleet of bicycle rentals were also lost to the surge. TBE Manager Adam Saunderland was among the first on the team to see the destruction by Ian.

“Seeing the damage Ian caused was shocking and hard to describe,” he said. “Everything was trashed. There was a dumpster underneath the gift shop. We had a big walk-in cooler that floated out of place. All of our equipment and the amount of random debris mixed together was insane.”

“People have described Ian’s aftermath like a bomb went off or a giant washing machine tussled everything around and those descriptions are extremely accurate,” Saunderland said. “There was significant erosion around the launch area, as well as in front of the building. I was amazed and humbled.”

The clean-up process began about a week after the storm. A small group of staff, who were still in the area, traveled by boat to clean and salvage anything they could from Tarpon Bay Explorers.

“We had to take things day by day,” said Schnapp. “We had a couple big cleanup days with a lot of help from staff, but eventually we had to let staff go….Cleanup continues to be a step-by-step process. Insurance is another process for the different types of equipment creating more hurdles.”

“We are still taking things day by day, the good and the bad,” Schnapp continued. “But, we are thrilled our hard work has got to the point where we can reopen.”

The Tarpon Bay Explorers nature-themed gift shop will reopen Feb. 1. Photo provided

The Tarpon Bay Explorers site had to be deemed safe before visitors could return. “The Explorers team profusely thanks the rangers of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge and the staff of the ‘Ding’ Darling Wildlife Society for helping us get back on our feet,” said Schnapp.

“It truly takes a village,” she said, “especially in crazy times like these. We are very appreciative of our partners. Without them, our reopening would be significantly delayed.”

Eventually, when the demand is high enough, Tarpon Bay Explorers will resume its kayak tours through Commodore Creek. The company is also optimistic their trams will be fixed, but do not have a reopen date for Wildlife Drive. Tarpon Bay Explorers is the concession to the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

Call 239-472-8900 or visit the TBE website for more information on rentals and the gift shop.

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