Passion for paddling builds blossoming kayak tour business at Weedon Island

A kayaking tour around Weedon Island transports people from their bustling everyday world to a soothing paradise, and it's good for their mental health, in Noah Shaffer’s view.

This time of year, kayakers may see manatees that come into the warm waters of Tampa Bay, Shaffer says; they’ll see a lot of water birds and marine life.

“Dolphins are pretty much there every day. There’s a mom and baby pair that have been hanging around Weeden Island the last two months or so,’’ he says.

Shaffer, 27, has been paddling through nature for fun and relaxation since he was six. He has turned his passion into a business. He and his former business partner, professional soccer player Zachary Hamm, started ECOmersion Kayak & SUP Rentals (paddleboards) in 2018. Last year, the company won a contract from Pinellas County to lead tours and rent kayaks to people who want to explore the mangroves and bay waters around Weedon Island Preserve, off northeast St. Petersburg.

“We really set out to build a company that would connect people with the natural environment and share information with them so they leave feeling more informed about why it is important to protect mangroves and the species that live in the preserves where we operate,’’ Shaffer says.

The company has grown over the five years to 10 full-time employees and 12 part-time, with guides who are knowledgeable in the ecology of areas they explore.

“We love people that have a background in ecology, science or biology because they loved it enough to go and study it in school, so that says a lot about their passion for conserving the environment, but also they have a wealth of knowledge that they can share with the other team members who maybe don’t have the educational background on those subject matters but have passion for preserving the environment and teaching others about it as well,” Shaffer explains.

ECOmersion also rents kayaks and leads tours out of War Veterans Memorial Park at Bay Pines, exploring islands in Boca Ciega Bay.

When they started the company, Hamm was in St. Petersburg recuperating from a knee injury, and now he’s back playing for a team in Germany. He sold his share of the company to Shaffer last year.

Last year, about 16,000 people took the tours. During the busy season, March to July, ECOmersion has about 500 customers per week. About 25 percent of them had never kayaked before.

The business really started taking off in 2020, during the worst of the pandemic, he says.

“The environment in Florida encouraged a lot of tourists to come here because they were able to operate normally and to be outdoors. So it really pushed people to get outdoors and also focus on the natural environment and realize how much it can do to improve your mental health.’’

For more information, go to ECOmersion and ECOmersion Boca Ciega Bay.
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Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.