Leading The Way with Billy Litmer

Ecotourism can be a dirty business. Billy Litmer is determined to change that.

We’ve always felt at home in boatyards. The sounds of hammers pounding and sanders fairing the rough edges of fiberglass; the smell of diesel fuel and salt water; the sight of boat parts, old two-strokes and toughened, dirty hands holding an icy beer after a long day of work.

Billy Litmer has spent most of his adult life in or around boatyards. Born and raised in Kentucky, Litmer came down to Key West on a road trip with a college buddy. The weather was beautiful, the water was pristine and the people were nice. He was hooked. "After that trip I went home, milled around for a week, and bought a bus ticket," he told us. "I got dropped off in Key West about 48 hours later."

Litmer has an infectious energy about him; he’s a burly man with a hearty laugh, a thick beard and a quick mind. And, he’s a guy who isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and get to work. "When I first got to Key West I didn’t really know anyone or what I was going to do. I lived in a tent at a campground on the next Island up. I started meeting people and found a room to rent. Then I went around the docks and talked to people who worked on boats until I found one I could get on," he said with a smile.

"When I started working on the water I did ecotours, we'd take people out snorkeling or kayaking. I have a biology degree, and I really enjoyed the educational part. I'd be taking people out from Wisconsin or Washington and teaching them about my backyard, and I really connected with that—seeing the animals, telling people about the inner workings of the mangrove and coral ecosystems," he said.

"But I felt like I was working on booze cruises. I’d see a stack of plastic cups picked fly off into the water, or a can fall overboard, and I felt like a hypocrite. I felt like we had an opportunity to do more, that we could do better. Nothing against a cold beer, but I thought that there was an opportunity to be more focused on the environment, conservation and education."

Never one to take the easy route, Litmer chose to do what some may, justifiably, consider a little nuts—build his own boat and start his own company. (Litmer is not a boatbuilder, typically a prerequisite for that kind of thing.) "I didn't have boatbuilding experience when I started, I literally read books and talked to friends and just threw myself at it," Litmer said as we boarded Squid, the electric boat he built, from which he runs his ecotourism company, Honest Eco. "With Squid, we wound up working with an MIT-educated Naval Architect named David Walworth and a boatbuilder named Joe Kitchell. I had known of Joe and Dave since I was 22 working on my first boat. They were kind of like heroes to me. I sent them an email and told them that I wanted to build the most environmentally friendly boat that I could."

At some point in the conversation, the concept of a fully-electric boat came up. "Walworth said, ‘You know, it's possible you could make this boat electric.’ As soon as I heard that, I thought, ‘Well, now I have to make that happen,’" Litmer told us as we, very quietly, pulled out from the marina.

"The name of the company is Honest Eco, so we chose to try and live up to the name. Deciding to build an all-electric boat made it much harder, because it was the first lithium-ion-powered boat to go through the U.S. Coast Guard classifications."

Litmer was successful, and when Squid splashed she was the first and only lithium-ion-powered charter boat in the country. Litmer’s vision, hard work and determination has paid off—Honest Eco is one of the most popular ecotourism companies in the Keys. But, as one might expect from Litmer, he’s not ready to slow down yet.

"I think that ecotourism is an ill-defined term, and I want to set a quality standard," he told us, as we cruised the crystal waters off Key West, keeping an eye out for dolphins (he says he always sees dolphins). "I've got a biology degree. Most of our crew have biology degrees. They find us and apply to work for us because they think that we're authentic in our mission and our values. We built a mold for Squid so that we can build more of these boats, in different places. We're figuring out how to operate electrically for the future. I hope that we get copied."

For Litmer, this sense of stewardship of the environment and the ocean drives almost everything he does. "I feel like I have an obligation to take care of the marine ecosystem, and to inspire other people to take care of it as well," he said as we headed back toward the docks.

"Jacques Cousteau said it best: ‘People protect what they love.’ I think that sums up our mission perfectly. If we get people out into the environment, they're going to fall in love with it, and if they love it, they're going to want to protect it. Rather than promoting rum punch and cheap prices, we'll promote the quality of education and conservation efforts we make in the community," Litmer told us. "We should all want to protect and cherish the environment. It’s the only one we’ve got."