Meet Quest Maker Tracy Colson
Quest Makers are women in their 40s and beyond who've declared
"now it's my time," and then set off on their own journeys to realize their dreams. Every month a Quest Maker is featured in the FREE e-newsletter, Your Next Quest Chronicles. Click here to enjoy archived issues.
Quest Maker Tracy Colson
From volunteer manatee watcher to passionate nature and wildlife advocate
Tracy has has lived all her life in Crystal River, part of what is called Florida's Nature Coast located on the west coast north of Tampa and stretching up to the beginning of the state's panhandle. When she reached her early 40's, Tracy decided she needed fun in her life and volunteered to be a manatee watcher, which ultimately led to her advocacy on their behalf and the launch of Nature Coast Kayak Tours, which offers fully equipped, personalized guided kayak tours - especially at sunrise - of some of the most scenic waterways in the area.
To introduce you to manatees, take a moment to enjoy "The Manatee Waltz", a video of these gentle aquatic mammals that Tracy filmed and set to the song of the same name composed by her friend, singer and songwriter Katherine Archer.
When did you decide to embark on your journey?
I grew up in Crystal River and have been here all my life. Growing up revolved around water—skiing, boating, fishing, but never kayaking. Right after high school, I had to take care of myself and worked to pay the bills. Out of high school, I worked at various jobs, including 13 years at a nuclear plant. Then I went to school for two years to become a physical therapy assistant, which I didn’t like. I ended up working for about five years for my brother who is a building contractor.
In 2003 I decided I had to do something for fun and I read a blurb looking for manatee watch volunteers, who could use their own canoes and kayaks to help educate the crowds of people who come here to interact with the manatees. Volunteers make sure visitors obey guidelines for interacting with manatees.
I got my own kayak and I was hooked. I’d take my kayak out on the weekend, answer questions and try to educate people. A lot of dive shops bring visitors into the water to play with manatees when what they're really doing are harassing them—disturbing resting manatees, touching them or chasing them out of the warm springs. After two seasons I realized it wasn’t education. People weren’t following guidelines; they were all over the animals doing everything wrong; I couldn’t volunteer anymore.
Instead, I decided to document these behaviors and the manatees’ reactions to the harassment by making videos, first with a digital camera then with a camcorder equipped with underwater housing. When I showed the film to a videographer friend he told me I needed to get the video on YouTube if I wanted the world to see it and I did. [Here is a link to the video, Manatee Paparazi. It vividly demonstrates the harmful impact visitors have on the manatees' way of life.]
I started getting hits on my videos from authorities. What I had recorded started embarrassing them a little bit. I kind of put it to them that you have an issue and you need to deal with it. The construction business started slowing in 2006. That's when my quest to educate people and foster respect for wildlife and nature, work with manatees and start a kayak business all started coming together.
How has your quest unfolded?
By the end of 2006 when I was 44, I had the permits I needed for my business and I’d bought the kayaks. I also had a website. and I had begun advertising the business by distributing brochures locally.
A friend of mine is a kayak outfitter and guide and I let him know that I wasn’t competing with him. I was going to lead sunrise tours, so I proposed that if he had customers who wanted to go out real early that he send them to me and if my customers wanted to want to buy a kayak, I’d send them to him. He sends me his overflow business and I help him out with big groups sometimes.
How did you make time for your dream?
To become a manatee watch volunteer, I had to commit to volunteering 12 hours per month. I could only volunteer on the weekends and I wondered how I could possibly do that. Yet I ended up putting in so many more hours because I couldn’t pull myself away if there were still people in the water with the manatees.
I didn’t have to make time because it just happened. Becoming involved with manatees and educating people was my passion. My priorities shifted and that is where I spent my time. As I phased out of construction, my brother let me be very flexible with my hours, so if I booked a tour, I didn’t have to worry about the other job.
How did you deal with obstacles on your adventure?
I followed my passion for manatee advocacy and along the way all these incredible people have come into my life. They have all helped me overcome obstacles. Now I have this network of friends who can help me make my business work. I have met videographers who I turn to when I have video editing problems. I have computer experts and a website person I can ask for help. And it has all come about because of the path I have taken.
What helped you stay on your quest's path?
My desire to make a difference, my burning desire for the environment and wildlife and how it should be respected. Seeing the light bulb go off for one of my customers when they get it is a natural high and it makes me feel great for the rest of the day.
For wild animals, every day is a struggle for survival not to be eaten. Everything we do can affect animals, which is why I try to have as little impact as possible. For example, if you cause a bird to fly away, you are making it use up energy and calories it needs to live another day. A wading bird has to catch fish when it can because if it misses a meal, the next one could be 2 weeks away from the next. An alligator—a cold blooded animal—needs to warm its body to digest food so if you disturb one while it’s sunning on a log, then you have interrupted that process and the cold food could end up rotting in its stomach.
What's been the secret to reaching your goals?
Taking one day at a time. If I get a little lazy, my passion for what I do makes it easy for me to let my imagination go wild. I always come up with a fresh idea for a new trail or an educational video or how to make my business work. That motivates me to keep going.
Looking back, what's one thing you wish you had known as you set off on your journey?
I wish I had a done a lot more digging into how to run a business, like the taxes and the paperwork. Instead I am learning them as I go, but I wish I'd started out with a good solid knowledge.
What's the best quest advice you've ever received?
It came from someone when I was nervous about learning how to back up a kayak trailer to a boat ramp which I had never done before. He told me that the only way I’d get over it was to just do it once. So I practiced in my yard and at the ramp really early in the morning when no one was around to watch me. I got over my nervousness and now I remember that whenever I’m learning something new.
What is the one essential quality you'd tell women to pack for their own journey?
Have a passion for what you do. If you’re passionate about something and you love it, everything will fall into place. If you don’t, you may get rich, but you won’t be happy. You can run into all kinds of problems and roadblocks; if you want it bad enough, though, you’ll make it happen.
Is there a particular quote, a movie, a book or a person that has sustained you?
When I met a videographer at a presentation and explained what I do, he told me: “Do what you love and the money will come.” I think about that all the time. So far, I’m paying the bills, I’m doing what I love and I’m happy!
Do you have a new quest around the corner?
Katherine Archer belongs to a group called Saltwater Cowgirls and her dream is to develop a children’s TV show about the environment, especially about the water and how important it is to everything. She wants me to do the filming as well as play a part. This has been on our minds a long time; we just need to be able to put all our energies and focus on it. That is my next big quest.
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
There is a spring in Crystal River called Three Sisters Spring, a warm water habitat for manatees in the wintertime. With its clear water and white sand surrounded by vegetation, it’s our crown jewel.
It’s surrounded by 60 vacant acres which had been bought by developers to build condos. Now there are several groups raising money to buy the land back to keep it from being developed. We're this close to making it happen; the developers are willing sellers and everyone is working out the details. When we do, there are plans for an education center and public access with walking and hiking trails and platforms for viewing the manatees. It will be a huge boon to the local economy.
Katherine and I were able to help by co-producing a Save Three Sisters Spring video, which the groups use in presentations as they raise money to buy the land and to inspire people to help. I’m very proud that this video with the pretty pictures and pretty music could help our cause.
For the last four winters I’ve been filming the manatee harassment which has contributed to another milestone happening on June 4. That’s when Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will hold the first public meeting to discuss this issue and what we need to do about it. This stakeholders meeting will be between the dive shop owners who believe they never hurt the manatees and the manatee advocates who believe what is happening is way out of control and want a “no touching” law. Even though there will probably be a big argument, it will be mediated by the organizers. It is the first step toward making major changes.
To contact Tracy and arrange your own kayak tour, you can visit her website, call her at 352.795.9877 / 888.795.9877or send her an email. Click here to learn more about saving the manatees.
If you'd like to read the essay and the Journal Sparker inspired by Tracy's interview, click here to enjoy May's YNQ Chronicles.
Your Next Quest continued the conversation with Tracy in October 2010.
Click here for an update.