Solar electric dolphin watching in Key West

Fourteen years ago Billy Litmer took a Greyhound bus to Key West and went snorkeling. “It was my first time and I just thought it was amazing.” he told Gwen Filosa of The Miami Herald.

So amazing that he stayed in Key West, went to work for some snorkeling companies, and five years ago he started his own company, Honest Eco Tours, offering dolphin watching and kayaking along with snorkeling. 

Two and a half years ago he came up with the idea of building a quiet, emission free boat for the dolphin watching in order to have the least possible impact on the Keys’ fragile marine environment he loves.

Now that dreamboat, christened ‘Squid’, is built. It’s driven by Torqeedo motors backed up with lithium-ion BMW i3 batteries and will be charged by lightweight Sunflare solar-panels on its roof. Currently it is being plugged in to charge every night, until the Squid passes the strict certification requirements of the US Coast Guard for near coastal electric boats.

With his experience taking guests out to see the 200 bottlenose dolphins off the Keys, Litmer knew a catamaran would be the most efficient design for transporting people as well as being least disruptive for the dolphins. Then he enlisted the help of David Walworth, an MIT educated boat designer and builder.

Low weight is key to the Squid’s low impact

A solar panel being twisted to show its flexibility

Since he wanted to carry significantly more passengers than other dolphin watching excursions weight was a key factor in getting the boat itself light enough for practical electric propulsion and range. Even more so considering the batteries themselves are 600 pounds each.

He and Walworth decided to go with Sunflare as their solar panel provider. Sunflare is known for flexible lightweight solar panels and the 12 custom configuration modules for the Squid weigh only about 1/4 as much as traditional panels. All in they weigh about 120 pounds, with the ability to generate 2000 watts of power. The whole boat tilts the scales at 8000 pounds, extremely light for it size and passenger capacity.

Even with all this the Squid can’t be completely fossil free and still needs to be able to switch over to a diesel configuration when unavoidable. However, the fossil fuel usage in those cases is down to 3 gallons rather than the 14 that similar boats consume. With a full boat that’s only about a quart or litre of diesel burned per person.

The Honest Eco website outlines its mission to “use amazing wildlife experiences to help foster conservation” and “inspire themselves and others to make decisions that include the good of the environment”.

Fourteen years after experiencing his first snorkel dive, it seems Billy Litmer – and the Squid –  are living up to that mission.

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