Onboard with Barnstable Harbor Ecotours

View of Sandy Neck Point at the mouth of Barnstable Harbor. Photo/Tom Richardson

On Friday, May 17, I traveled to Cape Cod’s Barnstable Harbor to check out a new ecotour operation based at Millway Marina.

The Horseshoe Crab is a 30′ aluminum pontoon boat. Photo/Tom Richardson

Barnstable Harbor Ecotours (BHE) was launched in 2012 by local resident (and popular Mattakeese Wharf bartender) Joe Nastasi, who first laid eyes on Barnstable Harbor in 1986 and instantly fell in love with the place. A confessed beach and boating bum, Nastasi eventually sought a way to share his passion for this coastal paradise with others, so he purchased a 30’ custom-built pontoon boat and hired some local experts to educate his customers on the birds, fish, geology and marine ecology of the harbor and the 4,000-acre Great Marsh estuary, which extends west of the harbor.

The Horseshoe Crab is a Coast Guard-certified, ultra-stable, shallow-draft vessel that seats 25 passengers. It features a head, as well as a full top for sun and rain protection. It’s an ideal platform for exploring the sheltered waters of the marsh and harbor—but bring a jacket, as it can get chilly, even in summer.

Ecotour customers have the chance to view shorebirds such as this great blue heron. Photo/Tom Richardson

While Nastasi skippers the boat much of the time, an off-season accident left him shorebound for our trip. Instead, Eric Stacy took over helm duties, while Phil Kyle, a retired Barnstable biology teacher, played the role of tour guide.

At 2:00, with the tide beginning to flood, we headed out of Maraspin Creek and followed the marked channel towards the tip of Sandy Neck. Almost immediately, Phil proved his bird-brained abilities by spotting a loon that was fishing in the channel, followed by a couple of eider ducks that had yet to make their way north for the summer. As we neared the mouth of the harbor, where it meets Cape Cod Bay, Phil trained his binoculars on a sandbar and noticed 2 species of gull (blackback and herring), as well as some common terns. (This guy knew his stuff.)

An old gunning shack sits in the shadow of a Sandy Neck dune. Photo/Tom Richardson

Next we turned west and skirted the inside of Sandy Neck, Phil explaining how the peninsula—actually a barrier beach with dunes up to 30’ high—had formed over the centuries due to the longshore current sweeping sand southward to Cape Cod from points north. We did a fly-by of the Sandy Point Lighthouse and the summer cottages along the beach then made our way into the Great Marsh.

This vast network of tidal creeks and peat marsh sheltered by the great dunes of Sandy Neck provides a critical nursery for numerous species of baitfish and juvenile food and game fish, as well as habitat for birds such as osprey, brant, willet, plovers, sandpipers, oyster catchers, herons, egret and more. In late spring, big striped bass make their way into the marshes, and keen-eyed observers may be able to spot them gliding over the shallows.

A flock of brant takes wing along the marsh shore. Photo/Tom Richardson

Speaking of shallows, the Horsheshoe Crab is ideally suited for exploring the mud and sand flats of the marsh, as it only draws some 6” of water. Even so, tide plays a big role in the scheduling of the inner-marsh trips, so be sure to check the company’s website or give them a call beforehand to get the skinny on these skinny-water excursions. They are not to be missed.

By the time we returned to Millway Marina at 4:00, I was already planning a return trip—this time in summer, when the Great Marsh takes on a whole different personality.

Serious birders will want to book for the fall, when migratory species make their way through the area. Indeed, BHE runs special group trips for the local Audubon chapter at this time of year. Aside from its standard ecotours, BHE offers 2-hour sunset cruises for those who simply want to take a relaxing boat ride on the harbor. No matter which trip you opt for, you’ll see what made Joe Nastasi decide to stick around.

For more information on Barnstable Harbor Ecotours CLICK HERE or call (508-221-6126).

2013 Rates: 

  • Adults: $25
  • Children 12 & under: $15
  • Purchase Tickets Online! CLICK HERE.

To learn more about boating in Barnstable Harbor, visit our Boater’s Guide section by CLICKING HERE.

Photo Gallery:

Plover are commonly sighted along the marsh mud flats. Photo/Tom Richardson
This osprey occupies a prime spot on the Great Marsh. Photo/Tom Richardson

(Continue here for more of our photo gallery.)