Billy on the Squid (not to be confused with local band Billy AND the Squid. No relation.). Find Honest Eco outside Waterfront Brewery. SARAH THOMAS/Keys Weekly

Honest Eco’s Billy Litmer is making waves with his environmental mission: leading eco tours on an electric boat built from scratch, with a little help from an MIT-educated naval architect. His boat, The Squid, is the charter boat of the future, and Honest Eco claims it’s the only near coastal electric T boat in operation. 

“It’s totally custom designed for our trip,” said Litmer, who does dolphin, kayak and snorkel tours (no fishing trips). “It has as little impact as possible, and that includes the efficiency of the boat.” They worked with naval architect David Walworth, who is based out of St. Croix and known for his design of “ultra-efficient” catamarans.

So, how does The Squid work? 

The hull design and the construction technique are all for optimizing space and energy. “It’s made from foam core composite,” said Litmer, “and lots of carbon fiber, which are the newest materials for airplanes and space shuttles, so it’s strong and lightweight.”

The boat is primarily electric — they plug it in at night — and they have a diesel generator that acts as a range extender. “So it’s got electric motors, and then we have lithium ion batteries out of the BMW I3,” says Litmer. 

The Coast Guard informed Honest Eco that it’s the first lithium ion hybrid boat operating in the country. They are awaiting certification. And that’s not all: “We’ve also got the newest generation of sun flare solar panels, and they are stuck onto the top.” So, the Squid will likely have the lowest carbon footprint of any boat on the ocean. 

“Another captain, Nicole McLaughlin, and I built this boat.” Litmer laughs, “It was fun and horrible at the same time. Ups and downs. I think building a boat is like life compressed: lots of ways of dealing with adversity and getting through problems.” It took two and a half years from the first email query to Walworth, to launching the Squid. 

While it’s Litmer’s most ambitious boat-building project, it’s not his first. Originally from Kentucky, at 22 he visited Key West and took a snorkeling trip (the captain was Billy Kearins of Coast). A few weeks — and a few beers for brainstorming — later, Litmer was getting dropped off by a Greyhound bus on Stock Island. Welcome to Paradise, indeed. 

“I worked as a mate for a while, and I used to always go on the Dolphin Watch — one of my good friends was the captain on that boat for 14 years.” When the owners decided to sell the boat, Litmer proposed buying it, and he began doing dolphin, kayaking, and snorkel trips under the Honest Eco name.

His move from a regular boat to building a clean energy craft doesn’t lie in the challenge or profit (though, hopefully, the smart design ultimately pays for itself). 

“I’d like my kids to be able to see what I’ve seen down here,” said Litmer. “I want Key West to be around and there to be birds left and dolphins left and snorkel spots in 30 years.” He said fellow boat captains and divers say dolphins are harder to find, and pollutants in the water are easier to find. Litmer has also designed the boat to maximize dolphin viewing potential from up high, because, he says, “We want to take away the temptation to get too close to the dolphins. … We want to stay parallel to them, and this boat was designed to encourage that.” 

It seems they’ve thought of nearly everything, even replacing single-use plastic cups with stainless steel cups and cutlery. 

Litmer looks out from the comfort of the Squid (stainless steel coffee cup in hand). He moved to Key West a decade ago and became a first mate. SARAH THOMAS/Keys Weekly

So why doesn’t everyone move in this direction? Is it outrageously expensive? Not necessarily. “It’s brand new,” says Litmer, “and especially with a commercial boat, you have to have reliability. So any time a new technology is coming out, people are hesitant, understandably.”

Honest Eco is happy to be the guinea pig. “In three months, we’ve had setbacks for sure, and we’re paying the early adopter price. But the guests are loving the boat, and we are super optimistic.”  

Litmer is hopeful — and sees evidence that the Keys are moving in the right, eco-conscious direction. He mentions the proposed oxybenzone and octinoxate sunscreen ban, the anti-plastic straw efforts, and Fausto’s long term embrace of paper bags. “Like anything, it’s cumulative, and it takes people from different areas moving in that sustainable direction.”

“We hope to be leaders in the eco tourism down here, and I think this boat helps us move in that direction. We keep making strides to get better and better every day.”

Honest Eco does dolphin and snorkel tours twice a day, with private charters available. Find them at www.honesteco.org

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