Captain Samantha “Sam” Zeher, solo captain and one of only a few Florida Keys women who are charterboat owner-operators, believes in captaining her own fate.
Zeher, 33, operates KeyZ Charters, an eco-tour operation specializing in wildlife tours out of Islamorada’s popular Robbie’s Marina.
Zeher has operated her own 21-foot tri-hull deck boat, capable of carrying six passengers and cruising in Keys waters as shallow as 2 feet, for the last 12 years. She earned her captain’s license at just 18 while a college freshman at Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida.
KeyZ Charters includes sightseeing excursions with birdwatching and sunset viewing. Islamorada area island trips explore Indian Key, Lignumvitae Key and Alligator Lighthouse, each with a history dating back to the 1800s.
Passengers on Zeher’s trips typically see a lot of wildlife, from manatees and crocodiles to wild birds. Right now, she says, people are just happy to be out on the water.
Zeher typically works Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. During her infrequent free time, she enjoys relaxing with her 6-year-old yellow lab Reef and being out in nature, spear fishing and diving.
Her Keys clients find her largely through word-of-mouth recommendations and her website. And while she hopes to expand the business, she’s currently taking things slowly and enjoying her days on the Keys’ waters.
Keys Traveler: When did you first come to the Keys and why?
Samantha Zeher: We started to vacation in the Keys when I was about 5 years old and moved here permanently when I was in high school. We came here to vacation as a family for the entire summer — every summer.
KT: What aspects of the Keys environment or way of life matter most to you?
SZ: Being surrounded by so much nature in the Keys and slowing things down to really appreciate the environment is what makes it most enjoyable living here.
KT: Who or what inspired you to become passionate about respecting and protecting the Keys’ natural world?
SZ: Growing up playing and fishing on the water surrounding Islamorada taught me to respect Mother Nature as well as to protect it. Our resources here are so valuable, but yet so fragile.
KT: How does that passion influence your work or profession?
SZ: Being an eco-tour guide in Islamorada definitely brings out my passion for the environment. Being able to show visitors the beauty that is here and having them slow down to appreciate nature while on the eco-tours allows us to see some really cool stuff. For someone who is not from the area, seeing our environment for the first time is breathtaking. For me, seeing the same birds over and over again while they come back to the same nest and lay eggs — and then to watch their hatchlings grow — is the most amazing thing.
KT: What are some of the ways, personally or through your work, that you connect with and/or help protect the local environment and unique lifestyle?
SZ: I try to incorporate all sorts of educational information into the tour while looking for the copious amount of wildlife we have here in the Florida Keys. We also try to do our part and clean up the ocean while we are on our tours. If we see trash, we pick it up and bring it back with us.
KT: What keeps you energized, challenged and focused on your path?
SZ: Watching animals grow, year after year, while still seeing new stuff and learning new things every day.
KT: What do you hope your positive environmental actions will accomplish?
SZ: I truly hope that my passion and love for our environment, as well as our wildlife, rubs off on those I encounter daily — inspiring them to take that passion back to their hometown, where they will be able to find nature's beautiful secrets there too, leading them to want to protect their environment as well as ours.
KT: What message do you want your actions and example to communicate to people you encounter?
SZ: While on boat tours or just during everyday life, I strive to encourage the people I encounter to learn to appreciate all nature around them, big or small, in hopes they will grow a love for all of it and will want to protect it.
KT: What’s your favorite natural or eco-friendly activity in the Keys?
SZ: Observing nature anywhere. Watching the birds feed in the shallows, seeing baby birds in the nest, finding dolphins or manatees and watching them cruise next to the boat, snorkeling the reef, watching the sunset after a long day on the water, watching a frog or lizard in my own back yard; anything to do with nature.
KeyZ Charters with Captain Samantha includes sightseeing excursions with birdwatching and sunset viewing.
Zeher carries her passion for the environment everywhere, even in fishing excursions away from the Keys.
Even on days when Zeher is not on the water, she slows down to appreciate the environment of the Florida Keys and its natural beauty.