Barefoot in an alligator tour boat, Kathleen McMenamin gestures toward a bright green snake hanging off a tree branch over the bow. Turning the motor off, Kathleen hops over the legs of her passengers, climbs to the edge of the boat and reaches for the snake. But the snake escapes. She laughs, "I've caught so many of those guys that they see me coming and run." Back in the driver's chair, Kathleen directs the boat around a bend in the lake at the Sea Pines Forest Preserve and points out an underwater alligator den, numerous alligators, fish hawks, dragonflies, and turtles.
Her love for nature is clearly evident as Kathleen highlights life in all its forms in the world around her passengers. But it wasn't until after college that Kathleen took ecology seriously. "I spent my elementary years in North Carolina and my middle school years in Istanbul, Turkey. My dad is French-Canadian so I grew up speaking French and English. I learned a little Turkish then studied Spanish when I moved to the States." At the College of Charleston, she earned a bachelor's degree in photography and art history. Right after college, Kathleen took every saved penny and moved to Hawaii and then Costa Rica. She skateboarded, surfed, and photographed skaters and surfers on the pristine beaches for months. "My family and I have always been into extreme sports. It's a great release of energy. I would definitely move back and live in Hawaii in a heartbeat if I could afford it. I could surf and study ecology every day."
By the age of 21, Kathleen was the proud owner of Free Life Photography. Her talent in capturing artistic landscapes landed her a photography opportunity in South Carolina. Back in the states, Kathleen earned a Master Naturalist Certification from the Low Country Institute. Today, she works at the Sea Pines Forest Preserve where she runs the alligator boat tours, coordinates walking and biking tours, and assists in running the Preserve Center. "I think my travels have helped me relate better to the passengers who take my tours. If you're on vacation and you meet someone who knows something about your past or history, it makes you more comfortable to be there. That's one aspect of my job I really like."
Her favorite memory at the Preserve is discovering an alligator nest. She steered her group around a bend and there by the water were four eggs, the baby reptiles breaking out of their shells. "It was the coolest thing I've ever seen."
On the boat, Kathleen is patient with kids and always skillfully steers their chattering back to the tour. "If you are being chased by an alligator," she warns, "run as fast as you can and climb a tree, or run as fast and as far as you can, or," she grins, "run faster than everyone else."
From her certification, but mostly from hands on experience, Kathleen is an expert in Lowcountry ecology. "I've learned the most just being out here and observing the animals and plants and how they behave." It is this appreciation for the changes in nature that inspired Kathleen to begin writing a book. "When I was learning about all this, my course work was done in one season, but plants look different in other seasons. My book will have photos of plants and animals in all four seasons so people can identify them no matter the time."
Considering everything Kathleen has done, her real passion still lies with nature. "I want to be remembered for helping preserve our natural environment and helping others understand the value of it."
When the tour is complete, Kathleen's passengers reluctantly scramble on shore. Thanks to Kathleen's funny stories, interesting facts, and amazing sights shared, everyone has gained a better appreciation for the remarkable world we live in.
Most frequently asked question: What do alligators eat?
Answer: Everything meat.
Funniest alligator boat story: "I accidentally beached a tour boat with a group of 6th and 8th graders. They were so dramatic and screaming, 'we're all going to die!' They made me laugh so hard because they could have just stepped off the boat onto land."
Favorite animal: Diamondback Terrapin
The largest alligator seen: 10-feet-long
Life advice: "If anyone has a dream or a passion, do it!"