Emily Dark credits a lionfish with launching her career in ecotourism. Martin County’s new ecosystem restoration and ecotourism coordinator, Dark came to Florida in the summer of 2012 to study fish communities in the Florida mangroves. A student at Antioch University New England pursuing a master’s degree in environmental science with a focus on conservation biology, she had landed an internship with the Smithsonian Marine Station, a research center in Fort Pierce specializing in biodiversity and the ecosystems of Florida. As an intern, Dark assisted scientists with fieldwork and also began conducting her own research on the invasive lionfish species.
“I fell in love with the Indian River Lagoon,” says Dark, 42. So much so that she returned to Florida in the winter of 2013 to work on her master’s thesis, which focused on lionfish in the mangroves. Those visits would eventually change the course of her intended career path.
Dark’s love of the outdoors began early in her life. Growing up in New Hampshire with “very outdoorsy parents,” she recalls spending a lot of time camping as a child. After earning her undergraduate degree in anthropology with a minor in environmental science from Hartwick College in New York, she worked at an animal shelter and volunteered at an aquarium, thinking she would pursue a career in veterinary medicine. In 2006, she moved to Puerto Rico, where she led horse and kayak tours in the island’s bioluminescent bays before returning to New Hampshire in 2011 to begin grad school at Antioch.
After completing her thesis in 2014, Dark’s in-depth knowledge of the lionfish didn’t immediately land her a full-time job in the industry. But it did earn her some extra tips as a waitress. “I was working at a restaurant in Vero Beach, and they started selling lionfish,” she says, recalling that she was management’s go-to server for all questions about the menu item. “They’d say, ‘Go talk to table 12!’ I sold a lot of lionfish.”
It wasn’t long before she landed a position doing what she loved. In December 2014, she joined the State of Florida’s Indian River Lagoon Aquatic Preserves office, where she worked in natural resource management, participated in habitat restoration projects, and conducted research. In 2021, she was recruited by Martin County for the role of coastal management coordinator, and in November 2022 she was offered a new role with the county that combines ecosystems management and ecotourism. “This [hybrid position] is me in a nutshell,” she says. “It’s my passion for the environment combined with educating people.”
The Explore Natural Martin Ecotourism Program, which launched earlier this year, aims to educate residents and visitors on the responsible exploration of nature by engaging them in various outdoor activities and attractions. Over the summer—through partnerships with local organizations like the Treasure Coast Astronomical Society, Hobe Sound Nature Center, and Audubon of Martin County, as well as the Jensen Beach–based environmental consulting firm Ecological Associates Inc.—Dark began leading kids and adults on guided eco-walks, sea turtle nest excavations, moon observation nights, birding excursions, and edible landscaping classes. The county has also partnered with Leave No Trace—a national organization that provides education, skills, research, and science to help people care for the outdoors—to expand the number of nature programs offered locally.
Ultimately, Dark hopes to create as many opportunities as possible for people to get to know the natural world around them and understand the importance of preserving it. “My goal is to build a sustainable program that engages residents and visitors so they want to take part in stewardship,” she says. “People don’t protect things they don’t connect with.”