BOOTHBAY — A garden is generally thought of a place where plants are cultivated, so leaving firm ground on a boat tour at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens is still a bit of a novelty. It makes sense though, if we think gardens are a powerful way to discover the natural world and its wondrous workings. Even if the ocean’s plants are underwater all or part of the day, it is a rich, wild world that depends on diverse and healthy vegetation.

Coming up the dock’s ramp after a cruise on the Sheepscot River and around Barter’s Island, returning tour boat guests are clear about the trip’s attractions.

“I live here and I didn’t know lobsters could travel about 400 miles back and forth,” said a Sanford man. “And osprey. Never thought much about ‘em, but they dive in feet first and come up holding that fish facing forward so they can fly easier. I’ll be back. That captain’s a good story teller, too.”

A woman off a cruise ship, part of a couple from Seattle said, “That’s the first time I heard seals. Actually heard them. The boat’s so quiet, we could hear them talking to each other out there. And after being on a large cruise ship, being on this small launch was just great.”

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens uses the only Coast Guard inspected electric boat in Maine. Named The Beagle, a nod to Charles Darwin’s voyage of discovery on the HMS Beagle, it is 21-feet long, seats seven passengers on comfortable boat cushions, is powered by a number of large marine batteries that are charged overnight, run by licensed captains wise in local lore, and is so silent guests can hear seals snort.

Depending on tides and weather, the boat slips between islands into the wider more wild Sheepscot River to view Ram Island Ledges. The one-hour tour also explores the Back River, Hodgdon Island, the working waterfront at Trevett, and the tidal ecosystem that fronts the gardens’ shoreline trail.

Iconic Maine images are part of the trip: Lobstermen hauling their catch, hand-cranked bridges to small islands, osprey and their young in nests, seals sunning themselves at low tide, and of course, a bit of salt spray on a windy day.

“Each trip is completely different,” said Capt. Shawn Griffith, who came to work at the gardens after captaining a large, ocean-going schooner. “It’s not about my day or what I can get. It’s about what I can give. Knowledge of the area, stories, helping people into what’s natural — the hot and the cold, the weather, the wind, the tides. You can’t plan it out. Every trip is something new.”

Griffith found his way to the gardens because the organization’s president reached out to local businesses. “Bill Cullina and his team put the word out they were looking for a harbor business to run a boat tour,” said Griffith. “My boss at the Schooner Eastwind asked if I’d like to organize it. I said it would and then, about the time my children arrived and I didn’t want to be away so much of the summer, they offered me a full-time job running the tours here.”

Reservations are recommended, but if there’s space on a trip, staff is housed by the docks to help last minute guests board the tour. Five cruises are scheduled each day, running from early June until mid-September. Guests purchasing admission tickets and cruise tickets at the same time are offered a discount. Boat tour fees do not also include garden admissions.

The Beagle’s captains accommodate private charters and the garden’s waterfront is also served by Tidal Transit. Guests may rent kayaks or stand up paddle boards and explore nearby coves and islands or join a guided tour.

“Even people who live near or on the coast don’t get out on the water as much as they’d like to,” said weekend captain Bob Clunie. “I’m just as likely to have someone from Bristol or Waldoboro as I am to have someone from California.”

Coastal Maine Botanical Garden, located on nearly 300 acres of coastal waterfront, is the largest botanical garden in New England, one of the nation’s few waterfront public gardens, and the only one with such extensive shore frontage. Known for its Children’s Garden, the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses, brilliant seasonal displays of tulips, rhododendrons, roses and blooming plants, now guests are also invited to savor its salt water treasures.
For more information, visit mainegardens.org.

Sandra Neily is a Midcoast Maine contributor and mystery/thriller novelist who lives on Westport Island. She can be reached at her blog, “ValueNature” at sandyneily.com, or www.authorsandraneily.com.