Joanne Husain talks with Tobago tour operator Zolani Frank
“We are nothing without nature. It’s what makes me, me,” Zolani Frank reflects as his gaze is drawn to the islet of Little Tobago. The 33 year old is at the Speyside jetty – a place where he has been deftly hopping on and off countless boats since childhood. Known as Zee, he is a capable and affable tour guide. He is also an avid birder who has recently been certified as a boat launch captain. Both professional and personal aspects of his life are profoundly intertwined with the natural wealth of his island environment.
“I grew up between the villages of Speyside and Charlotteville. My mum lives in Charlotteville and my dad lives in Speyside. But I spent most of my childhood in Speyside, being part of my father’s tours.” Zolani’s father is Wordsworth Quincy Frank, well-known and respected tour operator of Frank’s Glass Bottom Boat Tours, and proprietor of Birdwatcher’s Restaurant and Bar at Speyside. Frank Snr began conducting tours in 1990, with Zolani sometimes accompanying him from the age of seven.
Activities on Speyside’s reefs and Little Tobago became pivotal formative experiences. “As a child going along on tour, I was always eager to find something new, always patient to observe various species of birds in their natural habitat. But my favourite thing to do was snorkeling. I remember the reefs at their best. After each tour I couldn’t wait to jump into the ocean and enjoy all the colours of the corals and other aquatic life.”
Weekends were spent immersed in nature before catching the Monday morning bus for the Scarborough Methodist Primary School. During his secondary school days at Roxborough Composite, evenings and weekends were spent helping at Birdwatcher’s and doing tours alongside his father.
“When I completed high school, I started doing the tours permanently.” It was a natural choice for Zolani. “I was running the glass-bottomed boat since I left high school in 2007. I ran my father’s business for just over ten years until 2018. I continued the legacy up to a certain point, then I decided to rebrand and build something for myself. I want my business to be one of peace and progress.”
He now conducts tours as Zee’s Birding Tours and Nature Hikes. The glass-bottomed boat has been replaced by a power boat to focus on more extensive birding tours on Little Tobago and around St Giles. He also does rainforest and Caribbean coastline tours.
In 2010, an extreme ocean-warming event placed Tobago’s reefs under severe stress resulting in widespread coral bleaching. “I saw the impact of climate change. It was becoming hurtful for me to go out on the glass-bottomed boat and face the corals at their worst.” This prompted Zolani to take full advantage of the programmes facilitated by different organisations.
Through Coral Cay Conservation, Zolani learned about corals and reef fish, and was certified as an advanced open water diver by the age of 18. He was a founding member of the community-based organisation Speyside Eco-Marine Park Rangers. Capacity-building initiatives at ERIC (Environmental Research Institute Charlotteville) have afforded him various training opportunities including Reef Check and seabird monitoring certifications. “These things gave me a greater understanding and awareness of my environment. It’s something that’s a passion inside of me. It’s hard to explain but it’s really who I am.”
Little Tobago is a special place for Zolani and birding there is an awe-inspiring experience whether or not he’s tour guiding. “For me, the most special thing on Little Tobago is the beauty of the red-billed tropicbirds in flight.” He can spend hours at the lookout point. As the 2022 winner of the Tobago Blue Economy Ideas Competition, he has embarked upon a Little Tobago awareness campaign. “I grew up going to Little Tobago. I want to see it become a better place, more secure for the bird populations there. We need a management plan for the island to enhance it as a birding destination, not just for myself and the other birding guides in Tobago, but also my colleagues in Trinidad, and to push for a better overall tourism product for the country.”
He knows he is fortunate to do something he loves to earn a living, though sometimes there may be challenges. “I have faced many stumbling blocks but when it comes to being in nature, it just makes me feel calm and relaxed; it makes me at ease with myself.” This sentiment is echoed in his wish for his guests. “Most of them come from very busy backgrounds – a lot of American and English guests with high-stress jobs. They come to a place like Tobago to take a break and unwind. Birding is simply a relaxing thing to do. When people come on tour with me, they can come stressed, but they must leave stress-free and say they had a wonderful time with Zee.”
Zolani’s outlook on his livelihood is encouraging. “To know that I can build a business and that it continues to grow is the most fulfilling thing. It is always a work in progress, but I’m driven by passion. Do the work out of love and the rest will follow. I want my son to be a part of this as he grows older. Again, if he doesn’t want to, I’m not going to force it on him. But I want him to develop a passion as I have and understand the importance of the environment.”
While the flora and fauna are what he enjoys most, Zolani is also intrigued by Tobago’s human history. “The unique history of each village in Tobago is something very special.”
Zolani is constantly in tune with his environment. He notices an unfamiliar bird call or a subtle change in weather. Living in Charlotteville, a stone’s throw from the sea, he feels connected to both land and sea, and sums up his love for the natural world, “It’s in my DNA.”