Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2005 | People

The Life Aquatic: Justin McBride

By Kathryn Howe

Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he spots the largest sea turtle he’s ever seen slowly gliding toward him. He halts his dive and watches the graceful creature roll by, savoring each second of this Jacques Cousteau moment.

Justin McBride Among his duties, Florida environmentalist Justin McBride (seen here in his scuba gear) coordinates law enforcement efforts for the protection of manatees and updates and distributes the Lee County Boater's Guide. The largest, identified human-related cause of death to manatees is blunt trauma from collisions with boats.

While such breathtaking instances may be the stuff of seaside vacations, Justin McBride gets paid to have them.

“Gazing out a window at the Pentacrest in calculus class, did I ever think I’d work with manatees or dive 100 feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico?” says McBride, 96BS. “Never.”

Yet that’s exactly the type of work he does as a senior environmental specialist for the Lee County Division of Natural Resources Marine Program in Fort Myers, Florida. Located on the state’s southwest coast, Lee County boasts barrier islands with plentiful beaches, waterways, and recreational opportunities. The marine program oversees many aspects of these water resources—from beach management and channel marking to manatee protection and artificial reefs. 

Central to McBride’s job is safeguarding the lives of vulnerable manatees. He co-authored the 190-page Lee County Manatee Protection Plan, which prevents marine development from occurring in places that might pose a danger to these large, gentle sea cows.

“This is the first job I’ve had where I feel like I’m making a difference,” McBride says. “We strive to protect the natural resources our county is blessed with and maintain high quality recreation for our residents and visitors. What I do directly enhances lives [marine mammal and otherwise], and that’s thrilling for me.”           

On days he doesn’t dive 40 miles offshore to assist with the creation or maintenance of an artificial reef, he might write a county ordinance. He might give a presentation to schoolchildren or speak to the Florida Bar Association. Whatever a new day brings, the job never gets boring.

Not to mention that the work he does is important.

“The ever-increasing population and booming growth threaten the beautiful environment that people move to Florida for,” McBride says. “We have to reach the point of sustainable growth where we’re able both to maintain our quality of life and preserve our natural resources.”