The Rookery Bay Reserve at the northern end of the Ten Thousand Islands on the gulf coast in Naples, Florida represents one of the few remaining undisturbed mangrove estuaries in North America. And this Saturday it is celebrating National Estuaries Day with many special events including free admission, free half-hour boat tours, kayaking, paddle board opportunities, music, food and more. See http://www.rookerybay.org/learn/programs-and-events/special-events/national-estuaries-day to learn how to participate.
The Rookery Bay and Ten Thousand Islands ecosystem is a prime example of a nearly pristine subtropical mangrove forested estuary. Open to visitors, the 16,500 square-foot Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center features a 2,300-gallon aquarium and interactive exhibits about the park's natural and cultural history. Exhibits include the reserve's plants, animals, ecosystems and threats from climate change, and the history of its human inhabitants, including Native American life, pioneers and the ecological preservation movement in the 1960s. An art gallery features changing exhibits of nature in art. An authentic Seminole chickee made from palms was constructed outside. The Center also features a 140-seat auditorium, gift shop, classrooms and research laboratories.
The Coastal Connections daily programs offer a chance for visitors to join naturalists for a closer look at some of the remarkable creatures that inhabit the coastal environment. From sea shells to orchids, these 45-minute programs are at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. and are included with regular admission. Thursday, Sept. 26, for example, offered Slithering Snakes where visitors were invited to learn about snakes that live in Florida and how to tell which are venomous. The naturalist dispels some of the myths about these slithering reptiles. Then, at 2 p.m., a naturalist led exploration of touch tank critters that live in Rookery Bay waters.
The Snail Trail, which took more than five years of planning, is an opportunity for visitors to explore the estuarine environment up close and personal, right out the back door of the Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center. The observation bridge spanning Henderson Creek, which opened in January 2009, leads to a half-mile walking trail with surface suitable for strollers and wheelchairs, introducing visitors to the mysteries of mangroves and pine flatwoods. The trail encourages explorers to use all their senses to connect intimately with the natural world, meandering slowly like a snail, and includes a boardwalk/viewing platform at the water’s edge. Two more half-mile, unsurfaced trails connect to the Snail Trail for the more “adventurous” explorers.
The Observation Bridge which begins on the exhibit hall’s second floor transports pedestrians across the creek with educational signs luring visitors to explore their surroundings, such as looking down at the water passing under the bridge to see which way it is flowing. Summer rains across the watershed fill the creek with rushing waters, diluting the salinity and triggering creatures of the estuary to reproduce. From the bridge, it’s possible to see manatees, tarpon, and even sharks when conditions are right.
As the bridge begins to slope down to meet the ground visitors experience a brief trek through tangled mangroves, palms and oaks. Resurrection ferns, bromeliads, and even orchids can be seen growing along the furrowed cracks of oak tree bark. Looking up, it is easy to see the pockmarks of pileated woodpeckers and other insectivores in the upper reaches of expired pine snags.
Along the Snail Trail it is easy to forget you’re less than 10 miles away from the city limits of both Naples and Marco Island.
The trail winds past an old homestead dating back to post-Civil War times when squatters began to farm this rugged terrain. Evidence of their existence includes a primitive swale system designed to drain the land during driving summer rains, some sanseveria (an ornamental plant commonly associated with early homesteads) and a cement rainwater storage cistern, still intact. The cistern collected rainwater running off the old home’s roof and stored it through the dry winter months, when it could be used for cooking and watering livestock.
Kayak and boat tours are offered through Rookery Bay with advanced registration. Two-hour guided kayak tours let you explore backwater bays and mangrove forests with an experienced guide and naturalist. Tours provide opportunities to see wildlife such as wading birds, osprey, fish and dolphins. Boat tours offer exploration of the unique ecosystem of Rookery Bay through an intimate boat-based experience. Conducted by Reserve staff, there’s a maximum of six passengers.
A one-hour guided historical walk on Shell Island Road to see an ancient shell mound also is offered to groups. Guests learn about the mighty Calusas and the post-Civil War pioneering families of the Little Marco Settlement.
The Learning Center’s Art Gallery hosts several exhibitions each year. A partnership with the United Arts Council of Collier County enables annual exhibitions of painting and photography. Most of the works are available for purchase.
Living Waters: Aquatic Preserves of Florida, 29 black-and-white photographs by preeminent Florida photographer Clyde Butcher, is on exhibit now through Nov. 14, 2013. Since 2004, the artistic and educational exhibition has traveled the state to increase awareness of and appreciation for Florida's 41 aquatic preserves. The 110,000-acre Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve encompasses two of those aquatic preserves and part of more than five million acres of diverse water landscape and coastal areas that are critical to Florida's future.
In conjunction with the exhibit, Rookery Bay shows the one-hour nature film documentary, "Living Waters: Aquatic Preserves of Florida." The film includes an introduction and closing remarks by Butcher and was produced and directed by cinematographer Elam Stoltzfus.
The Environmental Learning Center hours are Monday – Friday from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. and Saturdays from November through April. The Center is closed during national holidays as well as Friday, Sept. 27, 2013.
Admission is $5 for adults and $3for children ages 6-12. Children under six are free. Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve is located at 300 Tower Rd., Naples, FL 34113. For more information, call 239-417-6310 or visit www.rookerybay.org.
Nearby places to stay that are highly recommended are the Greenlinks-Lely Resort in Naples with golf, swimming, tennis, villas, conference center and more (www.greenlinksnaples.com) and Lakeside Inn on Marco Island, which is a boutique hotel with lakeside serenity, lounge chairs, hammock and beach, and a pool for a cool dip (www.marcoislandlakeside.com). For more information about the area, visit www.paradisecoast.com.