300 Tower Road, Naples, FL
NAPLES — Estuaries are where rivers meet the sea.
Living here on the coast, they’re all around us, but it’s easy to splash through them on the way into the Gulf of Mexico without even realizing they’re there.
To celebrate National Estuary Day, Rookery Bay’s learning center is opening two new exhibits Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009, and offering free admission along with free boat and kayak tours from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“(Estuaries have) always changing conditions, so there’s always new life coming in and out,” says Brooke Carney, Rookery Bay education specialist. “A lot of marine life depends on the calm waters of the estuary for all or part of their lives.”
They are transition zones between fresh-water creeks and rivers and the Gulf, and the saltiness, depth and temperature of the water constantly changes, Carney explains.
“They’re also the place where people contact all the animals and plants in this environment, so it’s important for us to understand our impact,” she says.
For example, the Gulf shrimp we eat in local restaurants live in an estuary when they are small, and then, as they grow older and larger, they move offshore into deeper waters.
“If an estuary is not healthy, not only does it have an environmental impact, but an economic one as well,” Carney says.
It’s a weekday morning and pounding echoes through the exhibit hall at the reserve’s learning center. They’re putting the finishing touches on two new exhibits.
When you walk into the center, the first new exhibit is immediately on your left: a research vessel called the R/V Dolphin. It looks as if someone cut the hull off a boat and put it in the corner of the room, with an opening in the back for you to step inside.
The boat is made to look like a mullet skiff because that’s the type of boat the reserve uses for research and education, Carney says.
“We wanted kids to learn about the estuary by doing things that we do here as work,” she continues. “So one of the things we do is pull trawl nets, empty them and sort them.”
At the back of the boat, a black net hangs from the ceiling, filled with stuffed and plastic sea creatures. Nearby, five-gallon buckets are labeled with the different types of marine life so kids can sort the creatures from the net and learn about the difference between categories such as osteichthyes (bony fish) and crustaceans (jointed-legged animals such as a crabs or shrimp).
The boat also has a steering wheel, compass and throttle for kids to play with, a sea-turtle song to listen to, bird sounds, a knot-tying station and a place to practice measuring sharks. Kids get a log book to document all their findings, as the research scientists in Rookery Bay do.
Walk past the center’s touch tank and aquarium and you’ll see the second new exhibit.
It will help explain the food web of a marine ecosystem, Carney explains, by showing magnified images of phytoplankton (drifting plants that float in the water) and zooplankton (floating, drifting animals).
When you swim or walk in an estuary, you’re moving through a whole community of life that moves with the tide and the currents, and those tiny plants and animals are what the larger creatures that you can see eat, Carney says.
Phytoplankton is so small that you could fit about 20 in the period at the end of this sentence – and they produce about half of the oxygen on earth, she says. Zooplankton is a little larger, each about the size of a period punctuation mark.
The two new exhibits, along with another exhibit that is in progress on the learning center’s second floor, cost about $210,000, and the money came from state funds and partnership money, which includes local or donation grants, says Renee Wilson, coastal training specialist.
If you visit the center’s second floor and step outside, there’s one more addition to the learning center that guests will be able to see on estuary day: A new bridge arches from the second-floor deck over Henderson Creek. It cost about $1.2 million, and 70 percent of that money came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The other 30 percent was funded by the state.
The bridge is 12 feet wide, has a 75-foot span beneath it for boats to pass and is built to withstand hurricanes, Wilson adds. It will lead to a one-mile, handicap-accessible walking trail that the reserve plans to open in January. For now, it offers a view of the creek and the plants and animals that live along the edges of the estuary waters.
IF YOU GO
National Estuary Day at Rookery Bay
* When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. today
* Where: 300 Tower Road, east of Naples
* Cost: Free
* Information: (239) 417-6310, ext. 401, www.rookerybay.org