NAPLES — They line part of the coast where we live, so more than 800 people came out to learn about them.
They’re estuaries, and Saturday the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve celebrated its 21st annual National Estuary Day.
“If you look at how Estuary Day got started at the national level, it was all focused on just trying to get local communities that live on the coast to learn more about estuaries and why they’re important,” said Gary Lytton, environmental administrator of the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.
National Estuary Day was established in 1988 as a part of Coast Weeks, a celebration of coastal resources.
“We purposefully offer this as a free event because this is the time of year when we know it’s mostly our year-round residents that are here,” Lytton said. “Our view of our opportunity to celebrate Estuary Day is that it’s a chance to sort of give back to the local community, and also help them understand what the value of these estuaries are all about and how they can make a difference in protecting it.”
An estuary is a partially enclosed body of water where two different bodies of water meet and mix.
Rookery Bay — which includes 110,000 acres of land and water— is a mangrove-forested estuary filled with fresh and brackish water, which is a mix of fresh and salty seawater. Another type of estuary, a freshwater estuary, is found where rivers or stream water mix with lake water.
The free activities included boat and kayak tours, a sea critter touch tank, guided walks, kids’ arts and crafts, face painting, a fiddler crab exhibit and informational presentations and films. To add to the festivities, an Irish band, called Inish, played outside in the picnic area.
Visitors also got a sneak preview of the new pedestrian bridge, which leads visitors from the second floor of the Environmental Learning Center across Henderson Creek to a 1.5-mile nature trail that is scheduled to open in January.
Kayak tour participants got an up-close view of the mangroves and the fauna that lives and seeks refuge in their roots.
“We hope they take away an appreciation for the habitat, an appreciation for the estuary and an appreciation for the abundance of life that occurs here,” said Susan Cone, an educational coordinator who ran the kayak tour.
Among the first-time kayakers was Justin Zuniga, 13, who said he really enjoyed the motions of paddling.
“I thought it was pretty cool because you got to see stuff and explore it,” Zuniga said. “We were looking at the mangroves and the roots of the mangroves.”
A popular attraction in the Environmental Learning Center, which opened in 2004, was the touch tank where participants got to hold a starfish, a sea cucumber, a horse conch and a horseshoe crab.
“I think they’re really neat because you usually don’t get to see them down in the water because it’s really dark in the water,” said Sophia Furin, a 9-year-old who checked out the touch tank.
Furin touched the inside of the horse conch and dipped her hands into the tank to allow a small horseshoe crab to crawl across her palm.
“It feels like Velcro rubbing across your hand,” Furin said.
Cruise Naples Inc. and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida provided the boats for the tours.
“We saw an oyster bed,” said Samantha Axline, a 12-year-old who went on a boat tour. “We learned how to tell the difference between red and white and black mangroves.”
Axline’s 10-year-old sister, Virginia, said that seeing all the birds was her favorite part of the boat ride.
“I learned that a mangrove seed isn’t just a little seed,” Viginia Axline said. “It’s kind of like a long green bean, and they sit on top of the water until they grow.”
Rookery Bay — which is managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection office — is one of the three estuarine reserve sites that make up the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Estuarine Research Reserve System.
Lytton hoped Estuary Day participants went home with a better understanding of the value of estuaries like Rookery Bay.
“Those values range from environmental values to economic values to just aesthetic values,” Lytton said. “I think another goal is absolutely a better understanding of how they might make a difference.”
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