A group of children surrounded Linda Detzel as she plunged her hands into the large touch tank at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve on Saturday and pulled out live conchs, starfish and other animals that can be found in the waters of Rookery Bay.
As she held up a large horse conch it pulled inside of its shell and squirted 9-year-old Valerie Morgan in the face. She laughed as Detzel explained that the horse conch is the largest conch in North America and described some of the animal’s natural defense mechanisms, what it eats and where it lives.
The touch tank was one of the most popular attractions Saturday as Rookery Bay celebrated National Estuaries Day.
“All of the animals come out of the estuary and all are local,” said Detzel, a Certified Interpreter at Rookery Bay. “The tank gives kids an appreciation of what life is out in the estuary. If they can touch something and learn about it, they are more apt to be concerned about it and aware that it needs to be protected.”
Saturday was Valerie Morgan’s first trip to Rookery Bay.
“My favorite part of the day was when the conch squirted me,” she said. “I’ve seen some of the things at the beach and touched a crab once because I thought it was just a shell. Then his claw opened.”
Morgan’s mother, Yvallaet Williams brought her daughter and some friends to the event.
“We think it’s awesome,” she said. “I believe touching the animals was the best part for her. We came because there is nothing like this in the area.”
As visitors worked their way through the Environmental Learning Center they were able to see all of the exhibits that explain how the estuary works and what lives there, along with the historical exhibits of human use in the estuary throughout the past 3,000 years.
Special exhibits were set up to teach visitors about changes to mangroves through global warming and the threatened species such as sea turtles that visit the estuaries.
The day continued outside as visitors were able to kayak and paddle board on Henderson Creek or walk across the bridge to hike on the Snail Trails. Others took guided boat tours down the creek and around Shell Island.
“The thing about Estuaries Day is that people often appreciate the estuary without even knowing it, whether they are benefitting from it aesthetically, recreationally or economically,” said Rennee Wilson, Research Translator at Rookery Bay.
Wilson led the boat tours on the Good Fortune which was on loan from the Conservancy of Southwest Florida for the day. As the tour went around Shell Island Wilson talked not only about the species that live in the estuary now, but how the estuary has benefitted humans throughout history.
“People don’t realize that there is 3000 years of human use in this estuary,” Wilson said. “The Calusa people made the shell mounds and then post Civil War pioneers lived on the mounds. The estuary was essential to their lives.”
Humans ate the fish, oysters and other species in the estuary and lived off of the land. Now Rookery Bay Reserve is one of the few remaining undisturbed mangrove estuaries in North American and is comprised of 110,000 acres. More than 150 species of birds and endangered animals can be found in the water and surrounding mangrove hammocks and land.
“Now we enjoy the estuary for recreation, but it is still essential” Wilson said. “Estuaries can’t protect themselves, and when people come in they begin to appreciate it.”
During Estuaries Day visitors were able to experience everything that the reserve does, from research to recreational learning. The Learning Center holds research laboratories, classrooms, an auditorium and the visitors center and is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Friday and is designed for self-guided tours. The visitors center features a 2,300 gallon aquarium and interactive exhibits along with a nature store, gallery and picnic area. Group tours can be arranged for a fee. During season the center is also open on Saturdays November through April. The observation bridge over Henderson Creek is also open during this time as is the .5-mile Snail Trail.
Sharda Spahr, Director of the Friends of Rookery Bay was helping to run the kayak and paddle board tours on Saturday. Tours left every hour and lasted for 30 minutes.
“You come to the learning center and you learn about the flora and the fauna that live on the reserve and when you get out onto a paddle board or a kayak you can actually get out and experience it first hand,” Spahr said.
Spahr owns the Olde Naples Surf Shop and as a Director of the Friends of Rookery Bay works to support the reserve throughout the year.
Although paddle boarding was special to the Estuaries Day event, kayaking is offered weekly at Rookery Bay. Kayak trips are offered on Thursdays July through October for $40 per person ($35 for members).
“Over the whole season we get more people every year and we’ve been around 6 years now,” Wilson said. “We are trying to reach out in a lot of different ways and will have art programs and classes coming up. A small percentage of people care about science, a little more care about nature so we try to reach out through a variety of programs and lectures.”
A calendar with all of the upcoming events, along with information on research and other programs can be found on the Web site at www.rookerybay.org.