Tuning into nature: Rookery Bay hosts National Estuaries Day

Marisa Maag, from left, Rosa Cruz, and Anna Isaroskul try kayaking on dry land before venturing out on the water. Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve celebrated Estuaries Day Saturday, with free admission and activities at the Environmental Learning Center on Henderson Creek. Lance Shearer/Eagle Correspondent

Photo by LANCE SHEARER // Buy this photo

Marisa Maag, from left, Rosa Cruz, and Anna Isaroskul try kayaking on dry land before venturing out on the water. Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve celebrated Estuaries Day Saturday, with free admission and activities at the Environmental Learning Center on Henderson Creek. Lance Shearer/Eagle Correspondent

Rookery Bay is all around Marco Island.

There was a strong Marco presence at Rookery Bay’s Environmental Learning Center (ELC) on Saturday for the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve’s celebration of Estuaries Day. This is appropriate, with the 100,000 acres under management by Rookery Bay surrounding Marco on all sides, and the ecological stewardship the Reserve provides of critical importance on this barrier island.

One of the highlights of Estuaries Day, when all Rookery Bay’s activities, along with admission, are provided free, is the kayak excursions on Henderson Creek. Volunteers including veteran kayaker Paul Westberry of Marco, along with son Ryan, helped paddling “newbies” with some instruction on dry land, and then led the tours through the mangroves, pointing out wildlife including little green herons and one three-foot alligator.

Alligators are not usually present in the waters around the ELC, said Rookery Bay spokesperson Renee Wilson, but have moved into the area as the continual rains have lowered the salinity of the water, an example of the constantly dynamic ecosystem.

The Marco Sportfishing Club sponsored the bus delivering excursion boat passengers to the Dock on Shell Island Road, where Reserve manager Gary Lytton was put to work as a tour guide. The club also got “hands-on” with young anglers, hosting a clinic demonstrating how to de-hook a fish without harming it or you, although that did blow right by the even more crucial skill of how to hook a fish in the first place.

Marco musician JRobert, accompanied by son Martin Houghtaling, donated his tuneful talents for the occasion, delving into his vast repertoire of tropical-themed songs to perform numbers such as “Backwater Boogie,” and evoking the upland woods “I remember a deep dark hammock, where the wild deer sleep by day,” ran one lyric.

Brooke Bragenzer of Marco Island, a Lely High School senior, not only got to try paddleboarding for the first time, she even got extra credit in her marine biology class for doing it.

“I’ll definitely do this again,” she said after her time on the standup board. “It’s a great way to get a tan.”

“This is a perfect day for paddleboarding, and an ideal spot for it,” said Steve Sparr, whose company, Old Naples Surf Shop, provided boards and instructors. “People just don’t come here, because they don’t know about it.”

Inside the ELC, visitors watched nature films in the auditorium, toured the biology labs with guidance from Rookery Bay’s working scientists, and inspected an exhibit of black-and-white enlargements by renowned nature photographer Clyde Butcher. At the ever-popular touch tank, volunteer Jeanne Taylor gave children the chance to hold starfish and horseshoe crabs, and told them those spiral, pasta/confetti looking things on the beach are actually egg casings for lightning whelks.

The celebration of Estuaries Day was extra-special for Rookery Bay this year. The Reserve has been invited to join the network of Coastal Ecosystem Learning Centers, the first of the nation’s 28 National Estuarine Research Reserves to be so honored.

By the end of the day, over 600 people had come to get a little more in tune with nature. Whenever you feel that urge, the Rookery Bay ELC is there, waiting off of Collier Blvd., conveniently located on the way from Marco Island to the rest of the world.

If you go:

Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center

300 Tower Road

Naples, Florida 34113

Admission $5 charge for adults and $3 for children 6-12.

The Rookery Bay ELC is located at 300 Tower Road, just off Collier Blvd. ¾ mile south of US 41. For schedule and more information, call 239-417-6310, or visit www.rookerybay.org.

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