High school students get their hands wet on Rookery Bay expedition

Andrea Stetson
Special to Coastal Life

Underneath the murky water of Rookery Bay is a whole world of creatures from common things such as sea stars to the more unusual egg sacks for moon snails.

Find out more about this glob that is sometimes seen on the beach and is called a tunicate May 11 during Live Creatures of the Gulf   at Mound House - A Cultural and Environmental Learning Center, in Fort Myers Beach.

Each year about 650 high school students in Collier County get a hands-on look at these vertebrates and invertebrates during a field trip offered free to local schools.

The students board two boats and head out into Rookery Bay, passing eagle nests, osprey nests, dolphins and other native birds and mammals. Then a trawl net is set behind the boat and dragged along the muddy bottom for five minutes.

When pulled in, it’s full of tiny creatures that call Rookery Bay home.

High school students get a hands-on look at the creatures living beneath the water in Rookery Bay.

One by one, Dave Graff, an environmental specialist with Rookery Bay, explains about each creature and lets students handle it before putting it back in the bay. Even the teachers on the boat that specialize in marine science see something new every time.

“This is the egg mass of a ragged sea hare,” Graff said. “It looks like mushed up Raman noodles.”

Next he holds up something that looks like mushed brains.

“This gray globby stuff is a tunicate,” he explains.

A trawl net is used to capture a wide variety of vertebrates and invertebrates. After they were examined they were all put back in Rookery Bay.

When he tells student to hold what looks like a white rubbery collar up to the sunlight, they see the tiny moon shells developing inside.

Many on the boat have seen fighting conchs before, but they never knew how they moved. Graff told them they don’t slide along like a slug, Instead, they move in hops.

“It is like the bunny rabbit of the underwater world,” he said.


Although the students have been studying marine biology all year, they all learned lots of new and interesting facts.

Lauren Russell and Samantha Mitchell look at a fish in a jar that Dave Graff, an environmental specialist, captured in a trawl net.

“I’ve never seen the fish with the lure. I think that’s pretty cool,” said Kevin Vinas as he spoke about the bat fish.

“I didn’t know a bat fish existed. It is pretty unique,” added Samantha Mitchell.

Broughan Jones arrived in waders and boots and said he has spent lots of time on the water with his father, yet still learned lots of new facts.

“The bat fish can go into a new environment and change to the color of the new environment,” he said. “This is very hands-on. You get to see where they live and what they eat and how to protect them.”

Dave Graff shows students a sea star captured in the trawl net. After the students examined the creatures they were all put back in the bay.

Kathy Schroeder, the marine science teacher at Palmetto Ridge High School, said trips like this really enhance learning.

“It is taking what they know in the classroom and reflecting on what they are learning,” she said. “They see what is in the estuary -- the vertebrates and the invertebrates.”

Students saw both the nine armed sea star and the common spiny sea star, they saw sponges, and a wide variety of little fish. There were southern puffers, stripped burr fish, fringed flounder, a leopard sea robin, and a polka-dotted bat fish.

Oliver Phipps looks at a fish in a jar.

“The polka-dotted bat fish is a fish most people have never seen before, but we get them almost all the time in the trawl,” Graff said. “Its belly feels like wet sandpaper.”

Renee Wilson, communications coordinator for Rookery Bay, said these trips are for students and not open to the public, but Rookery Bay does have eco tours for everyone interested.

More information

Rookery Bay offers guided boat tours and kayak tours from November through April, and has free trips in September on National Estuaries Day. Details can be found at