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We live surrounded by an amazing, unique natural ecosystem, but too often we pass by without seeing it. The Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center is all about helping you see it, and on Saturday, you could see if for free.

Admission and activity fees were waived at Rookery Bay to commemorate National Estuaries Day, and around 1,000 people took advantage of the day to visit. They got to see Collier County’s NERR, or National Estuarine Research Reserve, in a multitude of ways, up close through magnifiers and microscopes, hands-on with marine creatures at the touch tank exhibit, and from a water level view while paddling kayaks or stand up paddle boards along Henderson Creek.

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Children could see things from a turtle’s point of view, as volunteers including Paul Westberry of Isles of Capri sent them through the reserve’s simulated Turtle Excluder Device, demonstrating how shrimp trawlers try to harvest shrimp without killing loggerheads and other sea turtles. Guided boat trips took visitors out into Rookery Bay itself gliding past the islands – not too close so as not to bother the birds – that contain the actual rookeries. Guides included Keith Laakkonen, reserve director, who talked about what Rookery Bay does for the people of Southwest Florida.

“It’s important for people to understand the value of these rookeries in their backyard,” said Laakkonen. “These areas, set aside to be there for future generations, are vital not only for the ecology, but for the economy, and the area as a whole. If people want to live here, it’s because of beautiful places like Rookery Bay and the 10,000 Islands.”

A variety of organizations set up shop at the Environmental Learning Center, sharing the way they see the local environment. The Cooperative Invasive Species Management Areas, or CISMAs, talked about how exotic species harm the ecosystem. Collier County Pollution Control used a diorama to demonstrate how runoff from storms and rain washes contaminants into our watershed. The Marco Island Shell Club, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Marco Island Academy, the Summer Institute for Marine Studies, and Collier District Mosquito Control all exhibited.

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JRobert, who created the musical score for the Rookery Bay documentary recently aired on public television, entertained visitors playing nature-themed songs on instruments including guitar, fiddle, ukulele and steel drums. Dora Knutesen, who painted a mural of aquatic creatures on the stairs leading to the second floor of exhibits, worked on a new canvas throughout the day.

Tom Marquardt, board president of FORB, the Friends of Rookery Bay, the citizens support organization that works to help with Rookery Bay programs, said the reserve is a treasure worth preserving.

“There is so much opportunity to get out into nature here. We put all of this under one roof”– and so much more not under any roof, he said. One way people can help with preservation efforts is to join and volunteer through FORB. They will be working with the reserve in upcoming months on a host of projects, including tours, seminars, lectures, and World Habitat Day.

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National Estuaries Day is just one day, but at Rookery Bay, every day is estuaries day. The ELC is there waiting for you, when you want to learn more about our natural surroundings. The Rookery Bay ELC is located at 300 Tower Road, just off Collier Blvd. on the way to Naples. For more information, call 239-530-5940, or visit www.rookerybay.org.

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