Nature is back! Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center reopens

Lance Shearer

Rookery Bay has been there all along. Long before the first high rise was built on Marco Island, before the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve was delineated, and before the COVID-19 pandemic, the natural ecosystems were functioning, really all the better for not being disturbed by mankind.

But the pandemic did force the closure of Rookery Bay’s Environmental Learning Center off Collier Blvd. for over a year, so having it reopen is cause for celebration, and if you haven’t been there for a while, perhaps a visit to rediscover Rookery Bay.

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In fact, “Rediscover Rookery Bay” is the title of a new exhibit of artworks the ELC is hosting to celebrate their reopening. Some of Southwest Florida’s premier artists, three painters and three photographers all associated with natural causes and the natural environment, each selected three of their works, and each artist is donating a portion of the proceeds from any sales to the Friends of Rookery Bay (FORB).

Paul Arsenault, the dean of Naples painters, is displaying “Haldeman Creek,” “Caribbean House,” and another canvas, in the brilliant colors for which he is known. Muffy Clark Gill and Dora Knuteson, who painted the mural along the stairway at the ELC, are also represented. Dennis Goodman, who has conducted photography workshops at Rookery Bay, shows some of his stunning alligator prints, alongside work by Jean Hall and the crisp black and white photographs of Martin Strasmore.

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Additional exhibits show both the beauty and diversity of the various natural ecosystems, and lay out the perils to them from human activity, be it careless fishermen who leave lures and monofilament to ensnare wildlife, or the threat of global warming that could wipe out the entire habitat, for people as well as wildlife.

While the ELC was closed for a year, the marine creatures in the massive aquarium and always popular touch tank were there all along, carefully tended by volunteer aquarists, and perhaps relishing the social distancing that provided them peace and quiet. But they’re back on the clock and now, ready to educate and enthrall children of all ages. David Love and Jessica Angley of Plainsboro, New Jersey, full-grown adults, were just as excited pointing out crustaceans in the touch tank as the little girl who curled up inside an indentation in the mangrove tank with docent Marilyn Naimen to get a “fish eye” view of the fish.

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The Rookery Bay staffers, FORB personnel and volunteer docents were all were beaming, delighted to once again be welcoming the public into the ELC, which is the best venue in the area to give you a quick tour of the natural environments that literally surround Marco Island, all with expert explanations while in the comfort of air conditioning.

Outside the ELC, visitor services and volunteer coordinator Donna Young showed off the reserve’s new butterfly garden. Under the direction of lead volunteer Therese Schmidt, who also donated the plantings and materials, volunteers worked away during the center’s closure to provide welcoming habitat and food sources for a myriad of local butterflies, which now flit from flower to flower, vying with them for who is the most colorful, and periodically engage with each other in a tumbling aerobatic pas de deux.

Many Rookery Bay programs, scheduled before the pandemic restrictions were lifted, will be virtual this summer, including “Meet the Mangroves!”, “Observe the Oysters!”, and “Meander the Mudflats!”, but the center is also sponsoring a live, in-person summer camp for kids in June and July. The camp will have half-day, full day, and multiple day options, with different modules making (actual, physical) trips to area beaches, going out in mullet skiffs to trawl for fish, and hiking in the wooded uplands.

Rookery Bay also continues to offer kayak excursions through Rising Tide Expeditions, the kayak outfitter that was top-rated not just locally but nationally in the USA Today 10 Best Readers’ Choice awards last year, and they are up for the honor again in 2021. Those who have paddled with them appreciate the naturalist-led tours through mangrove tunnels and back bays, and the complimentary photos of individual kayakers they provide. Anyone who would like to support Rising Tide in the contest can go online daily between now and June 7 to

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Bureaucratic regulations prohibit Rookery Bay staff, including Keith Laakkonen, reserve director, from speaking to members of the media without prior approval from Tallahassee, but over a year ago, Laakkonen said this.

“It’s important for people to understand the value of these rookeries in their backyard. 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.”

The Rookery Bay ELC open again and waiting for you when you want to learn more about our natural surroundings. The 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