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Living Sanibel: Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

By Staff | May 3, 2017

Rookery Bay near the kayak, canoe launch. Photo by Katie Laakkonen.

The establishment of this 110,000 acre aquatic preserve goes back to 1965 when the Collier County Conservancy was formed. Now formally called the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, in 1978 Rookery Bay National Estuarine Preserve became self sufficient and in 2003, the preserve was expanded to its current size. Unusual in that the majority of this preserve is water (70,000 acres) while the remaining acreage is comprised of mangroves, marshes and a variety of upland habitats.

Rookery Bay itself, along with the Ten Thousand Islands, is one of Florida’s most pristine estuarine environments. These estuaries are identified as shallow mixing grounds where the fresh water flowing down from the Big Cypress Preserve and the Everglades National Park meet the salt water of the Gulf of Mexico. The average depth of the entire preserve is only one meter deep. This ever changing dynamic of brackish waters, coupled with the constant nutrient loading produced by the red, black and white mangrove detritus, is considered to be one of the richest ecosystems on earth, rivaled only by coral reefs and tropical rain forests. The estuaries in and around Rookery Bay is home to scores of fish species, including the world’s best juvenile habitat for the endangered goliath grouper as well as juvenile nurse, bonnethead and bull sharks to mention but a handful.

Any visit to Rookery Bay should began with a trip to the learning center, located on Tower Road just south of Highway 41 on County Road 951. Completed in 2004, this 16,500 square foot facility is the ideal place to get a better understanding of the size of the preserve as well as the research that is being conducted there. Exhibits include a 2,300 gallon aquarium teeming with a variety of fish species found within the preserve. A short film is on hand displaying the natural beauty of the region as well as showing the research biologists at work in the backwaters. There are also numerous displays on the effects of global warming, the history of the estuary dating back to the Calusa Indians, microscope viewing and interactive exhibits. While at the learning center it is important to take a journey over the newly completed (2009) Henderson Creek pedestrian bridge. While the bridge leads to a half-mile nature walk through pine flatwoods, the view overlooking the tidal Henderson Creek is amazing. Look for black-stripped mullet, snook, tarpon and manatees, all of which are known to frequent this stretch of the creek.

Of course the best way to see a preserve that is mostly made up of water is to get out on Rookery Bay itself. There are a number of guided kayak tours offered during the winter months and a sandy boat ramp is located just a few miles south of the learning center off of Shell Island Road. Once launched you can enjoy the well-marked Shell Point Canoe Trail. The trail takes you through a water maze of mangrove tunnels, mud flats, oyster beds and actual rookery islands inhabited by ibis, pelicans and other species. An excursion like this should always include a pair of polarized glasses, allowing you to see beneath the glare and into the tidal flats and oyster bars beneath you. The world just below the surface is alive with pastures of manatee, shoal and turtle grasses. Blue crabs and bottom feeding horseshoe crabs search for food while passing shoals of minnows dance across the surface.

Be on the lookout for mangrove tree crabs, hermit and stone crabs as well as the dozens of various species birds that nest and live in the red mangrove forest surrounding you. These might include the elusive mangrove cuckoo, anhinga, belted kingfisher, magnificent frigatebird, osprey, roseate spoonbill and the yellow-crowned night heron. Mammals as well enjoy the estuarine environment. The most commonly seen is the bottle-nosed dolphin, followed by the manatee and the ever-present raccoons that scour the tangled mangrove forest in search of coon oysters, bird eggs and various crab species. Take a fishing pole along with you since fishing is allowed throughout the entire preserve. Remember, anglers must comply with all local, state and federal laws.

One of many fine displays at Rookery Bay. Photo by Charles Sobczak.

Another boaters-only access point located in the preserve is Keewaydin Island. Stretching for eight miles along the coastline, this pristine barrier island has been a popular destination for Marco Island and Naples boaters for years. Today, more than 85 percent percent of this 1,300 acre island is preserved. Working with state and federal grants, much of the non-native Australian pine, Brazilian pepper and invasive melaleuca trees have been removed from Keewaydin. There is a small primitive camping area on the island but most people simply anchor up their boats, wade ashore and enjoy Florida the way it was 1,000 years ago.

Rookery Bay has partnerships with several important groups such as the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, Greenscape Alliance and various state and national Universities. Student programs are offered throughout the year for regional middle and high schools, all of which encourage better stewardship and appreciation of the wonderful world of marine estuaries. With its state of the art interpretive center, nature as well as canoe trails, Rookery Bay is an ideal place for naturalists who don’t mind getting their feet wet.

This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.