As part of an ongoing project, Erika Zambello is visiting all National Estuarine Research Reserves in the continental United States. Established by NOAA, the sites work together toward long-term research, education and coastal stewardship.
Located on the Florida Panhandle, the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR) borders encompass over 245,000 acres, including Apalachicola Bay, wildlife refuges, state parks and more.
This is one of the most productive natural systems in the United States, fed by the mighty Apalachicola River and watershed. Beginning in Georgia, the Apalachicola River is born at the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers; all told, the watershed drains 20,000 square miles. The Apalachicola River is Florida’s largest river — every day 16 billion gallons of water flow into the bay and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico.
I arrived at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve on a fall morning in November 2016. A cold front was moving through, bringing cooler air and scattered drizzle. I met Anita Grove, Coastal Training Program Coordinator, at the ANERR Nature Center, which is the heart of education, stewardship and research for the reserve.
After a round of introductions and a quick cup of coffee, it was time to go and see the bay.
Trip around Apalachicola Bay
Jason Garwood, an environmental specialist at ANERR, took me out on a reserve boat. Drops of rain were splashing over our faces but failed to penetrate our raingear; some might have been disappointed with the overcast skies and intermittent showers, but I reveled in the dramatic scenery.
Garwood launched the boat from a wooden dock in East Bay, which drains into Apalachicola Bay, which in turn is protected from the Gulf of Mexico by a series of barrier islands. The shoreline is composed of Juncus marsh grasses, and they appear dark in the shadows of the clouds. In certain patches, the land is elevated enough to support trees: pines form the green terrestrial landscape, now hazy in the rain. The waves looked subdued, but I could feel the power of the natural world as the wind whipped my hair from my face and tugged at my poncho.
We stopped at a weather station in East Bay, part of a network of data loggers that monitor the water throughout the reserve. It was through these long-term datasets that staff at ANERR were able to document reduced water flow from the Apalachicola River. The data have become a critical component of an ongoing legal battle between Florida and Georgia over which state has a greater claim to the water, a conflict which may be decided on by the Supreme Court.
Next up was a weather station in the middle of a Juncus field. As I chatted with Garwood about which weather variables the station records, two curious wrens popped out from among the reeds to check us out. I’m an avid birder, but this was the first time I had ever seen marsh wrens! They are tiny and secretive, but the estuary clearly provided a perfect habitat for the pair.
Moving south, we crossed beneath a bridge holding up part of the US Highway 98 and slowed down, suddenly surrounded by a mini-flotilla of oystermen.
Over 10,000 acres of Apalachicola Bay is covered in oyster beds, and oyster seekers have historically harvested 10 percent of oysters nationally and 90 percent of oysters in Florida.
Those on the small boats that afternoon seemed impervious to the chill and the damp, pushing their tongs together and apart again and again as they clipped oysters from the beds below the surface. Less fresh water in the bay means that overall salinity levels have increased, and both oysters and the local economy have suffered.
The rain and spray had soaked me, but I felt invigorated. Learning about the estuary is one thing, viewing the ecosystem from shore is still another, but there is nothing like surrounding yourself with its contours on all sides to really understand how productive these marshes can be.
ANERR Nature Center
After drying off, I took up my camera again to explore the Nature Center itself. Contained in one large room with exhibits separated by tall walls, the exterior is painted with an intricate mural depicting the habitat and wildlife of Apalachicola Bay, including birds, fish, crustaceans and shells. Giant aquarium tanks held native fish and reptiles, plus — my favorite! — a horseshoe crab.
Raised benches in the discovery room face a video about the history of the mural’s creation, and the wall is filled with different types of shells, fossils, and skeletons. I drew close to a microscope set-up, taking a seat to observe a magnified monarch butterfly wing and sand dollar. Though I have seen monarchs countless times, observing the intricacies up close gave me an entirely new perspective on the familiar species.
I’m not the only one who appreciates the Nature Center. In the 2015/2016 annual report, staff reported that the Nature Center received over 30,000 visitors, a record number!
In addition to its indoor educational facilities, the reserve also has nature trails and a path to the bay overlook. I’ve always been drawn to birds and from this raised spot, I identified a spotted sandpiper hopping on the mudflats and a pair of feisty belted kingfishers, as well as brown pelicans, double-crested cormorants and multiple tern species. More evidence of an incredibly productive ecosystem!
Under the Microscope
Before I left for the day, I stopped by one of the reserve’s labs to see the data loggers up close with Ethan Bourque, who took them apart to show me the different sensors and data collectors. While visiting, Garwood set up an amazing microscope display at his desk. In a drop of water swam hundreds of tiny zooplankton, blown up and displayed on an adjacent computer screen. Now he could take photos, record video and show interested visitors like me the array of creatures that inhabit the bay but are invisible to the naked eye. Too cool.
Living Shoreline Field Trip
The class began a few minutes after 9 a.m., in a wooden outdoor classroom beneath the Nature Center. Benches full of Apalachicola Bay Charter School students faced a television monitor and Jeff Dutrow, Education Coordinator for ANERR.
He took the kids through a series of slides, and I was impressed by the ecological vocabulary of the seventh graders, including “brackish” water and that an estuary is a “nursery.” As they listened, the sun shone on the saw palmettos, pines, and oaks outside. Heron croaks sounded from the nearby bay and chickadees giggled in the canopy. It really felt like we were sitting outside.
From the classroom, the students headed into the estuary to count snails and estimate grass cover of the living shoreline they had actually helped plant as fifth graders. They laughed and chatted as they worked, shin-deep in Apalachicola Bay. I took a cell phone photos and snapped an image at a distance, texting my friends: “Science in action!”
St. George Island State Park
The middle school group wasn’t the only class learning in the bay that day. At nearby St. George Island State Park, Anita Grove and ANERR staff led an adult education class to the edge of Apalachicola Bay. After pulling on large boots, gloves and waders, the students walked one by one into the shallow waves along the shoreline. The goal? To harvest some of the famous Apalachicola Bay oysters!
The park is located on a barrier island between the bay and the Gulf of Mexico. While the gulf side is covered in bright beaches, the bay is bordered by coastal forest and low scrub, looking out onto tiny islands that increase and decrease in size based on the tide. American oystercatchers and belted kingfishers were busy feeding, and flowering bushes on land attracted monarch butterflies.
The group had spent hours in the classroom learning about oyster habitat and life cycles, and now would discover the inner workings of the creature as they dissected the oysters they had gathered in the state park. I guarantee that they will never look at (or eat) oysters the same way again!
A Conversation with Commissioner Joseph “Smokey” Parish
The citizens in this area have long been bound up in the ongoing lawsuit between Georgia and Florida about flow levels for the Apalachicola Bay. As more water is diverted upstream — and flow into Apalachicola Bay has declined — increasing salinity levels have decimated the oysters and put the entire area’s seafood industry at risk. Commissioner Joseph “Smokey” Parish, a shrimp processor descended from shrimpers, has seen the decline in the bay’s productivity first-hand, and has testified multiple times in front of legal committees and in courtrooms. We sat in wooden rocking chairs outside the Nature Center as he shared his view of Apalachicola’s future.
Straightforward and eloquent, Commissioner Parish has thought deeply about not only the county’s economic future, but also its environmental and cultural legacies. If they lose the lawsuit — and the oysters — he is concerned that the area will simultaneously lose its cultural heritage, made unique by generations of seafood gatherers on the water. In his view, local leaders have turned down development projects that might have brought jobs because they would have hurt the bay or the surrounding lands. As he spoke, I felt that he believed that the people here not only depend on the bay for their livelihoods, but that they also considered themselves as stewards of that same environment, and had to fight for its health. I couldn’t have agreed more, and I walked away from our conversation impressed by the great advocate that Apalachicola Bay has in Commissioner Parish.
There is so much to see in Apalachicola Bay that I vowed I return to do some more exploring. From nesting turtles to nesting seabirds, from hiking trails to paddle trails, and from oysters to crabs to fish, there is so much to see and do — and eat! — at this reserve that one trip is not nearly enough to really explore this diverse and beautiful ecosystem.
Erika Zambello is a writer and photographer currently living on the Emerald Coast of Florida. She has a Master’s Degree in Environmental Management from the Duke Nicholas School of the Environment, where she specialized in Ecosystem Science and Conservation. She is also a National Geographic Young Explorer, completing four trips to the Maine North Woods in each of the four seasons, Fall 2015-Summer 2016.
In addition to acting as the sole blogger for the entire Florida State Park system, she is a regular contributor to the Duke Nicholas School, the Maine Sportsman, Bangor Daily News, and 10000 Birds. In the past she has written for The Conservation Fund, the Triangle Land Conservancy, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, BirdWatching Daily, and the Florida Sportsman. Finally, she is the founder and managing editor of the travel website One World, Two Feet, as well as the co-managing editor for the award-winning online magazine Voices for Biodiversity.
Follow her daily adventures on Instagram, or zambellophotography.com.