As part of an ongoing project, Erika Zambello is visiting all National Estuarine Research Reserves in the continental United States. Established by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the sites work together toward long-term research, education and coastal stewardship.
A group of intrepid adventurers and I met at exactly 9 a.m. at the end of Shell Island Drive in the Rookery Bay Estuarine Research Reserve. Multi-colored kayaks had been set up by reserve staff, and were glistening in the morning light.
Rookery Bay is situated on the coast of Southwestern Florida, near the city of Naples, the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge and the Everglades. It remains one of the last undisturbed mangrove estuaries in North America.
Our kayak group was diverse: two Rookery Bay interns and Renee Wilson, the communications coordinator, made up one contingent, in addition to two female friends, two parents and their daughter, plus two Rookery Bay volunteers and our group guide and leader, Randy McCormick.
Each one of us donned a life vest and then had a kayak adjusted to our height by the volunteers. After a safety and paddling overview from Randy, we hit the water.
High clouds created a light but overcast sky, with patches of blue appearing and then disappearing once more. The water looked calm when we launched our boats, practicing backward and forward strokes before continuing into the estuary.
Mangrove trees dominate the landscape here. Red mangroves arch over the surface with their intricate mats of roots bordering the water, with black and white mangroves growing behind on slightly higher elevations. Mangroves grow not only at the edge of land, but also on oyster banks and raised mudflats to take advantage of the wet habitat and outcompete other species. We paddled at low tide, and the aforementioned oyster beds and mudflats sat partially exposed as the new tide came in. American oystercatchers ran atop the shells, while bright white ibises stalked prey beneath mangrove branches.
As we moved through the estuary, Randy stopped in calm waters to discuss the importance of the wildlife around us, how freshwater can be a pollutant within an estuary and what research is conducted at the Rookery Bay Reserve, among other important topics.
“My purpose is to generate a sense of value,” Randy explained of his kayak tours. “If someone values something, they take care of it.”
“A lot of people come out thinking it is going to be an outdoor recreation opportunity,” he continued, “and I try to expand that notion right from the get-go.”
I loved moving through the channels between mangrove trees, branches reaching out and touching to form a green roof over our heads. The current flowed swiftly in these areas, and Randy and the volunteers gave us the advice we needed to move through safely. Though nearby Naples is dense with development, humanity felt far away as we floated among the trees.
I’ve visited many estuaries and firmly believe that it is difficult to truly understand the ecosystem without hitting the water. Not everyone has access to a boat, so these kayak tours are an excellent way to introduce visitors and locals to Rookery Bay. Plus, all tour proceeds support the estuary!
To read more about Erika’s estuary adventures, see VoicesforBiodiversity.org!
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, co-founder of TerraCommunications, 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.