Coastal Breeze News » Environment Fri, 25 Jul 2014 16:17:08 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Caves of the Yucatan Peninsula and Florida Tue, 22 Jul 2014 20:59:59 +0000 STEPPING STONES 
Bob McConville 
Master Naturalist

While riding thru the jungle we saw a small fox. Look to the far left of the photo and you'll see the fox was staring at a 10 foot boa constrictor! PHOTO BY CATHY PRICE

While riding thru the jungle we saw a small fox. Look to the far left of the photo and you’ll see the fox was staring at a 10 foot boa constrictor! PHOTO BY CATHY PRICE

In early June of this year, my wife, Cathy, and I took the opportunity to visit the Yucatan Peninsula area of Mexico.

The marine life and geology of this region are positively fascinating. In addition to snorkeling with whale sharks — the largest fish on the planet — we ventured inland to Mexico’s jungles to learn more about the ecology. What we found was absolutely surprising.

This portion of the peninsula sits right where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea. The closest land mass is Cuba, and just north of that is the Florida Keys and Southwest Florida. It is closer to Marco Island than any other part of Mexico.

Having lived in Tucson, Arizona, for a few years I am aware of the mountains that separate that state and Mexico. For some reason, I expected the Yucatan to be a similar terrain, but it is not. I felt like I was in one of the more tropical areas of Florida.

In its general geology, Florida is a relatively simply structure. The rocks are primarily of sedimentary origin that consist mostly of limestone, sandstone, shales and clays with the underlying foundation rock being a very massive and thick limestone.

The conditions under which this limestone formed was primarily a clear sea with an abundance of minute organisms. The shells of these small animals as well as shells from larger sea life compressed over thousands of years to form the limestone. Needless to say that the underwater fresh water flow, Florida’s aquifer system, has exploited these porous deposits to form underground rivers, sinkholes and, believe it or not, some very extensive caves in our state.

The Yucatan Peninsula is very similar. It is a limestone base with many, many underground rivers. The sinkholes there are called cenotes (say-NO-tays), and they were the primary source of fresh water for early inhabitants. Since the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea are salt water and there are no rivers on the surface of the peninsula, these cenotes are still a key to survival.

In both Florida and the Yucatan, the limestone is very soluble in water and has formed many caves and sinkholes. Over the course of thousands of years, these caves emptied their water content. Basically, as rainwater fell over a cave and trickled through the rocks, it picked up carbon dioxide and minerals from limestone, and the calcium carbonate caused formations on the cave roof called stalactites (in Greek, this means “to drip”). As water continued to drip, the length and thickness of the calcite grew, but it took a very long time for stalactites to form as they only grew anywhere from a quarter inch to one inch every 100 years. They are still growing today.

In addition to stalactites, there are formations on the ground that emerge called stalagmites. These are formed by the water dripping from the end of a stalactite that falls to the cave floor causing the calcite to create a mound. Soon after a stalagmite will form a cone-like shape. Sometimes the two will join together to create a column.

Helpful hint: Stalactites have a “c” and are found on the cave “ceiling”; stalagmites have a “g” and are on the “ground.”

Because of the types of plants, rocks and minerals on the surface, the water that drips with these items to create the stalactites can cause a variety of colors such as milky whites, golds, reds, grays and a variety of browns.

In the Yucatan, there are thousands of sinkholes, and according to The Aquifer System Research Center, the longest underground river in the world has been discovered here. It flows more than 95 miles. The cavernous rooms found here are simply majestic.

In Florida, there are more than 20 caves with a length of one mile or more, the longest being 18 miles. You can view stalactities and stalagmites at Florida Caverns State Park near Marianna. Like most caves of this nature, it is a series of connected rooms, and the features here will rival those seen at the famous Mammoth Cave and Carlsbad Caverns.

Limestone is the geological basis for both the jungle-like Mexican Peninsula and the multi-faceted Florida landscape — two regions so diverse yet so much the same. An underground freshwater system that provides life-giving nourishment for two completely different ecosystems, or are they?


Bob is the owner of Steppingstone Ecotours and a member of the Dolphin Explorer’s dolphin research team. He is part of Leadership Marco 2014 and Bob loves his wife very much!


]]> 0
Save Room for Tortoises Fri, 11 Jul 2014 20:41:13 +0000 PROTECTING & PRESERVING 
Nancy Richie

Juvenile tortoise. PHOTO BY NANCY RICHIE

Juvenile tortoise. PHOTO BY NANCY RICHIE

For a small, developed, semi-tropical island, Marco Island has a diversity of habitats which equates to abundance of wildlife species. Sandy beaches with wide, lush vegetated dunes, sea grass beds in nearshore shallow waters, tidal mudflats, mangrove wetlands, upland scrub oak and palmetto, tropical hardwood hammock, patchy slash pine stands and even open undeveloped, grassy properties — all provide a variety of opportunities for wildlife to survive and sustain a side-by-side existence with the suburban activity.

Surmised from many inquiries, interactions with residents, increased numbers of volunteers, large membership in wildlife groups, roadside stops by too-many-to-count photographers at burrowing owl areas around the island, and the overwhelming attendance at wildlife presentations and in contests over the past few years, interest and awareness in the local wildlife has greatly increased. Though, unfortunately, this interest and awareness has only equated to positive action to protect and provide habitat for wildlife with only a handful of people.

Due to habitat loss from development, a species rapidly declining throughout the state of Florida is the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus). This upland, indigenous tortoise is listed by the state as a “threatened” species, which provides stringent regulations to protect it, its burrows and habitat. It is considered a “key stone” species in Florida, as its burrow provides shelter to close to 360 other species, making it the “backbone” of Florida’s, fragile and rare, upland ecosystem.

Here, on Marco Island, the gopher tortoise currently has a robust population. Found mostly in the “estates” area of the island, which provides hilly, well-drained soils, upland scrub oak and palmetto habitat and space to roam — all which they require for burrowing, eating, hatching their young and sunning — the Marco Island gopher tortoises are in need of protection and conservation. They also are found in smaller numbers in areas along and around Granada, Sheffield and Spinnaker Drives and in Stevens Landing, Key Marco and Hideaway Beach developments. The population has been studied a couple times in recent history, originally by Florida Gulf Coast University masters program student Julie Ross, who is continuing research of the genetics of this island population to conclude if this could be a subspecies due to its isolation on the island.

Then, last year, during the final phase of the city’s septic system replacement project, all tortoises were trapped and removed from the project area of the right-of-way, relocated temporarily on the upland properties. More than 100 tortoises were documented, weighed, measured and sampled for genetic analysis too.

In general, the suburban Marco Island tortoises — though living in higher densities, more burrows and tortoises per acre than what naturally has been studied in wildlife preserves and sanctuaries — were found to be very healthy with a variety of ages/sizes which indicates a sustainable population. Though, it is understood that this state of harmony is delicate.

Just in the past month, five, very large, very old, tortoise have been hit and killed along the roads of these neighborhoods. Daily, offers are made on the undeveloped properties that have five to ten to more than a dozen burrows. Soon these properties will be developed, leaving no room for the tortoises. State regulations require a permit to trap the tortoises and remove the burrows on any property prior to any development. There are varying mitigation fees required, and a biologist/environmental consultant that has been state licensed as a “gopher tortoise agent” is required at all times in this process. Tortoises can be kept on the property if space is preserved; if not, they are trapped and removed to an approved receiving site that is approximately 100 miles away. Though this removal saves tortoises from being buried alive, they are removed from Marco Island’s unique ecosystem and disrupt the current sustainability of the island tortoise population.

This island population, though healthy now, will decline in the next few years, as development continues and no proactive conservation is considered and acted upon. Habitat needed for burrowing and feeding will disappear; more cars on the roadways will increase rates of mortality due to vehicle hits; and less people choosing to keep them on their property to cohabitate peacefully and instead removing them from the island will all contribute collectively to the decline and unfortunately an unsustainable population.

Wouldn’t you hate to see the day that someone says, “Remember when there were gopher tortoises on Marco Island?” It doesn’t have to happen. As the island moves forward to complete development, single-family, multi-family, commercial and public properties all should be considered as possible niches for habitat creation for the tortoises. Setback and areas that are open on properties can be spaces for this burrowing, peaceful animal. Landscape, using native, low growing plants — broad leaf grasses, coco plum, succulents and cactus — can be incorporated in yards and parks. Landscapes can be maintained right up to the burrow area. The balance of wildlife and landscape in a yard is what makes this island unique and thrive. Consider the enjoyment of having a tortoise in your yard.

Save room on the island for gopher tortoises. The largest tortoises, measuring in lengths of 10-16 inches, are aged to be 60 years old. Artifacts found on the island connect the tortoise to the Calusa Indians and pioneers. These enchanting tortoises carry a history of this island and bring good will and karma for past and present residents.

For more information on gopher tortoises, please contact Nancy J. Richie, environmental specialist for the city of Marco Island, at 239-389-5003 or Also, go to and search “gopher tortoise.” 

]]> 0
Managing Black Bears in Florida Fri, 11 Jul 2014 15:17:18 +0000 By Noelle H. Lowery



Most Southwest Floridians are well aware of the wide variety of wildlife that lives amongst them. Alligators, panthers and manatees, oh my! Not to mention, the vast array of lizards, birds, squirrels, bob cats and raccoons scurrying on land and the wide assortment of fish swimming under water.

The largest of the furry creatures — the Florida Black Bear — has been the focus of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) for the last month. The FWC launched its new Florida Black Bear Management Plan, introducing Southwest Floridians to it through three public workshops. Approved in 2012, the plan creates seven bear management units (BMUs) throughout the state.

According to FWC officials, the BMU approach will allow them to manage bears based on the characteristics of bears, people and habitat in different parts of Florida. The first steps are being taken to create the South BMU to manage the bear subpopulation in the Big Cypress National Preserve and surrounding areas.

The South BMU includes Broward, Collier, Hendry, Lee, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach counties. Three other BMUs already have been initiated: the West Panhandle BMU in fall 2013 and, more recently, the Central and East Panhandle BMUs in spring 2014.

The idea for the two-year, $500,000 plan was sparked by growing encounters between humans and a continually expanding Black Bear population. Black bears are generally not aggressive, but approaching them can make them defensive. Adult males typically weigh 250 to 400 pounds and can be as large as 600 pounds. Extra caution is appropriate when a mother bear and her cubs are sighted.

Bear-related calls to the FWC increased from about 1,000 in 2001 to more than 6,700 in 2013 — the most ever recorded — with most people reporting bears in their yards or getting into garbage. Then there are the roadway encounters. It is not uncommon to spot a bear peeking through the scrub along Collier Boulevard while driving into Marco, and last year, 232 bears were killed by vehicles throughout Florida. In May, a mother and cub were killed after darting into traffic on I-75 in Naples.

The goal of the Florida Black Bear Management Plan is to educate the public and keep both people and bears safe. FWC officials recommend the following tips to remain safe Black Bears and to reinforce their natural fear of people:

• Never approach or surprise a bear. Keep as much distance between you and the bear as possible.

• If a bear changes its behavior because of your presence, you are too close.

• When walking dogs, keep them close and be aware of your surroundings. Dogs can trigger defensive behaviors from bears.

• Report any bear threatening the safety of humans, pets or livestock, or causing property damage to the FWC.

• If you encounter a bear at close range, remain standing upright with arms raised, back up slowly and speak to the bear in a calm, assertive voice.

• Carry bear spray and learn how to use it properly, factoring in wind direction, distance to bear (20-30 ft.) and your escape route. Make sure you buy one that is specific for use on bears.

• Do not turn your back, play dead or run from a Black Bear. Back away slowly into a secure area such as a house, car or building.

• Make sure you are in a secure area and the bear has a clear escape route, then yell loudly, bang pots and pans, blow a whistle, or use an air horn or car horn to scare the bear away.

• Install a motion-activated device, such as flood lights, a water sprinkler like the Water Scarecrow or audio alarm like the Critter Gitter, to scare a bear away from a location when you are not present.

To minimize human-bear encounters it is important to keep these known bear attractants under wraps and secured: unsecured trash and recycling containers; bird and squirrel feeders with items like seed, suet and peanuts; wildlife feeders; pet food and bowls; barbecue grills and smokers; pets and small livestock, such as chickens, goats, pigs and rabbits; livestock feed like corn and grain; compost piles; beehives; fruit and nut-bearing trees and shrubs; and outdoor freezers, refrigerators or coolers.

Go to and look for “Which BMU are you?” to find out more about black bears in the South BMU. “A guide to living in bear country” is also available at by clicking on “Brochures and Other Materials,” and you can find more on bears and the bear management plan at


The Bear Facts

• Black bears are the only species of bear in Florida and once roamed the entire state.

• FWC biologists estimate at least 3,000 black bears roam Florida today, compared to as few as 300 bears in the 1970s.

• Florida bears generally have black fur with a brown muzzle and sometimes a white chest patch called a blaze.

• Adult black bears typically weigh between 150 to 400 pounds, with males often twice the size of females.

• Female bears have their first litter at about 3 1/2 years old and usually have one to three cubs every other year.

• In Florida, bear breeding season runs from June-August, with cubs born in late January or early February.

• Bears have the best sense of smell of any land mammal, seven times better than a bloodhound.

• 80 percent of a black bear’s diet comes from plants such as fruits, nuts and berries, 15 percent from insects (termites, ants and bees), and 5 percent from meat, such as opossums, armadillos and carrion.


]]> 0
‘Experience Nature’ with Tyler MacDonald Fri, 11 Jul 2014 14:53:28 +0000 Submitted

Tyler has mastered photography of the Everglades, receiving awards for his work. PHOTOS BY TYLER MACDONALD

Tyler has mastered photography of the Everglades, receiving awards for his work. PHOTOS BY TYLER MACDONALD

The Marco Island Historical Museum is delighted to host “Experience Nature” a photographic exhibit from Tyler MacDonald, which runs July 1-Aug. 30. Marco’s own MacDonald will be exhibiting some of his latest photography at.

At just 18 years old, MacDonald has already won numerous awards and national recognition for his work including second-place in the National Wildlife Federation’s annual photo contest. His passion for wildlife photography is evident in each and every photograph. Taking risks and spending hours waiting to capture the perfect image, MacDonald has encountered many venomous snakes, sat in trees and been suspended above water to capture rare creatures in the wild. His work has allowed him to become a steward of the earth, teaching people to love nature one photograph at a time.

For more information on MacDonald or to see his work prior to a visit to the MIHM, visit

The Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle caught on camera off of Marco’s waters.

The Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle caught on camera off of Marco’s waters.

The Marco Island Historical Museum is one of the five Collier County Museums. It is located on Marco Island, just 16 miles south of Naples. The Museum explores Southwest Florida’s Calusa Indians and their vanished civilization through its displays. Temporary and traveling exhibits trace the settlement of this subtropical island paradise from its early pioneer roots as a fishing village, pineapple plantation and clam cannery, through its explosive growth and development in the 1960s.

For more information about the Marco Island Historical Museum’s artist’s exhibits or temporary exhibits, please contact the museum at 239-642-1440 or visit and

Museum opening hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 9 AM-4 PM. Admission is free.

]]> 0
Native Beauty on Display Fri, 11 Jul 2014 14:51:07 +0000 By Melinda Gray

Enjoying a peaceful moment in the gazebo, the sounds of the small waterfall and the steady breeze make me with I had brought a book to read. PHOTOS BY MELINDA GRAY

Enjoying a peaceful moment in the gazebo, the sounds of the small waterfall and the steady breeze make me with I had brought a book to read. PHOTOS BY MELINDA GRAY

During the hustle and bustle of an average day, I wonder how often we notice just how amazing Southwest Florida is. I find when I take time to notice the natural beauty of my surroundings, I truly appreciate living here. The native animal and plant life that surrounds us is a fascinating mixture of beauty and strength. Mother Nature is wild, and taming her takes a special touch.

The Marco Island Historical Museum (MIHM) has accepted her challenge, and has been busy cultivating an impressive exhibit featuring native plant life available around-the-clock for the enjoyment and education of the general public.

“We wanted to give the museum some identity, to help develop the whole idea of Marco Island and get people to understand. The Native Plant walk is a part of that,” said Timothy England, museum manager. “It’s made us something like a 24-hour museum, this way, where people can wander through the garden and see the plants anytime.”

With hopes of future expansion and development, England believes that embracing nature enhances the museum as a whole. Traditional landscaping was never a direction they wanted to take.

“It’s crazy! Why fight nature? It’s not beneficial to anyone,” said England of the extra fertilizer, fertilizer runoff and maintenance such landscaping requires.

Wrapping around the outside of the MIHM main building is the stunning display of local plant life. Before heading down the path, help yourself to the informative pamphlet and follow along as you leisurely wind your way through this serene, small piece of the big picture that makes Southwest Florida so cool.

Follow the path and the pamphlet to learn about some of SWFL’s exotic plant life.

Follow the path and the pamphlet to learn about some of SWFL’s exotic plant life.

Just remember, with native plants one can expect native bugs, so apply your bug spray. Make sure, though, to also notice the colorful, exotic insects all along the way.

Before leaving, step inside the air-conditioning and catch the museum’s extensive exhibits featuring the Calusa Indians, our pioneering past and the area’s immediate story. Marco Island’s 50th birthday is right around the corner, and local history will inevitably be on the minds of those who have watched the area grow, as well as many of our curious visitors.

“The rich broad history is just amazing, and there’s so much of it,” said England, “While the rest of the United States had gone to sleep, we were still an active frontier.”

The Marco Island Historical Museum opened in 2010. Made possible through collaboration between the Marco Island Historical Society and Collier County, it is part of the Collier County Museum system. The Native Plant walk was brought to life by various volunteer groups.


]]> 0
MIA Inaugural Summer Camp with an Environmental Twist Fri, 11 Jul 2014 14:42:18 +0000 By Noelle H. Lowery

The students were ready for the 1st day of camp with a kayak adventure. SUBMITTED PHOTOS

The students were ready for the 1st day of camp with a kayak adventure. SUBMITTED PHOTOS

The first-ever Ambassadors of the Environment Camp in Florida was a rousing success for the joint partnership between Marco Island Academy and Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society.

It was a journey that began five years ago when MIA Founder and Chair Jane Watt discovered the Ambassadors of the Environment Program through the Ocean Futures Society and its director, Dr. Richard Murphy. Currently, the active, hands-on outdoor education program has locations in California, French Polynesia, Grand Cayman, St. Thomas, Hawaii, and Turks and Caicos. Many of the programs are affiliated with the Ritz-Carlton or a cruise line.

The program is based on four fundamental principles of ecology, demonstrating how natural systems function and why a diversity of species is vital to maintaining healthy ecosystems. From these insights, students extract lessons from nature that are applicable to human communities, and with these lessons, they can ask how human communities (ecosystems) function and explore similarities and differences.

From there, the focus is on sustainability and the search for alternatives to present systems and trajectories that are more sustainable. Empowerment, inspiration and motivation are an important part of the program as well.

Ally Hayes (l-r), Annie Grace Hayes and Olivia Watt display their findings from the Coastal Beach Walk.

Ally Hayes (l-r), Annie Grace Hayes and Olivia Watt display their findings from the Coastal Beach Walk.†

Some 25 students participated in the week-long camp on Marco Island, which covered the following four topics:

• Everything Runs On Energy

• Nature Recycles Everything

• Biodiversity is Good

• Everything is Connected

The week was packed with activities designed to turn Southwest Florida’s natural environment into one huge science lab. Students kayaked through the waters around Marco, explored Tigertail Beach, studied the resident dolphin population on the Dolphin Express, toured Rookery Bay, participated in the island’s various archeological digs, and visited Big Cypress National Preserve and its various habitats and lakes. Each day ended with a trip back to MIA for lab work and journaling.

The pinnacle of the week was the construction of a compost bin at MIA and discussion and activities focused on the importance of sustainability in everyday life. Students learned from a botanist, marine biologist, ornithologist, archeologist, hydrologist, architect and other experts in various fields focused on the Southwest Florida environment.

The students headed out en masse to Big Cypress, and they came prepared with mosquito nets.

The students headed out en masse to Big Cypress, and they came prepared with mosquito nets.

Camper Olivia Watt, who will attend MIA in the fall, summed up the general consensus opinion of the program: “The Ambassadors of the Environment Camp will be a memory I hold with me forever. It was beyond an amazing opportunity where we spent almost all of our time not in a classroom, but outdoors where we could experience things firsthand. This camp made learning a pleasure instead of a chore.

“I know so much more about the Island I call home, whether it’s our history, what animals inhabit the waters, or how to incorporate green building,” she added. “Most importantly, I learned that everything is connected. I’ll never forget the week I spent in the Ambassadors Camp and the friendships I made along the way.”

]]> 0
Red Tide ‘Not Present’ — For Now Fri, 27 Jun 2014 17:17:22 +0000 By Melinda Gray

A20-CBN-6-27-14-4This time last year, Marco Island and other Southwest Florida coastal communities were reeling from the negative effects of a prolonged red tide bloom. Reports of the bloom began in December 2012 with Marco Island presenting “very low” to “low” concentrations of red tide, and by mid-February 2013, those concentrations crept up to “medium” status.

The 2013-2014 season has been a very different story. Currently, the Collier County Natural Resources Department is reporting that Karenia brevis, or K. brevis — the naturally-occurring dinoflagellate that causes “Florida red tide” — is “not present” in samples of water collected throughout the county’s coastal waters. In fact, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is reporting K. brevis has not been found anywhere along Florida’s coast.

As experts across the state look to the 2014-2015 season, they admit the contrast from one season to the next is just one of the many unanswered puzzles about red tide. “It is unlikely you could attribute it to any one thing,” explains Bryan Fluech, director of the Florida Sea Grant Collier County Extension. “Annual and/or seasonal changes in water temperatures, salinity, winds, nutrients levels, turbidity (how much suspended particles are in the water), rainfall, etc. can influence the severity and frequency of blooms.”

While some 70 percent of red tide blooms occur between August and February, the exact combinations of biology, chemistry and physics leading to a bloom’s inception are unclear. Further, there is disagreement between the scientific and environmental communities as to whether red tide blooms are happening more frequently, are more extreme or are fueled by the presence of fertilizers and pesticides in stormwater runoff.

According to Fluech, there are a number of organisms that can cause harmful algal blooms (HABs) in the Gulf of Mexico, and K. brevis, is just one of them. “A source of confusion is that the term ‘red tide’ is often used to describe any one of a number of HAB that we can get, even though Florida red tide is attributed to this one species. Like other HAB-causing organisms, Florida red tide blooms are influenced by a number of physical (sunlight, winds, temperature), chemical (nutrient input, salinity, oxygen levels), and biological (organism’s biology/physiology) factors interacting with one another. Researchers still do not know what the ‘right combination’ of factors is that initiates K. brevis blooms,” he notes.

What is known is that red tides develop typically 10-40 miles offshore, and when conditions are favorable, K. brevis can reproduce very quickly — every 48 to 120 hours — through cell division, creating a bloom. The blooms then work their way closer to shore. They do not originate in rivers, bays and other nearshore environments like some other HABs do.

According to FWC, Florida red tide can’t tolerate lower salinities for extended periods of time. Blooms usually remain in the saltier water found in lower bays and estuaries and closer to passes, like those in the Ten Thousand Islands.

Further, says Fluech, “unlike other HABs where there is a direct link between nutrient run-off (both natural and man-made) and initiation of blooms, this is not the case for Florida red tide. However, it is still unclear whether K. brevis cells are capable of using these nutrients to maintain their growth once they have made their way inshore.”

Depending on the duration and severity of blooms, though, they can spell big trouble for anyone in their paths for two reasons. First, red tides produce a neurotoxin that inhibits breathing, and second, oxygen is sapped from water when the red tide cells die along with the marine organisms they attack.

In fish, red tide paralyzes the gills and robs them of oxygen. Slow-moving fish and bottom dwellers are most susceptible, but invertebrates such as shrimp and crabs are affected as well. While bivalve species like oysters and clams can filter red tide toxins from their systems after three to six weeks, they are still vulnerable because of the low oxygen levels in the bloom-infested water.

Marine mammals such as manatees can be particularly susceptible to red tide events as toxins can be directly inhaled or consumed with aquatic plants. Shorebirds and wading birds also have been victims of red tide toxins. People — especially those with respiratory problems, such as asthma — are affected too when the red tide toxin goes airborne.

The 2012-2013 bloom left many on land with wracking, hacking coughs and breathing problems, and a slow, suffocating death for those under the sea. Dead fish of all varieties — including Goliath Grouper — were seen floating in canals and washing up on shore. Worse yet, a record 270 manatees were found dead within the known red tide bloom boundary. Four of them were recovered from waters around Marco Island. The last time a red tide bloom caused such carnage was in 1998-1999 when 150 manatees died.

A total of 16 manatees were actually rescued in Southwest Florida during the unusually large and long red tide event. Of those rescued, 15 lived and were released in Lee County.

Whether or not, Southwest Florida will see an active red tide season when the new one starts in August remains to be seen. “I don’t think anyone can say for sure,” Fluech acknowledges. “Florida red tide blooms typically occur from August to February, but can (and have) occurred every month of the year if the right conditions are met. It is not unusual to have other kinds of blooms occur during the summer as rainfall and nutrient runoff increases. This added source of nutrient-laden fresh water can certainly trigger other HABs. The city, county, state and private groups routinely monitor our waters for multiple HABs.”

Collier County Red Tide Updates are available on the Red Tide Hotline at 239-252-2591. This is an automated recording with the most recent Red Tide information for Collier County available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Visit for more red tide information.

To report dead fish or red tide symptoms, please call the Collier County Natural Resources Department at 239-252-2502. To speak to a health professional regarding red tide symptoms, call the Florida Poison Information Center toll free at 1-800-222-1222.

]]> 0
Celebrate Our Nation’s Birthday by Respecting Our Beach Fri, 27 Jun 2014 15:01:29 +0000 PROTECTING & PRESERVING
Nancy Richie

One of the best holidays in our country is the 4th of July! Our nation — turning 238 years old — knows how to put on a party, right? It is a day to reflect why our nation is so great, how we are the luckiest citizens on earth, and be thankful for all those that have and do ensure that the United States remains the “land of the free.”

It has always been such a big, happy, fun-filled holiday for my family growing up in California in a small town and then raising my own family on Marco Island. Most everyone around here heads to the beach by car or boat, ready to eat burgers and hot dogs, potato salad and ice cream most of the afternoon, while family and friends relax.

Most folks will hear as the day’s background sounds: waves lapping, horseshoes ringing throw after throw, loud splashes and laughter from the Gulf, and perhaps in late afternoon, the thunder start to roll. My daughters, since they were babies, now both in their 20s, have enjoyed the Resident’s Beach party and fireworks that fill the sky over this island. That light show is such a spectacular sight after a day of boating and beaching with family and friends. Uncle Sam’s Sand Jam, this year’s event at the beach will no doubt be a great celebration as ever, but let’s make it even better by respecting our beach.

We are very fortunate to have such a beautiful beach that most of us visit every day. It’s not a surprise that more and more visitors are discovering the fact that Marco Island’s beach is, well, perfection. One can walk for literally miles, pick up dozens of types of shells, see dolphin and manatee yards away as they cruise by nearshore, view wildlife such as shorebirds up close, take a warm water swim, be adventurous on a jet ski or parasail and witness a jaw-dropping sunset on any given day. One could just pull up a chair and read a book too. It’s just paradise in every sense.

It has been an effort over the last few years to keep up with the trash that ultimately results from more people visiting the beach. It’s not apparent at first, but all those bits and pieces of plastic wrappers, straws, bottle caps and cigarette butts do add up — so much so, the local Volunteer Beach Stewards easily collect a bag of trash on their daily walks and during monthly beach clean ups, and dozens of bags can be filled in a couple hours. Each week, hundreds of plastic straws are collected by these volunteers; counting straws is not something a beach walker wants to do while strolling or shelling.

Unfortunately, one of the trashiest days on Marco Island’s beach is always July 5 — from too-many-to-count beverage bottles and cans to food and its single-use plastic and styrofoam containers and wrappers to broken chairs and tents, plastic toys and even entire grills. The firework debris also is spread across the sand. These patriotic beachgoers come for the day, celebrate and leave…empty handed. Perhaps they think “someone else” will take care of the mess. Why is this?

That “someone” else is us. Let’s celebrate our nations’ birthday by respecting our beach. It’s easy. Whatever you pack to take on the boat or to the beach stay away from plastic and single-use containers. Use reusable containers, and make sure you bring it home. Bring your own trash bags to make sure you can pack everything back home. When you walk down the beach, pick up any trash you see. Then dispose of it properly, recycling all that is appropriate. This will keep trash and plastic off the beach and out of the Gulf of Mexico. It is estimated that every piece of plastic that makes it to the ocean survives for 50 years floating around, harmful to sea life and naturally, in turn, our lives.

Interested in getting more involved to conserve and protect Marco Island’s beautiful beach? On our nation’s birthday, respect our beach by giving yourself a gift, a gift to conserve and protect our beach. Here are a few easy ideas:

  1. Participate in a monthly beach clean up: The city of Marco Island’s Beach Advisory Committee organizes monthly beach clean ups with local businesses and groups. All public are welcome to join in. Other groups on the island also have clean ups, such as Friends of Tigertail and Kiwanis. Contact the city of Marco Island for more information on upcoming dates at 239-389-5003 or go to
  2. Become a Volunteer Beach Steward: Volunteer Stewards are local ombudsmen for the beach. They answer questions on shorebirds, sea turtles, shells and much more. They remind beach goers that no glass, bikes and dogs are allowed on the Marco Island beach. If interested in protecting Marco Island’s beach, please call the city of Marco Island at 239-389-5003.
  3. Become a Collier County Shorebird Steward: During the spring months, Least Terns, Black Skimmers and Wilson Plovers nest and hatch tiny chicks on the beaches. Shorebird Stewards educate and provide viewing opportunities to all who are interested. It is an experience you will never forget. For more information, please contact
  4. Join or support organizations that protect the beach, the Gulf of Mexico and its wildlife: Locally, the Friends of Tigertail proactively educate the public and monitor and improve the Tigertail Beach area habitat. To be a member, volunteer or to participate in one of their many activities and presentations, please go to Other local groups, all which have many opportunities for volunteering that support our local beaches and wildlife, are Friends of Rookery Bay (, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida ( and the Audubon of the Western Everglades (Collier Audubon) (

Happy 4th of July! Let’s wish our nation a very happy birthday by respecting our beautiful beach!


For more beach and bird information, please contact Nancy Richie, City of Marco Island, at 239-389-5003 or


]]> 0
Swimming with the Largest Fish on Earth Fri, 27 Jun 2014 14:39:07 +0000 Stepping Stones
Bob McConville
Master Naturalist

This column is dedicated to Marine Biologist James Livacarri, whose passion, knowledge and smile deeply in spire tens of thousands of visitors to Marco Island. May your seas always be calm, and may the road rise up to meet you. May all of your journeys be pleasant, and may you and your family remain continually blessed. Thank you, my friend!

You can see the spots on the head and back of this shark. Just like dolphin dorsal fin markings, the spot patterns behind the gills of the whale shark are its fingerprint.

You can see the spots on the head and back of this shark. Just like dolphin dorsal fin markings, the spot patterns behind the gills of the whale shark are its fingerprint.

I couldn’t believe my eyes! Our boat was right along side the largest fish in the world. The captain cautiously edged the vessel forward until we were about 30 feet in front of the creature, and then the cry rang out: “Team One, JUMP!”

With mask and fins already on and snorkels firmly placed in our mouths, three of us pushed away from the side. Our guide hit the water first and then my wife Cathy, a nurse at Physician Regional’s Marco Island Clinic and also a Master Naturalist, and I hit the water simultaneously. The school bus-sized fish was supposed to swim right by us so we could view it, but it turned……right toward me!

I saw this huge mouth, nearly four feet wide, coming straight at me. As it ducked under, I watched its spotted head go by and looked up just quick enough to see the dorsal fin right in front of my mask! I turned my left shoulder and pulled my head back to avoid contact, and both the dorsal and tails fins came within inches of my face. What an experience to be that close to a whale shark!

Bob and his wife, Cathy.

Bob and his wife, Cathy.

Whale sharks are, indeed, the largest fish on the planet. The ones that I swam with were 20-26 feet long and weighed several tons. They can reach lengths up to 40 feet and weigh about 5 tons. They are not whales; they are sharks. Whales are mammals and breathe air. Whale sharks, so named because of their size, have gills like other fish. They are “filter feeders,” which means they extract plankton, eggs and small fish from the water as it comes into their mouths, and they take in tons of water.

We were diving in the northeast corner of the Yucatan Peninsula, where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea. The whale sharks are here as part of their annual migration, and hundreds of these gentle giants come from a variety of locations to feed in a plankton saturated stretch off this coast of Mexico. More than 800 of these sharks will pass by this feeding ground between May and September. Some will migrate thousands of miles.

There are about a dozen feeding grounds around the world that could attract these creatures from western Australia and Indonesia and Belize. This time of year, they are in the waters off Mexico’s Quintana Roo state.

Scientists are just now starting to see the results of years of research, and are finding that from this one feeding area some of these tagged animals have spread throughout the Gulf of Mexico, down into the caribbean Sea, through the Straits of Florida and up into the Atlantic Ocean.

Bob swims as fast as he can to stay in range of this one. Its tail fin is closest to him, then the dorsal fin. This whale shark was about 20 feet long.

Bob swims as fast as he can to stay in range of this one. Its tail fin is closest to him, then the dorsal fin. This whale shark was about 20 feet long.

Several research groups are finding something odd about the Mexican population. Of the whale sharks studied in this area over a period of years, 70 percent of them are male. So where are all the females? Other global groups are showing the same gender imbalance. Quite obviously, you can’t have a stable population with that many males. The females have to be somewhere. The answer may lie in the fact that no birthing area has yet been discovered, and since these feeding grounds are in coastal waters, where other predators could attack the newborn whale sharks, it is possible that the females have found an area in the ocean more suitable for raising young — an area not yet known by man.

Finding this birthing region would mean much more than a pin placement on a map. It would allow for a much greater understanding of whale shark behavior. So much is yet unknown about the largest fish on the planet. We need another stepping stone to help complete this puzzle.

The groups on our boat experienced four dives on June 6.

That first experience, as mentioned above, was surreal. During the second dive, I found myself swimming as fast as I could just to maintain a glimpse for a few more seconds. The final dive of the day surprised everyone. A whale shark simply came to a stop, and everyone in the water got a great view of this fantastic being.

It was an experience and an education in marine biology that I will never forget. My hat is off to all of the scientists and biologists who passionately pursue their dreams.


Bob is the owner of Steppingstone Ecotours and also a member of the 10,000 Island Dolphin Survey Project. He has just been selected to join Leadership Marco’s 2014 team. Bob loves his wife very much!

]]> 0
Local Student Contributes to Island Preserve Fri, 27 Jun 2014 12:45:59 +0000 By Nancy J. Richie

Vincent and Nancy Richie. SUBMITTED PHOTOS

Vincent and Nancy Richie. SUBMITTED PHOTOS

A small oasis — 2.45 acres in total — holds archaeological, historical, cultural and biological importance for the history of Marco Island. It is the Otter Mound Preserve.

Located in the southern area of the island at 1831 Addison Court, the “mound” that this preserve references is a relatively small part of a 70-80 acre Indian mound built by the Calusa Indians, estimated between 750 and 1,200 A.D. In more recent history — the early 1900s — it was the site of Caxambas Village, the Marco Island settlement for the clamming industry. It was a bustling community that was owned by Charles and Tommie Barfield until about 1919. Then, the Griner family sold it to Ernest and Gladys Otter who lived on the site until 1977.

This property was purchased in 2004 by Collier County Government’s Conservation Collier funds. Conservation Collier was an initiative for the use of public funds to purchase and manage lands in perpetuity that have diverse and rare habitats, protected wildlife and historical and archaeological importance. Otter Mound, not named for the animal, but for the pioneer by the name of Ernest Otter, is managed by Collier County Government as a preserve, not disturbing the historical features and letting the native vegetation grow undisturbed.

A primitive pathway can be followed easily with signage telling the story of the site. As one meanders along the pathway, it is interesting to view the Florida Whelk shell walls that were built by Mr. Otter in mid-1900s to terrace the property for farming. Curiously, there also is some of the structure and bricks left of an outhouse. There are more than 100 species of native plants on this site as well as abundant bird species documented throughout the seasons. A bobcat has been observed enjoying the cool shade of this site on several occasions. Several species of snakes, too, are known to slither and sun on the pathways. It is a quiet escape for all to visit and enjoy.

Vincent and Joseph Gianonne

Vincent and Joseph Gianonne

Recently, a young resident of Marco Island and current student at Florida Gulf Coast University, Vincent Giannone, generously proposed a volunteer service project to meet a course requirement and also to give back to his community. Giannone, 24 years old and always academically excelling, was involved in many hours of volunteering for the community through his youthful years at Tommie Barfield Elementary, Marco Island Charter Middle School and Lely High School. He also achieved the accomplishment of Boy Scout Eagle Scout. He now is pursuing a computer engineering degree, and with recruiters already seeking him out, he hopes to be employed by Google in the near future.

Contributing about 30 hours of hard labor, Giannone removed several truck loads of debris left on the site from previous clean up and invasive vegetation removal activities. He also donated and added 18 posts and rope to finish the pathway railing system. His initiative was well received by Conservation Collier management as staffing is limited, and ownership of this preserve by the community is one of the goals. Giannone stated, “I wanted to do a project in my community to improve a place that I love. Otter Mound fit that description, and I was happy to do the work.”

If you haven’t yet ventured to Otter Mound Preserve, take a short drive to 1831 Addison Court. Walk the pathway; take a moment to sit on one of the benches along the pathway; listen to the breeze move through the trees and birds chatter under one of the last undeveloped hardwood tropical hammock habitats in Southwest Florida.

For more information or if you are interested in volunteering on Otter Mound or the other Conservation Collier sites, please go to, or contact Conservation Collier at 239-252-2957.

]]> 0 Keeping Our Beach Beautiful Fri, 13 Jun 2014 13:16:40 +0000 By Nancy Richie

Katie O’Hare (Chamber of Commerce), Ralph Barnhart (City of Marco Island Beach Advisory Committee) and Bernardo Bezos (MICA) pose with the day’s haul of trash.

Katie O’Hare (Chamber of Commerce), Ralph Barnhart (City of Marco Island Beach Advisory Committee) and Bernardo Bezos (MICA) pose with the day’s haul of trash.

A beautiful morning unfolded for the last the beach clean-up, Sunday, May 18. Low humidity, mild temperatures, light breezes and blue skies prevailed. Paradise perfection — what we expect on Marco Island!

More than 50 people of all ages met at the South Beach boardwalk access to help clean up the beach. The large group included beach committee members, Marco Island Civic Association (MICA) members, Chamber of Commerce representatives, Publix employees, regular beach goers, residents who couldn’t resist the beach on this beautiful morning and visiting families. It was apparent the wonderful weather and the beauty of the beach gave the group energy; it was quite a boisterous group!

The city of Marco Island’s Beach Advisory Committee members organized this monthly clean-up and coordinated with local Publix Super Marco at Shops of Marco (Store #375 at 175 South Barfield Drive). Managers, employees, their families and friends all came out at 8 AM ready to enjoy a day in the sun and give back to the community. This Publix helps each month with donations of bottled water, bags and gloves; the manpower this month was exceptional.

Beach volunteers gather for the effort. PHOTOS BY NANCY J. RICHIE

Beach volunteers gather for the effort. PHOTOS BY NANCY J. RICHIE

It was organized chaos on the sunny beach. The Chamber of Commerce’s — and beach clean-up regular — Katie O’Hara rolled up with her cart of trash grabbers and reusable buckets available for anyone to use. This handy equipment was purchased by donation from Leadership Marco. Bernardo Bezos of MICA, and beach committee member George Schmidt pulled up in MICA’s beach vehicle to assist in trash collection and water bottle handouts for thirsty beach walkers. Beach Advisory Committee members handed out t-shirts donated by local businessman Bruce Gear. The group was ready to clean up the beach.

Lots of wind over the past couple weeks made trash collection in the dunes abundant. Plastic bottles, wrappers, dryer sheets (commonly used as mosquito repellent apparently), Styrofoam food containers, bottle caps and cigarette butts were found in large numbers. Fishing line, crab buoy line, zip ties and more cigarette butts were found in and around the Cape Marco jetties and shoreline. Stray flip flops, swimsuits, crab buoys and broken plastic toys were collected. Straws, straws and more straws are still being collected in our beautiful white sand near the hotels. With a sense of satisfaction, the participants collected all this and more.

Geologist Maddie Richie and Biologist Megan Joyce lend a scientific hand to the clean-up effort.

Geologist Maddie Richie and Biologist Megan Joyce lend a scientific hand to the clean-up effort.

The next city of Marco Island Beach Clean-Up is scheduled for Sunday, June 22, 8 AM, at the South Beach boardwalk access. Everyone is welcome to participate. If you, your group or business want to sponsor a clean-up, know a student who needs volunteer hours or need more information on the clean-ups, the beach or wildlife, please contact Nancy Richie, environmental specialist with the city of Marco Island at or 239-389-5003.

Thank you for keeping our beach beautiful!

]]> 0 EcoTour Provider Training Series Back at Rookery Bay Fri, 13 Jun 2014 13:15:11 +0000 Submitted

With approximately 97 percent of Southwest Florida’s ocean-based economy coming from tourism and recreation, ecotour professionals serve as ambassadors of local natural areas. These ecotour professionals often rely on their knowledge of natural history to provide clients a memorable experience. In order to meet the growing educational needs of ecotour professionals, Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, in partnership with Florida Sea Grant, is offering a series of field and classroom-based programs this summer.

Back by popular demand, the Ecotour Provider Series promotes sustainable tourism practices by providing guides, naturalists and tour operators with information, tips and tools to minimize environmental impacts. It also imparts skills to provide more positive and scientifically accurate tour experiences.

The primary course, “Providing Tours in Southwest Florida’s Protected Coastal Areas,” provides a one-hour overview of local protected areas from the perspective of those whose job it is to manage it. Learn why these areas are protected and how they are managed. Hear local history, stories and understand the biology and ecology of these treasured resources. Get to know the individuals who look after these special places. This course is offered at 6–7 PM, and participants may attend on July 8, August 12 or September 9. The cost is $5.

Estuaries are often called the nurseries of the sea and for good reason. Marine educators will provide a morning of classroom and hands-on field-based instruction during the “Coastal Fish Identification and Biology” course. Get knee-deep in various coastal habitats while learning the biology of coastal fish and other species. The course will begin with one hour of classroom instruction followed by two hours of in-the-water experimental learning from 9 AM-12 PM on July 15, and the cost is $15.

“Our Local Watershed: History, Changes, and Restoration Efforts,” provides an in-depth look at the watersheds in Southwest Florida, which are defined by subtle differences in elevation, hydrology, soils and even wind direction. Hear stories from a team of local experts on how water moves across this flat landscape, how it has changed over time, and what is currently being done to restore watersheds to historic conditions. Learn the connections between inland areas and the coastal waters on which ecotour providers’ livelihoods depend. This course is offered at 2–5 PM on August 21. The cost is $15.

The final course in the series is “Stewardship Best Management Practices: Wildlife Rules and Ethics.” We interact with wildlife every day. Are we treating the animals we encounter fairly, ethically and legally? Join a group of local experts for case studies, lessons learned, and the information you need to conduct business in harmony with coastal wildlife and in compliance with laws and ethics. This course if offered on September 30, 2–5 PM. The cost is $15.

Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center is located at 300 Tower Road in Naples. Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve encompasses 110,000 acres of coastal lands and waters between Naples and Everglades National Park. It is managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Coastal Office in cooperation with NOAA. For more information or to register for these courses, visit

]]> 0
Kids Free Fridays at Rookery Bay Fri, 13 Jun 2014 10:33:50 +0000 Submitted

The Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve is hosting its annual summer program, “Kids FREE Fridays,” at its Environmental Learning Center through Aug. 1. This summer education program provides free admission for children ages 12 and younger who are accompanied by an adult (up to 5 children per adult). Educators will present a different topic each week following a central theme around the rookery. Lunch will be available for purchase from 11 AM-1 PM.

June 6 and July 11: Water

Let’s begin building a Rookery! We will have to start with water, the most important part of this habitat. When fresh water and salt water mix together, they form a special kind of water called brackish water. Join us for experiments on salinity and an exploration into the world of plankton during this opening week of Kid’s Free Friday.

June 13 and July 18: Oysters

Now that we have the water in our estuary, let’s add some very important filter feeders! Oysters filter the water and provide great hiding places for small crabs in the estuary. This week we will learn all about oysters and their importance in the estuary.

June 20 and July 25: Mangroves

What beautiful oyster beds we have in our brackish water of the estuary! Now the mangrove propagules (seeds) can grow big and strong on the oyster beds to create mangrove islands. Little fish love the roots of the Red Mangrove tree that grow down into the water like a cage. Learn with us this week about mangrove trees in the estuary.

June 27 and August 1: Birds

The mangrove islands formed on top of the oyster beds in our estuary provide a great place to nest and rest for birds…we call this a Rookery! Congratulations! We have made a Rookery and now the birds have a safe place to raise their young and sleep for the night.

Scheduled Activities:

• 10-10:45 AM: Story Time (auditorium)

• 11-1:45 AM: Lab Demonstration (auditorium)

• 11 AM-1 PM: Lunch for Sale (gallery)

• 12:15-1:55 PM: Films from LIFE series (auditorium)

• 2-2:45 PM: IMAX Feature Film (auditorium)


Ongoing activities: (10 AM-2 PM)

• Touch Tank

• Kid’s Crafts


The Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center is located at 300 Tower Road, one mile south of the intersection of US41 and Collier Boulevard (CR951), less than 10 miles from downtown Naples, on the way to Marco Island. From May 1 through Oct. 30, the center is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, adding Saturday hours for Nov. 1 through April 30. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children ages 6-12 and free for members, unless otherwise noted for special activities. For more information, call 239-530-5977 or visit and

]]> 0
Snakes of Big Cypress Swamp Fri, 13 Jun 2014 10:15:37 +0000 Stepping Stones
Bob McConville
Master Naturalist

Southern Black Race, Big Cypress Swamp. PHOTOS BY BOB MCCONVILLE

Southern Black Race, Big Cypress Swamp. PHOTOS BY BOB MCCONVILLE

When I am not at work on Marco Island, I absolutely love giving tours of the Big Cypress Swamp. I mean I really LOVE it!!!! There are several diverse habitats in that area, and they support a wide variety of wildlife. People are positively fascinated to hear the facts about ‘gators, ‘crocs, hawks, eagles, owls…..and snakes.

I try to emphasize in my columns that there is an order to things on this planet, all the way down to the smallest ecosystems. Every plant, tree and animal serves a purpose, even the creepy, crawly things. Just as the smaller fish is eaten by the bigger fish, which is eaten by the bigger fish which is eaten by the apex predator, such is the case with our slithering herptiles in the Big Cypress area. They all have a job to do. Let me tell you about a few of them.

One of the most common snakes is the Southern Black Racer, simply known as the “black snake.” These speedy serpents are very slender with a shiny black skin and can grow to more than 5 feet long. They seem to be constantly on the move and eat an astonishing variety of other animals, including frogs, lizards, mice, insects and even other snakes. They are non-venomous.

The Rat Snake is one of the more colorful species and can vary from gray to yellow or, here in the Everglades area, orange. They also can grow to be 5 feet long and are proficient tree climbers as well as swimmers. Their primary prey is birds and rodents, which they constrict.

Sometimes confused with the Rat Snake is the Corn Snake. The two are similar in color, but the Corn Snake will have reddish-brown spots while the Rat Snake does not. The Corn Snake coils like a rattler if threatened, and even though it is non-venomous, it can bite.

Rat Snake, Big Cypress Swamp

Rat Snake, Big Cypress Swamp

Florida is home to six venomous snakes, two of which are confined to northern Florida. In our area, it is possible to find the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, the Pygmy Rattler, the Cottonmouth (aka Water Moccasin) and the Coral Snake. The first three are pit vipers, which means the venom destroys red blood cells and the walls of blood vessels. The Coral Snake’s venom is the most potent of any North American snake. Unlike the pit vipers, this guy is neurotoxic, which means the venom attacks the nervous system of a victim, bringing on paralysis.

The most common in the Big Cypress area is the Cottonmouth, or Water Moccasin. Though primarily found in water or along the water’s edge, it can deliver a bite either in or out of water. It can deliver a bite from any position so it does not have to be coiled. The adults are darker in color than the younger ones, which have distinctive brown and black markings. When swimming its head is well out of the water. It hunts mostly at night and its menu consists mainly of fish, frogs, lizards, other snakes and small mammals.

In summary, all of the above serve a purpose. They have specific menus that keep a number of other species in check. They are here for a reason — another stepping stone to understand the bigger picture of what happens in our surrounding areas.

Always be cautious around any reptile. Even if they are non-venomous, some can deliver a painful bite. Be respectful of them, and give them plenty of room to do what they are supposed to do.


Bob is a Florida Master Naturalist and owner of Stepping Stone Ecotours. He is also a member of the Dolphin Explorer’s 10,000 Island Dolphin survey team and a member of Florida SEE (Society for Ethical Ecotourism). Bob loves his wife very much!


]]> 0
Take a Hike: Sand Dollar Island is Waiting for You to Explore Tue, 03 Jun 2014 13:31:17 +0000 PROTECTING & PRESERVING
Nancy Richie

Black Skimmer with newly hatched chick. PHOTO BY JEAN HALL

Black Skimmer with newly hatched chick. PHOTO BY JEAN HALL

Take a hike and explore one of the most beautiful ecosystems in southwest Florida, walking from Tigertail Beach Park parking lot on the new boardwalk, through the tunnel of mangroves, around the southern end of the Tigertail Lagoon, then heading north to the very tip of Sand Dollar Island “spit” that curls around toward Hideaway Beach, and then tracing your steps back. It takes almost three hours at a moderate pace; longer if you stop a few times taking in the abundance of wildlife that you can’t help but encounter.

Once out on the “spit,” the area has an official state designation — the “Big Marco Pass Critical Wildlife Area” — but locals know and refer to it as Sand Dollar Island. It was an island, an ephermal sandbar, paralleling the beach off north Marco Island. The sandbar was a popular destination for boaters in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, and really was covered in sand dollars by the buckets full, hence its name.

Around 1999, due to currents, storms, sand deposits and erosion cycles typical of inlet pass system dynamics, the Big Marco Pass filled in, and Sand Dollar Island’s southern end connected with the main beach of Marco Island in front of the South Seas condominiums beach. It has remained permanently affixed since, with its shoreline changing through the season, the dune area growing, areas fluxing with erosion and accretion of sand. This connected island, Sand Dollar Island, now a “spit”, has added miles of beach to Marco Island for beach walkers to explore, photographers to focus and shell seekers to wander. There are a handful of regulars that know this secret jewel of Marco Island inside and out. Take a hike, see what is so special “out there.”

Walking along the shoreline, dozens of species of shells can be found from the common scallop, fighting conchs and pen shells to lettered olives, moon snails and lightening whelk. (When collecting shells, please check inside the shell for the mollusk animal; if it’s an empty shell, keep it; if occupied, please leave it on the beach.) Of course, sand dollars are found too — sometimes too many to count. Due to erosion of the shoreline, a few dead, leafless mangroves and sea grapes are found. Now decorated with shells and messages from beach walkers, they have become autograph trees for memories. About a mile up the “spit,” due to erosion, a pathway leads off the shoreline into red mangroves, making one feel they are in a remote paradise taking an adventurous walk, and then all of a sudden the path ends on a wide expanse of beach sandwiched between the Gulf of Mexico and Tigertail Lagoon. Bird life is abundant in both bodies of water and on the sandy beach. You have reached the heart of the Critical Wildlife Area.

The beginning of May, the first two sea turtle nests were found and protected, thanks to our sea turtle lady Mary Nelson and one of her new volunteers, Ray. The 100 or so hatchlings that will emerge from each of these nests in about 60 days will always call Sand Dollar Island home. It’s their natal beach. The hatchlings that survive will come back one day and create their own nests of sea turtle eggs here on Sand Dollar Island. The Sand Dollar Island “spit” was habitat for more than one-third of the Marco Island sea turtle nests last season.

Aerial photo by Humiston & Moore Engineering Inc. taken September 2013.

Aerial photo by Humiston & Moore Engineering Inc. taken September 2013.

In the large expanses of sand between the lagoon and Gulf from April through August, Least Terns and Black Skimmers nest. These shorebirds nest in large congregations, making lots of noise. Due to loss of habitat of sandy open beaches with some amount of vegetation that is not disturbed by upland development, there are fewer beaches along the coasts of the Southeast that satisfy their nesting requirements, but our Sand Dollar Island is perfect. There are large areas of sand, some vegetation for protection, plenty of bait fish in the lagoon and Gulf, and it is relatively quiet. These attributes have attracted more and more Least Terns and Black Skimmers in the past few years. This year looks to be very productive too.

Making just a scrape in the sand for a nest, the eggs are tiny and well camouflaged so very easy to overlook. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation biologists post the nesting areas each spring to protect the fragile nests, eggs and chicks. When walking, don’t stir up the birds (called flushing). They need to stay calm and on their eggs until they hatch and then to protect and feed chicks until they can survive on their own. If the birds are flushed and the fragile eggs and chicks are exposed, they are easily preyed upon by other shorebirds, crows and ghost crabs, and can bake in the sun in minutes. Please be sure to stay as far as possible from the posted area when walking by. When in this area, you may be greeted by a friendly Shorebird Steward — local residents who volunteer for a few hours on the beach near the posted shorebird nesting areas — who provide information on the birds and opportunities to view the birds and chicks through a scope.

Continuing past the shorebird areas to the very northern tip of the “spit,” you will find you can almost walk to Hideaway Beach as the tip curls around and seems to be accreting more sand, stretching the shoreline closer and closer to Hideaway Beach. Look in the waters for dolphins and manatees who commonly swim by in these waters. This area is a very popular boater destination — the historical site of “Coconut Island.” Some Saturday afternoons, there could be dozens of boats beached on the tip and anchored behind Sand Dollar Island enjoying the clear, warm waters. No dogs are allowed on Marco Island’s beaches, and this includes all of Sand Dollar Island. Please keep dogs onboard your boat and help conserve and protect this important, fragile and diverse ecosystem we know as Sand Dollar Island.

Take a hike and explore the rich ecosystem of Sand Dollar Island! Remember to only leave your footsteps in the sand. Don’t leave trash or beach equipment. Take it home! If interested in more information about Marco Island’s beautiful beach and wildlife or would like to volunteer as a Collier County Shorebird Steward, please contact Nancy Richie, the city of Marco Island’s environmental specialist at or 239-389-5003.


For more beach and bird information, please contact Nancy Richie, City of Marco Island, at 239-389-5003 or

]]> 0