Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Behind the Scenes at Rookery Bay Reserve


Susan Sorrelle and Michele Gillespie like to welcome guests by asking where they come from and what brings them to the ELC. Photos by Jesus Calo

Susan Sorrelle and Michele Gillespie like to welcome guests by asking where they come from and what brings them to the ELC. Photos by Jesus Calo

At Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve’s Environmental Learning Center (ELC), volunteers work hard every day to maintain its exemplary operations. While you see most of the crew throughout any part of the center, it is the work done behind the scenes that also shines.

The work that most volunteers do becomes solidified with a consistent schedule. Once a volunteer has completed their training and becomes comfortable with their duties they have more “shift” based responsibilities. Jobs like the shark, turtle and manatee encounters are typically filled quickly, but it is the jobs like cleaning tanks, feeding fish and keeping the aquariums at optimal living conditions that also need consideration.

It takes a lot of behind the scenes work to maintain optimal living conditions for the aquatic life at Rookery Bay Reserve.

It takes a lot of behind the scenes work to maintain optimal living conditions for the aquatic life at Rookery Bay Reserve.

“While the work of volunteers may not be paid,” says Renee Wilson, Communications Coordinator, “they are paid in smiles.”

Hard work always goes noticed, as Rookery Bay Reserve hosts two yearly luncheons recognizing volunteers. Once a volunteer reaches 100 hours, they are invited to the event and are celebrated for the invaluable work they accomplish.

Fish feeder team and mother-son duo, Thais and Drue Tepper overlook the fish in the large tank after feeding time.

Fish feeder team and mother-son duo, Thais and Drue Tepper overlook the fish in the large tank after feeding time.

Volunteers Thais Tepper and her son Drue have volunteered since May 2016. Having volunteered for the SWFL Conservancy at Briggs Boardwalk on Shell Island Road for almost five years, Tepper drove past Rookery Bay Reserve until one day she decided to check out volunteer opportunities available on its website.

The Tepper duo went to a volunteer meeting in January, and at the time, there were open positions for fish feeders, clerical work and in the gift shop. They received the call in May when they needed fish feeders and have been in that role ever since.

“My son and I are the only fish feeding team. I prepare the food and he feeds the fish.” Thais Tepper stated. “My son Drue has Asperger’s Syndrome and has an encyclopedic knowledge of all living creatures.”

Drue’s knowledge proves useful in their daily tasks feeding fish, which is timeconsuming. As a duo, this cuts the work time in half. After they hand off the food trays, there are various tasks to maintain each of the aquariums. Thais cleans the fingerprints off the outside of the tanks and algae from the inside. The filter socks are washed, and any food that was left uneaten is removed to maintain the filter system.

Each species has a different personality that requires attention for specific dietary needs and proper care. You must understand their behaviors and preferences. When you spend that much time with the fish on a weekly basis, a bond tends to form.

“My favorite fish is the cowfish. It even recognizes us as feeders. It had a rough time, including an internal parasite, battled an infection, a move to the large mangrove tank with the predatory fish, and fared through Hurricane Irma.” Thais stated, “I was so relieved to see the cowfish bob up when it saw me after the storm.”

The Teppers organize their schedule and drive over to East Naples from Chokoloskee to make it into the ELC because the fish depend on them.

Other ELC volunteers, like Susan Sorrelle and Michele Gillespie, take on housework tasks when either opening the center or closing up shop. They make sure that the outdoor bridges are clear of any unsightly materials or debris. They are there to welcome guests before they embark on their estuaries encounters. Full-time volunteers, they have a general knowledge of all the SWFL wildlife in the ELC to engage with the public.

“I’m originally from Memphis, Tennessee and was only familiar with catfish and bass,” Sorrelle confessed. “But with short sessions of training, you learn something new every day on the job.”

They encourage guests to always be careful when out on the trails as occasionally a reptile may be sunbathing, especially on the colder days. While they have not encountered any reptiles themselves, they recall the time Renee Wilson stumbled upon an eastern diamondback rattlesnake and captured photos to prove it. There is always an adventure to be had at the Rookery Bay Reserve.

“The best part of volunteering at Rookery Bay Reserve are the educators and people who work here,” Sorrelle stated. “They are so smart and interesting; it’s what keeps me coming back.”

To apply and join the e-newsletter, visit rookerybay.org/support/volunteering. html or email Donna Young at volunteer@rookerybay.org.

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