Southwest Florida is a great place to live and play because of the beautiful weather, amazing beaches, and great fishing. Forty percent of Collier County’s coastline is protected within the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, with hundreds of boaters visiting on a daily basis. The “Team OCEAN” program at Rookery Bay has a mission to help boaters safely and responsibly enjoy the waters and wilderness around Naples and Marco Island.
The boat-based volunteer program got underway at Rookery Bay Reserve in 2007 following a model at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Team OCEAN (Ocean Conservation Education Action Network) volunteers make regular visits to high-use areas such as Keewaydin Island, which is one of the most popular boating destinations in the region.
Forty volunteers currently in the program are fully trained for safety and are well-versed in accurate and effective educational messages for beach visitors. The information they provide, such as “Leave-No-Trace” guidelines, boating safety tips and fishing regulations, helps ensure that their fellow boaters are being responsible guests and stewards of our shores. They alsohelp protect coastal birds by posting and maintaining “Important Nesting Area” signs that alert visitors of the presence of nests on the beach in summer.
Florida Sea Grant, Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Marine Industries of Collier County, and other community partners support two vessels and the part-time salary of Mike Wetherbee, the Team OCEAN coordinator on staff at the Reserve. Wetherbee, who came to the Reserve in 2009 to volunteer for the prescribed fire program, is a former marine patrol officer with the New Hampshire State Police. “I just want to give back to this place,” said Wetherbee, who enjoys his free time on the water and also works part-time as an eco-tour provider for a local company.
Wetherbee is building a diverse crew of year-round volunteers to help get the message out so that the ecosystem remains healthy for everyone. His volunteer captains are checked out for navigation skills and certified as safe boaters so that they demonstrate proper boating ethics in everything they do. The on-board team receives training in environmental education and serve as anadditional arm of the Reserve’s education program on the water.
In addition to weekly visits to Keewaydin Island, the crews also stop by Cape Romano, Kice Island and other locations within the Reserve to ensure boaters are aware that they are visiting a protected area, and to answer any questions. Most of their encounters, especially at this time of year, are with visitors who are unfamiliar with the area.
“Team OCEAN is the best gig in town,” said Marilyn Naiman, a relative newcomer to the team. Originally from Toronto, Canada, Marilyn has been coming to Marco Island as a visitor since 1983 and now calls it her permanent home. Marilyn enjoys the opportunity to educate beach goers about simple things, such as keeping their anchors away from protected sea oats, and how helpful it is for migrating birds when people give them space.
Team OCEAN volunteers carry trash bags, both as a conversation starter and to collect trash. According to volunteers, 90 percent of the people they speak with thank them for picking up trash, and many even help pickup trash that was not their own.
“That’s the bottom line,” says Wetherbee. “Team OCEAN is all about partnering with our local boating community and working to establish an environmental ethic that creates a special and sustainable wilderness experience for all visitors in the Reserve.”
To become a Team Ocean volunteer, individuals must learn about the Rookery Bay Reserve and attend a training course at the Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center. They also accompany the program coordinator, other staff, and experienced volunteers to receive on-the-job experience. Volunteers with boating experience and knowledge of local waters are especially needed.
Visit www.rookerybay.org/support/volunteering to find out about joining the team.
Any local boater who doesn’t have time to volunteer is encouraged to take the Team OCEAN pledge at www.rookerybay.org/teamocean.
Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve encompasses 110,000 acres of coastal lands and waters managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Florida Coastal Office in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Renee Wilson is Communications Coordinator at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. She has been a Florida resident since 1986 has joined the staff at the reserve in 2000.