Southwest Florida has an amazing coastal environment. From pine flatwoods to salt marsh, mudflat to nearshore waters, the diversity of plants and animals here is spectacular. While it is impossible to experience it all in person in a short time, a visit to the Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center’s two-story exhibit hall can provide a glimpse of the unique habitats found within the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve’s 110,000 acres of coastal lands and waters. It also offers visitors a look at the world of research and restoration ongoing within the Reserve, a step back in time with a tribute to the rich cultural history of the area, and a whole lot more.
Visitors to the Center will first encounter a sculpted giant polka-dot batfish (magnified to 10-times its actual size) just one of the hundreds of forms of marine life found in Rookery Bay. Upstairs, a sculpted mosquito looms overhead, magnified to100 times its actual size. Five aquaria display live specimens of marine organisms found within the Reserve, and a “touch tank” (see www.rookerybay.org/calendar for schedule) invites willing participants to personally experience urchins, horseshoe crabs, marine snails and more.
In the 2,300-gallon mangrove aquarium centerpiece, a 14-foot sculpted tree soars up through an open atrium into the Center’s second story. A climb-in “bubble” provides visitors with close-up views of mangrove prop roots that provide shelter for fish inhabitants.
The living exhibits relies on dedicated staff and volunteers. Working behind the scenes, cleaning fish tanks or checking water quality back in one of the labs, you might not see much of what Heidi Waite is doing at Rookery Bay Reserve. But so far this summer, she’s also helped monitor sharks, protect sea turtle nests, and served as a crew member on the Team OCEAN volunteer vessel.
“You just learn so much more by being here and experiencing everything,” the19-year-old University of Central Florida biology major said.
Waite, a 2013 graduate of Gulf Coast High in Naples, started her summer hoping to gain some experience from reserve researchers. But she soon became interested in much more, and now she’s become immersed in caring for the sea life at the Center.
She’s been trained to do water quality tests, maintain the tanks to make sure the chemicals are regulated is able to help with the education side, after learning all about the animals in the Touch Tank. She’s even one of the designated fish feeders.
“My time at the reserve has been priceless,” Waite said. Between her volunteer experiences and interaction with the biologists, researchers and the other interns, she says she’s learned a lot this summer and is prepared for the next semester.
The reserve’s sea turtle interns Sarah Norris and Anna Windle taught her a lot about the turtles and their nests. She’s hoping to applyfor one of the turtle internships here next summer.
“I learned so much from them that I never really knew,” Waite said. “There’s a lot more to it.”
Waite discovered her interest in the environment in high school and now she’s trying to pass that love on to her little sister, Stephanie, 15, who attends Gulf Coast High. Stephanie comes to the reserve on Kids FREE Fridays to help out.
Waite is hoping to experience other internships that may lead to a career in research, a start that may have originated at the reserve. College courses lay out the facts, but the experience of an internship is invaluable.
“There’s just so much more you can learn here by doing than in a lab,” she said.
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.