At the Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center in Naples, estuary minutiae's gone larger than life — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
The glossy and greatly exaggerated polka dot batfish greets you, crazed look in its eye, at the Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center in Naples. With its special art exhibits, local artist sculptures and lithographs, realistic mangrove model, squeaky clean aquariums, crab condos, interactive pioneer display and oversized creature models, the center – just minutes before Marco Island’s north bridge on Route 951 – engages visitors of all ages with the minutia of life in the estuary.
The visitors' service component of the massive 110,000-acre Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, the learning center comprises two floors of airy, bright open space filled with hands-on exhibits that explain the reserve’s mission and its ecosystem. Begin your visit with the excellent 10-minute introduction video.
Centerpiece of the 16,500-square-foot learning center, is the mangrove aquarium exhibit, where kids can literally climb into the roots of a replicated 15-foot mangrove – without getting wet! – via an immersion bubble. They can also step aboard a replica of the reserve’s research boat to do the sea turtle dance, hear bird sounds and watch glass-bottom boat video.
Learn about the creatures of the estuary — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
In addition to the surprise of the super-sized batfish, the learning center’s mascot, kids will get wide-eyed at the gigantic head of a whimbrel shorebird poking into the sand for squirmy-looking dinner. An enormous mosquito hangs from the ceiling over the stairwell, and a manatee glides overhead where a shark appears to be crashing out of the drywall.
Forming a backdrop to the aquarium, a curved wall holds various habitat dioramas, three-dimensional tactile displays of local creatures, local wildlife-artist murals, a touch tank and other fun and original learning tools.
Upstairs, visitors can push buttons to hear pioneer stories of different eras in the rookery’s bygones via the voices of descendants of early settlers. Another exhibit shares the realities of climate change in flip-door true or false type format.
A glass door gives access to a sturdy bridge across the Henderson Creek, the start of the half-mile Snail Trail, an easy, gravel-paved walk. From the bridge, visitors and staff often sight sharks, manatee, mullet, pileated woodpeckers, white ibis, herons and bald eagles.
The reserve is also home to black bears, bobcats, squirrels, feral pigs and armadillos. Since it extends to the sea, loggerhead turtles and shorebirds are also a part of the wildlife family.
The Snail Trail bridge — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
Two more primitive trails loop a half-mile each off the main trail. Midday, a guide mans the bridge to identify creatures in view and answer questions.
The center also hosts indoor programs about sharks, sea turtles and other reserve creatures daily. It hosts special lectures, beginning birders workshops and art exhibits, such as the annual painting exhibit that opens Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014, and runs through Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015.
Criteria for this year’s exhibit was landscape that reflects Rookery Bay’s environment. The learning center’s gift shop, too, relates to flora and fauna of the reserve.
From another reserve site, guides lead kayaking and boat tours. In January, Rookery Bay holds its Nature Festival, featuring tours and field trips to nearby preserves and sites such as Big Cypress National Preserve and Marco Island’s birdlife-rich Tigertail Beach, where it also conducts muck-about tours throughout the winter season.