Wednesday, January 26, 2022

The Importance & Beauty of Our Estuaries

Photos by Bob Mcconville | Manatees can be seen all year long at Port of The Islands thanks to a manmade refugium built to maintain warm water.

Join Bob on March 24th at the Rose Auditorium on the Marco Island Historical Society Campus when he talks about our area estuaries, the wildlife that can be discovered in them, and the importance of these amazing places of change. The presentation begins at 7 PM and is free to all MIHS members and only $10 for non-members. This is always a popular topic so get there early for a good seat and have some fun learning about these magnificent waterways. 

It’s a well-known fact that the best way to see Marco Island and the surrounding islands is to get out on the water. Our area is home to some very unique habitats and natural resources, unequaled anywhere else in America. 

This is a top destination for ecotourism and recreation, and also for scientific research. A great variety of aquatic life, plants and other wildlife rely on a specific area where freshwater meets saltwater. These places are called Estuaries. 

Estuaries, in general, are the most productive ecosystems on Earth. When fresh inland waters meet with the sea, ocean, or in our case, the Gulf of Mexico, changes take place. They are important and irreplaceable. An estuary could be a bay, lagoon, inlet, harbor, slough and more. They contain more life per square inch than the richest farmlands. 

There are four types of estuaries around the world. Coastal Plain Estuaries, Bar built ones (developed naturally by sand bars), fjords and tectonic ones which are geological faults such as San Francisco Bay. Southwest Florida has the Coastal Plain type.  

Our estuaries are playgrounds for a variety of life, a nursery for others and also a place for mating. Migratory birds drop in at these locations to feed and refresh, sometimes to nest and raise their young. They also provide habitats for nearly 75% of the commercial fish and crabs that we enjoy nationally. 

A variety of birds feed at estuaries where food is plentiful. In addition to Roseate Spoonbills, birds such as Great Blue Herons, a variety of Egrets, Hawks, Eagles and
Several migratory species are always fun to locate.

Closer to home, the most recognizable estuarine name would be Rookery Bay. Protecting and monitoring more than 100,000 acres of waterways, islands and mangrove forests, they constantly study the water quality and salinity as well. Their programs of sea turtle research, nesting and protection in conjunction with the tracking of a variety of bird species make them an invaluable asset to Southwest Florida.  

There are many other estuaries nearby as well. Formerly known as Remuda Ranch and situated where the freshwater system of the Faka Union canal meets, the Gulf tidal waters is the Port of the Islands. In this area, you can find alligators, manatees, dolphins, a wide variety of local birds and some migratory birds all living the high life and enjoying the resources of this special estuary. 

Alligators can survive here because of the abundant fresh water provided by the canal. Many manatees winter here because the freshwater canal water temperature is warm enough for them to thrive and grow their food supplyseagrass. Some manatees have been seen here all year long, utilizing the manmade refugium built them to retain a warm water base. Further down the channel, many bottlenose dolphins can be seen on a regular basis. At this time of year, the migratory White Pelicans are plentiful as you reach the Gulf habitat and, now arriving, Swallow-tailed Kites from South America have been seen here for several weeks. 

White Pelican will be leaving South Florida estuaries soon after enjoying a winter feast.

Further east, the estuaries of Florida Bay have been a major concern. The redirection of freshwater through the Everglades to other areas has caused a rise in salinity of previous estuarine waters, causing a change in the type of aquatic life and relocation of birdlife to alternate locations where food sources are more readily available. 

At the “root” of the Southwest Florida estuaries are the mangrove trees. Their tangled and weaved root system provides a home to many small aquatic creatures such as shrimp and crabs that feed on the decayed leaves from these trees. In turn, these animals become food for the local fish population as well as younger fish utilizing the area as a nursery until they are large enough to move to other feeding areas. Southwest Florida boasts the thirdlargest mangrove forest in the western hemisphere. There is nothing else like this anywhere in the United States. 

In conclusion, our estuaries, our places of change in this corner of the world, are vital to marine, animal and plant populations. This is where new life begins, and old life continues to thrive. Much of our commercially harvested marine life spends at least a portion of its existence here. Recreational guests are able to enjoy the likes of manatee and dolphin sightings and scientists continue to make amazing discoveries about these immensely important places of change. 

Bob is a Naturalist on board the dolphin study vessel Dolphin Explorer. He is the author of two books and an award-winning columnist for Coastal Breeze News. A regular speaker at area venues he loves talking about nature but, most of all, Bob loves his wife very much! 

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