Kayaking Rookery Bay in Southwest Florida
Located between Naples and Marco Island

The early morning sunlight filters through the mangroves as we exit onto Rookery Bay on a hot summer morning as we emerge from the drop entrance. This drop has one of those classic lawyer written signs that says basically "Not for public use, but if you do use it, please follow these rules". We are guessing the not for public use protects the conservancy from legal problems with people using the site as we have been reassured it is ok to use the drop by State officials with DEP and Collier county is planning on paving the road next year. It used to have potholes that the car could fall in, but was graded in preparation for paving.

As we drove in on Shell Island drive to get to Rookery Bay, we saw a family of wild boars (florida pigs) with mom, dad and 3 little piglets crossing the road. Mom hurried the piglets into the mangroves but dad was not so quick to leave whatever meal he was enjoying at the time in the swampy area on the side of the road. After the family of wild boars, we came across a colony of about five racoons all looking sneaky as they went about morning feeding activities near the maintenance shed for the preserve. Everybody scampered back into the woods as we drove slowly down the trail. Sorry, but we did not get the camera out fast enough to catch the wild boars or the racoons this morning as we sipped the second cup of coffee on Shell Island Road.

We have dropped the kayak four or five times in Rookery Bay. The drop is good at the end of the Shell Island road and is located in an area that is a public/private partnership between the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. This is one of three National Estuarine Research reserves in the State of Florida plus part Rookery Bay Reserve are also designated as a National Audubon Sanctuary and a State Aquatic Preserve. From my humble observation, this is a crucial piece of land for the survival of the ecosystem in SW Florida between the rapid development in Collier and Lee Counties plus all the seawalls in Marco Island.

The view looking south as you exit from the inlet out onto Rookery Bay. We are almost to a full moon and we have plenty of water both days on our current trip as the tides are running 3.5 and 3.7 feet above mean tide which is very high for our part of the World. Average water depth in the reserve was about 6 feet with a tannin color from the roots in the Everglades. Southwest Florida estuaries get a lot of fresh water from the Everglades system with the summer rainstorms over the middle of the state. It is great that you have this much wilderness to kayak in just minutes from Naples and Marco Island, Florida.

You almost can see the water surging up the inlet on the approach to high tide. We were in Southwest Florida for some beach time but it also luckily coincides with the September 1 beginning of snook season. Snook is a great fighting gamefish and we have almost draconian limits on keeping the fish. The slot for a keeper snook on the west coast of Florida is now between 28" and 33" with much of the breeding time of the year closed to harvest. Our snook fishing was all "catch and release" as we got two twenty inch fish and another that was about eighteen inches. I think all true sportsmen will adhere to these regulations because we have so much respect for these fish that are one of the great inshore gamefish of southern Florida. My favorite technique is to use a float that we call popping bobbers and let it float with the tide under the mangrove trees. You'll know when you have hooked up a snook because the top of the water simply explodes when he attacks the bait. In the hot summer months you have to revive the fish by running water through the gills and you know when they are feeling better because almost explode out of your hand when they take the first push to swim back to the mangroves. We love the kayak for snook fishing because you can get very close to the mangroves and cover a lot of ground hunting for the fish. Rookery Bay is a juvinile snook playground where they can grow up safe and have plenty to eat. Over the weekend, we saw at least 15 or 20 times bands of marrauding snook beating up on white bait near the edges of the mangrove islands.

The Calusa banks are a feature that you can see all over Southwest Florida. The Calusa Indians built up mounds of shells (can you say pre-colonization oyster roast?) and other materials to keep the high tides away from campgrounds as the Calusa Indians were the first kayakers in Southest Florida. From the bounty that is left after we have paved over Florida, I cannot imagine how great a Calusa lived with fresh fish, oysters, crabs and other assorted bounty from the sea. The Calusa may not have slept as upscale as the current tourists in Marco Island and Naples, Florida but they ate better, I am sure from the size of the shell mounds.

Another view to the south from the Inlet. Day one was absolutely flat and almost cloud free. I hate the summer heat and rains, but you get to kayak in flat water many days which is spectacular. I love it when the kayak comes out on a bay like Rookery Bay and you can see for miles across the flat water. For a more aggresive trip, we have headed out to the "outside" and you could even take the intercoastal back down to Marco if you have a second car to ferry the kayaks. When we kayak in the summer,we are not as aggressive about trips and drop the kayak early as you can have a real problem with thunderstorms that crop up with heavy winds and frequent lightning which is very dangerous. In the fall and winter, many days (and weeks) have zero percent chance of rain, so you can head further away from the drop point. One day a couple of falls ago, we used one of those perfect days to ride the tide outside and ride it back up Rookery Bay and that too was a spectacular trip as the topography changes when you get closer to the beach on the outside and you can stop for a swim on the beach before you turn the kayaks around for home.

On these Florida summer days, you keep an eye on the clouds that are piling up when you are out in the kayak. These are still at the safe stage but on a hot sunny day will continue to pile up until they build into Thunderheads. When they turn grey and head your way, it is time to take the kayak back to the drop point as it is dangerous to load in a thunderstorm too.

These pictures were shot off of Shell Island Road in Rookery Bay. There are additional drops in Ten Thousand Islands near Goodland, but you will need a GPS if you are going into the back-country. Rookery Bay is the top portion of this map nearer to Naples, Florida. Ten Thousand Islands is the area south of Marco Island once you cross the Goodland Bridge.

This is a view from the middle of Marco Island Beach towards Tigertail Beach near the Marco River. Marco Island is a wonderful beach stop if you are paddling in Rookery Bay. The beach is only about 15 minutes from the drop point and has good facilities for restaurants, beach shopping, hotels and even condominiums you can rent.

Bring a chair and umbrella or rent one from the beach companies on Marco Island. Today is a nice smooth day for the Hobie Cat people and this view is from our balcony at the Charter Club of Marco Beach. We also like the Hilton and the Marriott hotels on Marco Beach. Call our offices at Vacation Tour & Cruise to let us do your hotel and car rental booking and we can give you tips on the other drops in the Marco Island area. Naples, Florida is also a good jumping off point for this trip and you can stay as far north as Bonita Springs, Fort Myers Beach or Sanibel and make the drop pretty easy.

View from the condo towards the south end of Marco Island Beach called Caxambas Pass. Collier County, Florida developed later than many of the beach communities and has a law about leaving the sand dunes in place and building behind the dunes. This is not only smart for the ecology, but also safer from a hurricane standpoint. Each condo or hotel has a walkover to Marco Island Beach.

5208 E. Fowler Ave. Suite 1A
Tampa, FL 33617
(813) 988-6211

Book your hotel, car and/or
vacation package with us and
your kayak advice is FREE!

Links for more information

Stop at the
Rookery Bay
Environmental Learning Center

on the approach road to Marco Island (just south of US41) to start your educaiton about this area.

Rookery Bay Environmental
Learning Center offers:

  • 2,300 gallon aquarium with immersion bubble
  • A Working Coastal Laboratory
  • A short film about Rookery Bay
  • Palmetto Patch Nature Store
  • Florida Naturalist Art Gallery
  • Florida Friendly Landscaping Garden

Join a Rookery Bay naturalist for a two-hour guided exploration of the bays and mangrove forests of Rookery Bay Reserve. Discover the unique plants and animals that make up this coastal ecosystem so valuable. Cost is $35 per person and pre-registration is required at...
or call (239) 417-6310 for more information.

No kayaking experience needed and trip includes boat, equipment, trained guide and educational interpretation.

Special thanks to the Conservancy of Southwest Florida for maintaining the drop on Shell Island Road. The Conservancy of Southwest Florida was formed in 1964 and has spearheaded the acquisition and protection of Rookery Bay. The Conservancy has a Discovery Center, guided electric boat tours and a wildlife rehabilitation center in Naples near the naples zoo at
1450 Merrihue Drive, Naples, FL 34102.


Where to Stay

Eagle's Nest Beach Resort
1 & 2 Bedroom Condos
$255 to $435 a night

call (813) 988-6211 or
email john@vacationtc.com

The Charter Club
of Marco Beach
2 Bedroom Condos
$286 to $463 a night

call (813) 988-6211 or
email john@vacationtc.com

Marriott Marco Island
$199 to $369 a night
call (813) 988-6211 or
email john@vacationtc.com

Hilton Marco Island
$139 to $299 a night
call (813) 988-6211 or
email john@vacationtc.com

All hotel rates plus local taxes
and subject to change on your dates.

5208 E. Fowler Ave. Suite 1A
Tampa, FL 33617
(813) 988-6211

Book your hotel, car and/or
vacation package with us and
the kayak advice is FREE!

We are registered with the
State of Florida
as a
Seller of Travel

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Kayaking Rookery Bay in Southwest Florida
You always hear a bird rookery way off the the distance before you can pick out which island.

On a quiet day, you can hear a bird rookery way before you can see it. You start to hear squawking far off in the distance and the volume goes up as you approach a rookery island. For some reason, many birds seem to pick the same islands in the middle of the bay to raise their young. Sometimes it may be all the same kind of bird as I have seen pelican rookeries, egrit rookeries or islands like this one with a mix of birds living in harmony. Rookeries are usually not attached to the mainland and located in the middle of the bay to discourage predators like racoons and foxes that might eat the eggs out of the nest.

As you approach the rookery island, you will see some agitation among the population. We suggest that kayaks keep some distance between themselves and the birds to allow the birds to raise their chicks quietly and without disturbance.

It is hard to see from this picture, but the island is a beehive of activity as adult birds watch over gaggles of chicks that are noisily begging for small fish and crabs that the parents bring back. Every corner of the island has movement hidden in the mangroves

Here a grey heron flies back to the roost with a meal for the chicks. White bait (sardines, menhaden and other small fish) are abundant in the late fall so the pickings are easy as the adults keep leaving and returning to the roost.

Aerial operations around the island are always busy as birds fly over, approach and make ready for landing.

Somehow, they pick their way through the mangroves to land. We have enhanced the contrast of the bird versus the trees in this picture to show you the grey heron land on a mangrove tree. As we said earlier we do not believe in going right up to rookery islands as we do not want to disturb the parenting process so we shoot from 50 or 100 yards away.

The birds walk up and down the mangrove logs to navigate the island. Much of the island is just falls or live mangroves hanging into the water but there are birds hanging out everywhere on the island. This rookery is just to the north of the drop when you get the kayak out into Rookery Bay you paddle past the sign below and it is the second island north of the drop point.

The rookery above is located just past this cut about 500 yards.

This slow manatee zone sign has a huge Osprey nest. It is very interesting the way these large birds of prey weave nests in high places above the mangroves. This nest is abandoned for the summer as they are out teaching the young birds to fly and hunt as they are usually used up to the point where they teach the birds to actually fly. There is nothing like watching an Osprey catch a medium sized mullet that lingered a second too long. Sometimes we have seen the actually drop the fish and catch it to reposition the aerodynamics for flying if it is large fish for the size of the bird. Then they quietly sit on a mangrove tree and rip pieces from the fish to eat. It is never quiet when they return to the nest with a fish and chicks as there is a loud competition among the one to two chicks to get as much of the food as possible as natural selection plays out in the mangroves. The kayak allows you to get up close and personal with things like Osprey nests but you would not want to do this with a bird of prey when chicks were in the nest or you might get dive bombed.

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