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The Paradise Coast - Naples, Marco Island and the Everglades

by Peggy Goldberg

If your image of Naples and Marco Island consists of rich older retirees, expensive homes on the Gulf of Mexico, and many many golf courses, you would only be partially right. I attended the Florida Outdoor Writers Association Conference held in Naples August 24-27 and was surprised to learn the Paradise Coast is an area of extensive outdoor adventures. Just outside the Naples city limits lies the Everglades, the mangroves of the Ten Thousand Islands, white sand beaches, barrier islands and the Audubon Society's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, home of the elusive ghost orchid. The area provides venues for adventures in unique ecosystems and habitats, whether you kayak/canoe, boat cruise, bike, hike, swamp walk with a guide or fish in some of the most productive waters in the state.


Naples Botanical Gardens - Photos 1-3

We visited the Naples Botanical Gardens and toured the cultivated "Gardens of Latitude" representing cultures of the tropics and subtropics from around the world between the latitudes of 26 degrees N (where Naples is situated) and 26 degrees S. The Gardens also have a 90 acre nature sanctuary with trails and birding tower. We were only able to take a short tour, but you should plan on spending several hours there when you go. It is quite a varied photo opportunity. The Gardens are open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. They also have a large building for banquet facilities and meetings. For more information go to www.naplesgarden.org.


Turner River Canoe Trail and Everglades City - Photos 4-5

We only were able to spend a week in the area, and it was not enough time to see everything. We brought our canoe, and spent the first day canoeing the Turner River Canoe Trail. There is a designated canoe access facility 5 miles past RT 29 (to Everglades City) on the north side of RT 41. There are local outfitters that can guide you through the mangrove tunnels and along pristine river, which eventually empties into the Ten Thousand islands by Chokoloskee in about 8 miles. Even though you are going with the current, it is easy to paddle back upstream to the put in site. We also explored the area at Everglades City going south on RT 29, where the National Park runs big pontoon boats out into the bay and mangroves in the 10,000 Island area. Alternatively, at the end of RT 29 a couple of miles south, there is The Everglades Area Tours/Motorboat Assisted Kayak Tours out of Chokoloskee. We heard from others that this was a great way to see the Everglades, by boat/kayak, then barefooting on a deserted barrier island, all on one tour! One can also put your canoe/kayak in at Collier Seminole State Park, which is just west of 29 on RT 41 heading back to Naples. We just didn't have time to do it all.


Faxahatchee Strand Swamp Walk - Photos 6-13

The next day, we met with JoNell Modys (jonellmodys@colliergov.net), the PR and Communications Manager of the Naples, Marco Island and Everglades CVB. We drove east on 41 turning left on Rt. 29 to the 80,000 acre Faxahatchee Strand State Preserve, part of the Big Cypress swamp. It is the largest strand swamp in the world - 19 miles long, 3 to5 miles wide and 3 to 4' deep... (they call it the Grand Canyon of the Everglades). There we met the well known photographer and guide, Rick Cruz, for a walk in the swamp in search of the elusive Ghost Orchid. A knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, he talked about the ecology and habitats of this unique area. It is home to the Florida panther, black bear, 17 species of endangered and threatened birds, 47 native wild orchids, 14 species of bromeliads, and beautiful Royal Palms. These swamp walks are a photographers dream, so much to photograph! Rick conducts an eco-photo safari. Though he will discuss composition and technique, this is not a technical photo workshop though, so know your camera well. Usually these walks involve being in water up to your waist, but because of the drought, the deepest water was about knee level. I love the silence (when people weren't talking, and there were few bird calls), the smells and the muted colors in the swamp. Unfortunately, we saw no snakes or alligators, but did keep a watchful eye out for both. The walks last around 3 hours, but in reality you are not trekking that far. You are stopping every few feet to inspect plants that Rick is pointing out. We would have missed most of them without his help, but after a while, your eye does start to be more observant and you begin to truly see the swamp. Rick also does kayak tours and walks in other places, so get in touch with him for more information at www.rickcruzphotography.com or call 305.298.7554.


Trawl on Rookery Bay - Photos 14-20

On the way to Marco Island, before the bridge, is the Rookery Bay Estuarine Research Reserve. It is one of the few remaining pristine mangrove estuaries in the world. There we took a research boat trip that included a trawling demonstration, bringing up ctenophores (comb jelly), small fish, and nine armed star fish! I have been diving over 30 years and had never seen one before. They discussed the ecology of the mangrove and waterways, and the trip usually includes a beach walk on Keewaydin Island , an 8 mile barrier island (the largest un-bridged barrier island on Florida's west coast) that is under the Rookery Bay management. We ran out of time to go on the island, since we were enjoying the trawling experience and photo ops. The tours are run by Collier County/UF Extension Sea Grant Agent Bryan Fluech and Rookery Bay Research Translator Renee Wilson. They do many educational tours for schoolchildren and for structured programs like the Florida Master Naturalist and teacher workshops. The Reserve also does restoration projects to restore fresh water flows from old failed development projects to improve shark nurseries in the Ten thousand Islands and they are studying the different shark species in the area. Go to www.rookerybay.org for tour information.


Canoeing on Rookery Bay - Photos 21-24

If you take Shell Island Road on the Reserve to the end, you can put in your canoe and follow the Collier County Blueway Paddling Trail , marked by numbers on channel markers around the mangrove islands. You can get an extensive canoeing/kayak map of the Paradise Coast Phase One: Ten Thousand Islands from the Naples, Marco Island Convention and Visitor's Bureau.


Sea Excursions Dolphin Project - Photos 25-35

On our last day, we boarded another research boat with the Sea Excursions Dolphin Project on Marco Island on the Dolphin Explorer. We had Captain Chris and research biologist and photographer James aboard and we were to assist in photographing and collecting data on the resident dolphins. There is a resident population of about 75 dolphins that live only in the estuary, and do not mix with the dolphins in the Gulf. The dolphins are identified by their distinctive dorsal fins and each dolphin has been given a name. Chris and James knew each one immediately and all photos taken were catalogued in the on-board computer. They monitor births and deaths, and locations of these mammals. We watched young dolphins leaping up and playing with the mangrove seeds and sticks. We also saw manatee, frigate birds, and numerous blue herons (little and great), pelicans, great egrets and even shore birds on our walk on Keewaydin Island, where we went shelling and observed turtle nests. At the end of the tour, we each received a photo from the trip. A memorable experience. Go to www.dolphin-explorer.com to get tickets and information.


Naples Pier - Photos 36-39

We did manage to find a few moments to drive around Marco Island. There is limited public access to the beaches there. We also went to the Naples Pier, the longest free fishing pier in the state. We had easier access to the beaches there, with public metered parking at every block. With Hurricane Irene's passing, the waves were giving the surfers a run for their money. We were used to seeing the Gulf calm, so this was quite a change.


Accommodations

The Naples area has many fine hotels and motels, but the FOWA conference allowed us to experience something different, a 2 bedroom condominium at the Greenlinks Golf Villas at Lely Resort for the price of an inexpensive hotel! When you share with another couple, it is hard to beat. The condos are fully appointed apartments that the owners allow to be rented out. They all have views of the lakes and golf course, where we saw even more wildlife and birds. It made easy access to Naples, Marco Island and the Everglades. Check them out at www.greenlinksnaples.com or call 888.992.2099.

There were two activities that we missed, but heard from others how much fun and interesting they were. One is the Picayune Strand/Everglades CERP Bicycle Tour with Everglades Edge Backcountry Eco Tours, and the other was the Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, the crown jewel of the Audubon's sanctuary system. I can't believe that we had no time to go there after being in the area for a week! As a photographer, that was really high on my list, so it just means a return trip to the Paradise Coast.

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