Private Small-Group Boat Tours at Rookery Bay Reserve

By: Gillian Birch

If you want to enjoy a boat tour during your stay in Southwest Florida, there are plenty to choose from around Naples and Marco Island. However, if you want the most informative boat tour around Rookery Bay, visiting places that are not generally accessible to the public, you need to book a tour with staff from the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Similar to a national park, this 100,000-acre Estuarine Reserve was established for coastal stewardship, education, and research and is one of 29 such areas in partnership with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). The word “estuarine” refers to the special area where freshwater flows down to mix with saltwater, such as in the Rookery Bay Reserve.

Rookery Bay Private Boat Tours

Rookery Bay Tours are available from November through April and are led by Randy McCormick, a native Floridian, Certified Interpretive Guide, and Florida Master Naturalist who has exceptional knowledge of the rich ecosystem and natural history of Rookery Bay. He offers a choice of tours, each with a slightly different emphasis on the plants, human history, wildlife, and geology found on the barrier islands and waters of Rookery Bay Preserve. Tickets also include free admission to the associated Environmental Learning Center within 24 hours of your boat tour (normally $5).

Rookery Bay Tours are available from November through April and are led by Randy McCormick, a native Floridian, Certified Interpretive Guide, and Florida Master Naturalist who has exceptional knowledge of the rich ecosystem and natural history of Rookery Bay.

Photo credit Gillian Birch

Your three-hour small group tour starts in the onsite Visitor Center where an informative orientation session sets the scene for what you will see. Then it’s down to the dock to board the flat-bottomed 24ft Carolina Skiff for your trip. Each of the six passengers has a swivel seat with unobscured views from beneath the awning. Traveling through waters as shallow as 4-8 feet, the High Points Tour to the Sand Hill can only be done at high tide, although other trips are offered at any time.

Taking a boat tour of Rookery Bay Reserve is a wonderful way to learn about Florida history, plants, and wildlife with access to areas of significance. Must Do Visitor Guides,

Photo credit Gillian Birch

The relaxed trip explores calm waters, passing mangrove islands and rookeries which are nurseries for nesting birds and other wildlife to gather, nest collectively and raise their young. You are likely to see herons, pelicans, egrets, ibis, and cormorants sitting high in the mangrove greenery. Other wildlife sightings include bald eagles, nesting ospreys (whose favorite nesting site is on the signboards) and even a peregrine falcon, the fastest bird on earth, if you’re lucky.

Nesting ospreys on an Intracoastal sign in the Rookery Bay Reserve Naples, Florida. Must Do Visitor Guides,

Photo credit Gillian Birch

During the trip Randy will answer questions and provide a commentary about the bay, mangroves, fishing history, birds, and wildlife. On arrival at Sand Hill, visitors disembark and explore this restricted access area. Hungry mosquitos abound in this pristine wilderness so covering arms and legs with loose clothing and using insect repellant liberally is essential for anyone with sensitivity to insect bites.

Geology and Plants on Sand Hill

Your guide will point out some of the plants in this unusual area where wetland meets desert. Learn how the thick-barked Slash Pine got its name; how turpentine is tapped from it and how its resinous wood can over time become petrified, providing slow-burning “lighter wood” for early settlers. See gopher holes, bobcat trails, and Cabbage Palms with wild moscato grape vines winding through the branches.

Rookery Bay Reserve tours Naples, Florida. Must Do Visitor Guides,

Photo credit Gillian Birch

Randy encourages everyone to touch the waxy leaves of the wild oaks and smell the stinkweed, and then crush the leaves to find the smell changes from skunk to citrus! You’ll also get up-close to the saw palmetto, nature’s horizontal palm, feel the plastic leaves and learn the medicinal properties of its berries. Next, you’ll examine the fine white sand and learn the Appalachian origins of this silky quartz sand.

The visit moves slowly to the top of the Sand Hill, a dizzying 22 feet above sea level, for panoramic views. This was the site of an Indian burial mound, sadly looted before its archaeological value could be assessed. Unnatural

Tour guide, marker commemorating the preservation of Rookery Bay Preserve Naples, Florida. Must Do Visitor Guides,

Photo credit Gillian Birch

hollows are the results of visitors digging for rumored pirate treasure, although nothing was ever found. Finally the tour reaches a marker commemorating the preservation of the area. In 1980, philanthropists Dellora and Lester Norris purchased 1500 acres and saved the area from development, establishing it as a sanctuary reserve.

On your return boat trip there’s time to dwell on the uniqueness of this trip and the fascinating facts learned about the area’s history and wildlife. It all adds up to a wonderful in-depth experience of natural Florida, but don’t forget the bug spray!

Written by: Gillian Birch | Author Website

Gillian Birch is a freelance travel writer and, whenever possible between trips, she enjoys life in Florida. As the wife of a Master Mariner, she has traveled extensively and lived in some exotic locations all over the world, including the Far East and the Republic of Panama. Describing herself as having "endless itchy feet and an insatiable wanderlust", she continues to explore Florida and further afield, writing about her experiences with wonderful clarity and attention to detail. With a diploma in Journalism from the BCJ, she has published several travel books and ebooks, all available on Amazon under her name. Formerly the Florida Editor for BellaOnline from 2011-13, Gillian is an active member of the International Travel Writers' Alliance and the Gulf Coast Writers' Association, and an enthusiastic guest blogger for Visitor Guides. Learn more about her writing as YourTravelGirl at: and follow her blog around the world at

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