Thousands of years ago, indigenous people called the Calusa inhabited much of coastal Southwest Florida. The Calusa culture was a complex society that thrived on the bounty of the estuary as opposed to agriculture, which was the primary means of subsistence for many other early American people. Numerous Calusa settlements were developed along the Collier County coastline and were occupied from 400 to 2,500 years ago.

Changing their landscape on many fronts, the Calusa people left behind traces of their way of life on the shell mound complexes they built. The size and locations of the settlements, many of which are in the Ten Thousand Islands, indicate that large communal groups flourished on the abundance of coastal resources with fish and shellfish accounting for up to 70 percent of their diet.

The Calusas regarded mollusk shells, as well as other animal parts, as important resources because of the lack of workable stone and building materials in their ROOKERY BAY environment. They utilized bones, spines and teeth as tools for sewing, piercing or spearing. And, their homes were built on large mounds of discarded shells, like modern building foundations, to provide protection from extreme high tides and storms.

Several Calusa mound complexes are protected within the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve’s 110,000 acres. These cultural resources belong to the people of Florida, and their continued existence is instrumental for future research and education.



Archaeologists studying the Calusa culture look closely at artifacts (items made or carved by humans) to learn about what life was like for prehistoric peoples. Within each mound complex are middens (smaller mounds) that served specific purposes. The “kitchen middens,” or refuse piles, tend to provide the greatest clues to the mysteries surrounding their lost culture. In addition to shell tools, pieces of broken pottery are, by far, the most commonly found remnants of the Calusa civilization. These artifacts have provided valuable insights into their social evolution.

In the Calusa culture, women made the pottery and finished the rim of each piece with their finger nail or other object in a distinct pattern representing a sort of regional, tribal trademark. By studying pottery remnants found in different middens along the coast, archaeologists have determined that either the pots, or their makers, were traded between regions.

There is still much to learn about our Floridian predecessors. Rookery Bay Reserve’s cultural resource monitor, Steve Bertone, has been working with archaeologists to curate an inventory of prehistoric artifacts found during grant-funded surveys at some of the shell mounds in the reserve. Since 1978, the reserve has cataloged more than 200 artifacts in its inventory, which also includes shell tools, shell net weights, carved bones and remnants from pioneer settlers who squatted atop the abandoned mounds in the 1880s.

Each artifact in the inventory has been recorded in a PHOTO(S) BY RENÉE WILSON database along with the GPS coordinates of the location where it was found and other details about the find. With help from Rookery Bay Reserve educator and photographer Dave Graff, each record in the database is now accompanied by a photo of the actual artifact. High resolution, close-up images enable close inspection of the artifact virtually, and the photos show clear details such as embedded fibers and fingernail marks.

This database serves as an incredible resource for archaeologists and other researchers who are studying at the reserve. Expanding our collective knowledge of the local history and land use is essential to guiding management efforts, educating the community and planning for trails or other recreational opportunities.


With Rookery Bay Reserve

Explore this unique ecosystem via small boat tours that offer an up-close and personal experience. With a maximum of six passengers these on-the-water adventures are the only Rookery Bay tours actually conducted by Reserve staff. The relaxed pace and emphasis on learning is designed to help visitors develop a true sense of place and a deeper connection to this unique coastal wilderness. Several different trips are available, each with a different theme. All tours provide a chance to see a diversity of native wildlife and offer a comfortable platform for photography. Tours include free admission to the Environmental Learning Center on day of trip and proceeds support the non-profit Friends of Rookery Bay, Inc. Offered every Tuesday through Friday until May. Pre-registration is required at Cost is $109, includes same day admission to the Environmental Learning Center.

Essence of Estuary Boat Tour

Offered 2 – 5 p.m. Nov. 8, 10, 18, 23, 28 and Dec. 21, 26.

Have you ever visited a place with the hope you might come away with a profound understanding of its essence rather than just a snapshot? This tour is designed to “get you there.” You will drift through the bays and backwaters of Rookery Bay Reserve, learning about plants and animals, but more importantly, how they fit into the complex tapestry of this special place we call an estuary. Bring your curiosity and be rewarded with discovery and insight. You will journey back in time and learn how human history and natural history intersect. Your guide adapts the tour to changes in weather, tides, and participants’ interests so no two tours are ever the same. Participants will be on the boat the entire time and must have the physical ability to step on and off of the boat at our dock.

Life’s A Beach Boat Tour

Offered 2 – 5 p.m. Nov. 9, 22, 25, and Dec. 9, 20, 22.

This tour provides an opportunity to explore Keewaydin Island, a natural, living barrier island with an incredible diversity of life and some of the best shelling in Florida. Stroll the beach with your naturalist guide and learn about all the things you are seeing: specially adapted native plants, gastropods, bivalves, crustaceans, corals, sea squirts, snails, sponges, worms, fishes, birds, reptiles, and more. This island is a wonderful example of the life and death reality of plants and animals “living on the edge”. Also included is a leisurely cruise through the Rookery Bay mangrove estuary, one of the richest and most productive ecosystems on the planet. Participants must have the physical ability to step down into, and up from, the boat at a dock. Closed-toed shoes are recommended for the walk across the island (and can be removed on the beach).

Sunset to Starlight Cruise

Offered 4 – 7 p.m. Nov. 12, 13, 14 and Dec. 11, 12, 13.

This one-of-a-kind tour takes place in the evening and is often (but not always) around the time of the full moon. Guests will visit a remote section of Keewaydin Island, renowned for its shell-strewn beaches and pastel sunsets. Stroll along and enjoy beachcombing until the magical moment when the sun sinks into the Gulf. As darkness gradually enfolds you, begin the leisurely return cruise through the back bays of the reserve, becoming immersed in the sights, sounds and sensations of night in a mangrove-forested estuary. If the tide permits, you will ease by the rookery island where hundreds of herons, egrets and ibis gather for the night. Participants must have the physical ability to step down into, and up from, the boat at a dock.

High Points Boat Tour

Offered 2 – 5 p.m. Nov. 16, 29 and Dec. 15, 30.

Come along on this small boat cruise through back bays and winding creeks to visit a particularly unusual place in Rookery Bay Reserve. After disembarking, take a short hike to one of the highest points in Collier County, an ancient sand dune relic from the Pleistocene Era. Your naturalist guide will help you see and appreciate the geologic history of Sand Hill as you enjoy the remarkable view. You will also learn about the specially adapted trees, shrubs and wildflowers that survive in this coastal scrub ecosystem. This tour allows guests the opportunity to experience a place few visitors get to see. Participants must have the physical ability to get into and out of a boat tied to shore.

Treasure Island Boat Tour

Offered 2 – 5 p.m. Nov. 17, Dec. 16, 23, 28.

The treasure on this interesting island isn’t gold, silver or pirates’ booty. It is the amazing ecological treasure of a rare tropical hardwood hammock. You will enjoy a leisurely boat trip through the estuary to the island, disembark, and hike about 1/2 mile on a primitive trail in a shaded forest dripping with ferns and bromeliads. Your naturalist guide will introduce you to the fascinating plants that make this community of life unique and will share interesting stories of how human history and coastal ecology intertwine. This tour requires the physical ability to step down into, and up from, the boat at a dock and walk 1/2 mile on uneven terrain.

November 14 – 18, 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

Art Class: Draw Birds and Butterflies in Colored Pencil

Learn how to realistically draw all kinds of beautiful birds and gorgeous butterflies in colored pencil. Lee Hammond is a police composite artist, holds licenses to paint pictures of NASCAR drivers, and has published more than 30 art instruction books that have sold more than one million copies. Now, she brings her passion to the Rookery Bay Reserve, where she teaches art classes each season. In five days, you will learn everything you need to know to draw proficiently in colored pencil, based on Lee’s best-selling book. Pre-registration is required. Cost is $395, supplies are not included.

November 17, 5:30 – 7 p.m.

Art Gallery Opening Reception

The Friends of Rookery Bay and the United Arts Council of Collier County present the Annual Painting Exhibition from November 15 through January 26, with works submitted by artists from Collier and Lee counties. Following Rookery Bay’s environmental mission, works will share a central theme of flora and fauna. Most of the works are for sale. The Opening Reception will feature wine and light hors d’oeuvres. Admission is $3 for the public and free for participating artists and their guest as well as members of the United Arts Council and the Friends of Rookery Bay.

November 19, 8 a.m. – 12 p.m.

Birds of the Beach

Southwest Florida is a critical stopover site for thousands of migrating and wintering shorebirds. In this class, Adam DiNuovo of Audubon Florida will discuss the life history of these birds and the amazing journeys many of them make annually. Winter shorebirds are notoriously difficult to ID, so practicing the skills learned in this class is essential. You will learn how to use plumage, size, and behavior to help with identification. The classroom session will be followed by a trip to Tigertail Beach, one of the most important winter shorebird sites in Florida, where we will see many of the birds discussed. Pre-registration is required, cost is $40. Also offered December 17.

November 24-25

Environmental Learning Center is closed for Thanksgiving

November 30 – December 8

No Eco Tours

December 5 – 9, 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

Art Class: Paint Portraits in Acrylic

Create beautiful portraits in acrylic with Lee Hammond. Based on her painting books by North Light, Lee will show you how to achieve beautiful skin tones, hair and clothing. Lee Hammond is a police composite artist, holds licenses to paint pictures of NASCAR drivers, and has published more than 30 art instruction books that have sold more than one million copies. Now, she brings her passion to the Rookery Bay Reserve, where she teaches art classes each season. Pre-registration is required. Cost is $395, supplies are not included. December 10, 8 – 10 a.m. Adventure Race Enjoy a 3k kayak along Henderson Creek and a 4k trail run at the Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center to benefit the Friends of Rookery Bay. All participants will receive a t-shirt (sizes guaranteed if registered before Nov 20), post-race refreshments, Rookery Bay water bottle, and free admission to the Environmental Learning Center and entry for door prizes. Awards will be presented to the top finishers in each category: men, women, relays, tandem teams and surf-skis. Pre-registration is required. Cost varies by category, prices increase on Nov 21.

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