The Estero Bay estuary is bordered on the west by a chain of barrier islands, which include Estero Island, Long Key, Lovers Key, Black Island, Big Hickory Island and Little Hickory Island, from north to south respectively. Within the estuary are hundreds of islands, many with no upland area. Mangrove trees are by far the most dominant vegetation in the bay, although extensive seagrass beds are found within the shallow bays and sounds. The climate in the region is subtropical with the majority of rainfall from June to September. The estuary is not supplied with freshwater by any major river but rather by a number of small rivers and creeks.
Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve works closely with the Estero Bay Buddies and Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserves to meet its mission. Volunteers are encouraged to help clean up marine debris; monitor seagrasses, and wading and diving bird rookeries; and monitor water quality in cooperation with the Charlotte Harbor Estuaries Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring Network (CHEVWQMN).
The Estero Bay estuary complex began to form about 5,000 years ago when a rise in sea level flooded the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River and the smaller rivers and creeks of the present Estero Bay area. This flooding caused sediments to be deposited at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River and the lesser streams. The sediments from the Caloosahatchee River were carried by the longshore currents south to be deposited as barrier islands bounding the present Estero Bay. The sediments deposited from the smaller rivers and streams in Estero Bay filled in the bay to cause its present shallow depth.
Estero Bay was formed into a lagoonal type estuary by the lack of significant fresh water input and a weak tidal exchange due to the restricted size of its inlets. This lagoonal formation may have been further aggravated by the present bridges and causeways in the area.
The Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve, comprising the northern half of Estero Bay, was dedicated in December 1966 as the state's first aquatic preserve. During the 1983 session of the Florida Legislature, the southern half of Estero Bay down to the Lee County line was added.
The Great Calusa Blueway and Estero Bay & River Paddling Trail also are nearby. Preserve staff use GIS technology to map the aquatic resources within the bay and help to organize cleanups to protect the bay and keep it beautiful.
Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve staff focus their outreach efforts on educational signs (such as those alerting users of seagrasses), participation in local events and organizing wading trips. During these wading trips, participants can meander through mudflats, explore seagrass beds, and use nets and field microscopes to uncover and study animals such as starfish and seahorses. Aquatic preserve staff also have helped educate local law enforcement on changes in seagrass protection legislation.
There are several major archeological and historic sites within the boundaries of Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve and the adjacent upland areas. In addition, most of the area has not been surveyed, and it is anticipated that additional sites will be located.
The sites include both Native American and European encampments and villages, but most are prehistoric shell (kitchen) middens such as Mound Key. Due to sea level rise, the majority of coastal sites from the earliest occupation of the area lie drowned in the bay or farther out in the Gulf of Mexico.
Estero Bay contains several natural community types. Although overlap between the different communities often occurs, they remain distinct community types. The dominant community type in Estero Bay is the mangrove forest, but seagrass beds, salt marshes, tidal flats, oyster bars and others are also present.
The combination of subtropical climate, the lagoon configuration, and vegetation make this estuarine complex one of the most productive in the state. Approximately 40% of the state's endangered and threatened species are found within this area. The estuary also indirectly supports a variety of commercial and sport fisheries by providing nursery area, which substantially adds to the local economy. The estuary is also an important home for bird nesting colonies and a valuable stopover area for migrating birds.
Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve staff have helped identify three rookery islands within and adjacent to Estero Bay as potential Critical Wildlife Areas. Monitoring data from aquatic preserve staff was used in the determination of these CWAs.
Listed species found in the Estero Bay aquatic preserve include:
Twisted air plant: State Threatened
Giant wild pine: State Endangered
Red knot: Federally Threatened
Snowy plover: State Threatened
Piping plover: Federally Threatened
Marian's marsh wren: State Threatened
Little blue heron: State Threatened
Reddish egret: State Threatened
Tricolored heron: State Threatened
Southeastern American kestrel: State Threatened
American oystercatcher: State Threatened
Wood stork: Federally Threatened
Roseate spoonbill: State Threatened
Black skimmer: State Threatened
Least tern: State Threatened
Roseate tern: Federally Threatened
American alligator: Federally Threatened (similarity of appearance to Threatened Species)
Atlantic loggerhead turtle: Federally Threatened
Atlantic green turtle: Federally Threatened
American crocodile: Federally Threatened
Leatherback turtle: Federally Endangered
Atlantic hawksbill turtle: Federally Endangered
Kemp's ridley turtle: Federally Endangered
Big Cypress fox squirrel: State Threatened
Florida manatee: Federally Threatened
Smalltooth sawfish: Federally Endangered
September 1, 2021 - 9:18am
Interested in subscribing to DEP newsletters or receiving DEP updates through email?
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is the state’s lead agency for environmental management and stewardship – protecting our air, water and land. The vision of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is to create strong community partnerships, safeguard Florida’s natural resources and enhance its ecosystems.