Bonita Springs — Tucked away near the end of Bonita Beach Road, alongside an area where you can fish, rent boats, sunbathe or just sit and stare at the Gulf, is a little corner of the big world of academia. Hard to find, almost insignificant in stature, it sits across the channel from Fish Trap Marina.
Officially, it’s the Vester Marine and Environmental Science Research Field Station, an arm of Florida Gulf Coast University. Unofficially, it’s just ‘Vester,’ a critical part of the local marine scene. It might just be the most important piece of marine research in all of Southwest Florida.
“We wanted students to have hands-on experience,” said Dr. Aswani Volety, who is the Director of the Vester Field Station. “We can talk about concepts and abstracts and principles, but it’s not the same unless you go into the field and they touch it, feel it, smell it, and then you really get it.
“So we were looking for a place where we have access to field sites – where we can use real seawater. You can keep animals in an environment of synthetic salt water, as we have on campus, for only a short time.”
Vester is located on Little Hickory Island along Fish Trap Bay, where the Imperial River empties into Estero Bay. Three buildings comprise the station, perched on a spit of land framed by water on three sides. The property was once a commercial fish house, then an old Florida-style resort. Then, about three years ago, FGCU purchased the property and transformed it into a working laboratory.
Students come from throughout the United States, plus several foreign countries, to study marine life at the field station. They probe into issues that affect marine organisms, humanity and the world, and learn at a lab that is uniquely Southwest Florida.
“They learn, for example, about water that runs off 10-Mile Creek into Estero Bay, how does that affect fresh-water organisms?” Volety said. “If there were an environmental disaster and an oil spill came ashore, how would that affect marine organisms?
“We are concerned about marine life in this area in just about every way.”
Vester field station is deeply involved in how red tides affect marine organisms. Students – and faculty – are involved in a great variety of marine programs with Estero Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, the Imperial River, Fish Trap Bay and Little Hickory all adjacent or close by.
The Vester group has already done important research on such a wide variety of topics as red tide, various pollutants, oil spills, mapping of aquatic vegetation and examining the role of nutrients in the development of macroalgae and red tides.
Students and faculty have discovered, for example, a very clean area bay, and one which is very polluted. Estero Bay is largely undisturbed by copper pollutants, relatively speaking, when compared to other large bodies of water in Florida.
According to Volety there are only about 200 parts per million of copper.
“Compare that to Naples Bay, which has about 14-1500 parts per million – that is actually one of the highest in the nation,” Volety said. “Naples Bay is virtually an enclosed bay,” he pointed out, which doesn’t allow easy flushing to open water.
“I’m not sure if the pollution is from fertilizers or other sources but if a bay is easily flushed, this isn’t a big deal. If it is enclosed, then it is. Bottom line is, it has very high levels of copper.”
One reason why the work at the Vester Field Station is so important is because every student at FGCU must take a course on the environment, which is the basis of Vester’s work.
“It’s a business sense and feel for Southwest Florida – why we care about all these things,” Volety said. “If you’ve never been to the mangroves or looked at the sea grass, this is very important.
“This way, they can see the connection between the ecology and the economy. Ours is a tourism-based economy. If the sea grasses aren’t growing, if the oysters aren’t healthy, if the mangroves aren’t well, if there is nobody boating or fishing, it’s a multi-billion loss of income.”
Darren Rumbold is busy working on a sled-like device he uses to measure oil pollution in the Gulf. In addition, he is busy with a mercury contamination project, observing pollutants starting with bi-valves all the way up to king mackerel and tuna.
“King mackerel, we found some of the highest levels of mercury we’ve ever seen in that species,” he said.
The work being performed on area waters by researches at Vester Field Station, this scholarly research center that calls Bonita Springs home, is changing how the world’s seas are viewed.