Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) is rapidly becoming one of the nation’s leading environmental institutions, and its new Water School will only enhance that reputation. While construction of its new building on the FGCU main campus is still roughly a year away, the University already operates a cutting-edge water quality educational facility in Bonita Springs, at 5164 Bonita Beach Road, where the Imperial River empties into the Estero Bay, with the Vester Marine & Environmental Science Research Field Station (VFS). Dr. Michael Parsons, Professor of Marine Sciences at FGCU and one of Florida’s leading water quality experts, is the VFS Director.
“The Vester Research Field Station property was formerly the Bonita Beach Plantation Resort, owned and operated for many years by Norm and Nancy Vester,” explained Dr. Parsons. “ Around 2007, they began to think about closing the resort, but they did not want to sell the property and have it torn down and replaced by a modern development, as they wanted to keep its ‘Old Florida’ look here on the water. Right around that time, they met an FGCU student and she really peaked their interest in the University, and soon thereafter, FGCU purchased the property and its three buildings from them at a significant discount, with part of the agreement that Mr. & Mrs. Vester could still use the main house during season, so they became snowbirds, spending their summers in Cape Cod and winters here, and that arrangement continues through this day. The Vesters are wonderful people!”
While the Vesters continue to use the majority of the main house, FGCU renovated the remainder of the property to meet the University’s needs, including wet and dry laboratories, hatchery, raw & filtered water flow-through tanks, workrooms, conference room, a classroom and various research tools such as microscopes, centrifuge, freezer and refrigerator and computers. Researchers and students can access a 7-boat fleet as well as numerous canoes and kayaks to do their work on the water, to collect a varied assortment of small fish, oysters, algae and other sealife to take back to the labs.
One of the Field Station’s most unique aspects is a legacy from its resort heritage. “We refurbished the resort building into eight modern apartments for visiting researchers and students; 4 into one-bedroom apartments and the other four into dormers filled with bunk beds that can accommodate up to 24 total students,” Dr. Parsons said. “We have researchers, graduate students and university classes from all over the nation and beyond, like from Wales and Canada, who come here to study water quality. One researcher stayed for over a year, and that would not be possible if we could not make these accommodations available to them.”
In addition to professional scholars and university students, the VFS hosts a variety of classes, like the Collier County Advance Placement Marine Science program, along with Boy & Girl Scouts, elementary school students, citizen-scientists and even events like sponsoring a reception for the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce members! “We really run the gamut,” smiled Dr. Parsons, “and one of the greatest things about the VFS is it allows us to host all of those people and groups and more! One of the most exciting was when incoming Florida Governor Ron DeSantis earlier this year chose Vester as the location to announce his new water quality initiatives, including the creation of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force of which I have the honor of being one of its five members. Right after his announcement, he, his wife Casey, and key staff boarded one of our boats to tour our waters for themselves.”
Software & Hardware
Dr. Parsons joined the FGCU faculty in June 2007, around the same time – by total coincidence – of when the Vesters began to consider the future of their property with the University. “I knew nothing about this at the time,” he laughed, “so it had absolutely nothing to do with my decision to join FGCU! What did interest me then was the University’s affiliation with the Coastal Watershed Institute (CWI) that focuses on watershed-related concerns and their impact on Southwest Florida’s coastal environments, and what the regional vision of the CWI could be on a larger scale, including becoming a ‘Think Tank’ for Marine Sciences. I became its Director and served in that capacity for approximately 10 years.”
Roughly three years ago, Dr. Parsons became the Director as well of the VFS “and I did both for a bit, to see how to best fit them together, with common elements, but it wasn’t long before I realized my schedule was so busy I was doing neither justice, so I stepped down from the CWI and my FGCU colleague, Dr. Darren Rumbold, is now that Director. If I had to describe the difference between the two organizations, I would say the CWI is the ‘software’ of water quality, where all the concepts come together, while Vester is the ‘hardware’ where we do actual hands-on study, so to me they are a perfect marriage!”
What’s In The Water?
He could not be happier with the role FGCU students play with the VFS. “So many are so involved, whether it be graduate students, undergraduates, interns or those conducting independent research. Because we work so closely with our students, we expect them to do public outreach and education, whether that be teaching elementary and middle school classes who visit here, as the younger we teach kids about the importance of water quality, the better off we all will be in the future. Our students also assist with water quality monitoring projects, like we are doing in cooperation with the Mound House with its ‘What’s In The Water?’ program in conjunction with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). We are processing the initial samples we took during dry season in May and should have those final results in a few weeks, and will conduct the next round during our wet season in the next month or so.”
Dr. Parsons admits that “FGCU students are blown away by the VFS, so it makes it easy to recruit topnotch scholars. The ones I actually feel sorry for are FGCU students who don’t discover Vester until they take a class here their junior or senior year and exclaim that they never knew this existed or they might have chosen a different career path. We tell them, however, not to be discouraged, as we need their talents as well, no matter their discipline; for instance, historians can catalog the history of the site and art students can paint appropriate murals. If you have an interest, we can match you up with a project!”
Various VFS areas include the scientific diving program, micro and macro laboratories, facilities for oyster spawning and hopefully soon for sponges, labs to study mangrove systems and various seagrasses to interact with mangroves and a salt water well. “If you are a VFS student,” reflected Dr. Parsons, “there are so many neat projects you can get involved in, with so many more neat projects on the horizon, in all kinds of sciency stuff! If you have a research project to improve water quality, chances are we can accommodate you.”
Encourage More Aggression
One project that FGCU constructs at the VFS is the “Rinks to Reefs” Program, where students use broken hockey sticks, not only from the university’s team but ones donated from the National Hockey League, to make artificial reefs. “Our only problem,” joked Dr. Parsons, “is we don’t have enough broken sticks! I playfully suggested that FGCU set up a meeting for me with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, to encourage more aggression so there are more broken sticks!” Dr. Parsons thanked John Gavin, Chairman of the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce and owner of Gavin’s Ace Hardware, for donating the necessary equipment to build the artificial reefs.
Will FGCU soon become the nation’s leading environmental university? Dr. Parsons said, “That is a great goal, but to be totally realistic, I would like the Water School to lead the way in doing a few things extraordinarily well, like becoming the leading center for mangrove and seagrass studies. There are a lot of opportunities in the clean water movement, so being the leader in a couple primary areas rather than spreading ourselves too thin in too many disciplines may be the best option.”
Dr. Parsons reflected upon what he likes most about being the Vester Research Field Station Director: “I really enjoy interacting with everyone associated with improving our overall water quality, including students, fellow educators and researchers, our political leaders and the general public. The momentum we have now for water quality is tremendous, as it seems like no one is sitting on the sidelines anymore, so networking opportunities are just off the charts!
“I am an optimist and truly believe that if we all work together, we can fix our water!”
By Gary Mooney