Charlotte Harbor, which includes the watersheds of the Peace, Myakka and Caloosahatchee rivers, encompasses 4,468 square miles. Fresh water drains into Charlotte Harbor, creating the second largest estuary in Florida. The Charlotte Harbor estuary is 30 miles long by 7 miles wide and boasts 219 miles of shoreline. The Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program, one of only three such programs in the state, was created to protect the estuary’s water quality and ecological integrity.
The estuary is a mosaic of habitats: salt marshes, beaches, open bay, seagrass meadows, tidal creeks, mudflats, salt barrens and mangrove forests. Each habitat supports an incredible assortment of organisms, many of which are rare and endangered, including manatees, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, wood storks, roseate spoonbills, American crocodiles, Florida black bears, Sherman’s fox squirrels, Florida scrub-jays and four species of sea turtle.
At least 2,300 different animal species make their living in the estuary’s mangrove forests. Over 450 fish species thrive in its waters. It’s a favorite destination of birders, with 331 bird species documented. Biologists have observed 39 species of mammals, 67 species of reptiles and 27 species of amphibians.
The estuary is also where you’ll find the Charlotte Harbor State Buffer Preserve, a patchwork collection of undeveloped properties comprising almost 39,000 acres. The Charlotte Harbor State Buffer Preserve surrounds or borders on many of the harbor’s most sensitive and valuable natural areas, including Cape Haze, Gasparilla Sound-Charlotte Harbor, Matlacha Pass and Pine Island Sound. All are classified as Outstanding Florida Waterways and aquatic preserves. Along with Lemon Bay to the north, the aquatic preserves total over 150,000 acres.
Next section: Florida’s mysterious mangroves