Sanibel Island’s timeless treasures Take a kayak and enjoy a front-row view of nature
By Laurie Borman, Special to Tribune Newspapers
March 7, 2010
SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla. — Six kayaks slipped through Tarpon Bay’s calm water. A double-crested cormorant, ever the opportunist, paddled alongside, using the shadows of the kayaks to hide before diving for fish. The group from the Tarpon Bay Explorers outfitter was headed for a marked paddling trail among Commodore Creek’s mangroves at the far edge of J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
It’s hard to believe this is Florida, land of high-rise hotels and faux flamingos. Similar in appearance to tropical islands of the Caribbean, Sanibel Island has always protected its natural treasures, with more than 60 percent of the island preserved for wildlife. People come here to pick up the shells that wash up on the beach every turn of low tide, spot birds such as anhingas and osprey, and ride bikes on the miles of bike paths. It is Florida’s original eco-destination.
Most people start their trip at the 6,400-acre “Ding” Darling refuge. If you have kids in tow or want to educate yourself before diving into nature, check out the education center at the entrance of the preserve. Hands-on exhibits engage youngsters and help teach about the ecosystem.
Ease into the preserve with a drive along the wildlife refuge trail. Fortunately, there are helpful employees, such as Edward Combs, who stood with his spotting scope, helping drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians spy birds wading in the distance.
“There’s a lot of heat refraction, but you can see the bald eagle nest,” he told a tourist peering through the scope.
The wildlife drive is a good start, but heading out in a boat really puts you in the middle of nature. (Just don’t forget the bug spray and sunscreen, because the middle of nature teems with no-see-ums that creep down your neck.) It’s not uncommon to spy roseate spoonbills with their spoon-shaped beaks; dark, long-tailed anhingas; and white ibises with bright-orange hooked beaks. These mangrove estuaries also draw several types of herons and wading birds looking for small fish flitting around the tree roots.
Kayak tour guide Jenna Fulghum spotted tiny tree frogs crawling up a branch and noted the cry of an anhinga that was warning a paddler who was moving in for a photo.
After leading her kayakers to a point where the route began to circle back, she left them to explore on their own. It’s easy to slip off to the far edge of the mullet pond and watch the fish leaping out of the water, away from conversations and other paddlers.
Commodore Creek Trail is just off the Great Calusa Blueway (greatcalusablueway.com) and has more than 190 miles of marked paddling trails in Lee County. The blueway offers options for the rank beginner to expert paddler, whether in kayaks or canoes, with one long stretch the full length of Sanibel Island.
If you want to learn more about shells, creatures and island habitat, consider a day at the Sanibel Sea School (239-472-8585, 414 Lagoon Drive, sanibelseaschool.com). Though pricey ($55 for three hours, $110 for a full day), the sessions for both kids and adults are about “educational discovery, not eco-tourism,” said Bruce Neil, program director with degrees in zoology, coral reef biology and molecular genetics.
“Increasingly, kids are not exposed to nature, and when they are, it’s like a theme park,” he said. “We promote going barefoot and learning how to open coconuts.”
Kids go surfing after lunch, get stickers for picking up beach litter, make rafts from bamboo.
Near “Ding” Darling, the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum (239-395-2233, 3075 Sanibel-Captiva Road, shellmuseum.org) stands as one of the island’s main attractions.
A couple of movies give a great overview of how shells live, grow, feed and reproduce. Along with the movies, the Great Hall of Shells exhibits, which display local finds, help newbies tell a fighting conch from pear whelk.
Most important, the shell museum shows how to easily identify live shells, which are illegal to remove from the beach. (Just take a peek way inside the shell for the operculum, or foot, of the creature. These shells must be left unharmed.)
After the shell museum, you will want to wake up for low tide to walk the water’s edge, where shells make their awkward push and roll or burrow. Fellow shellers share discoveries, such as a rare nine-legged starfish or a sand dollar cache. Anne Morrow Lindbergh noted this willingness to share shelling finds in her book “Gift of the Sea” some 50 years ago.
Recently, a resident came up to a tourist on the beach whose hands overflowed with shells. “What did you find today?” he asked. Then he fished out several colorful shells of his own bounty to add to her catch. Guess it’s in their nature to share as well as preserve.
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