SANIBEL ISLAND -- Sanibel Island has worked hard to keep its reputation for natural, and it has paid off through the years. More than half of its 33 square miles is devoted to refuge and preserve lands, and eco-tourism is big business.
This October, Sanibel's conservation-mindedness hits the jackpot when one of the nation's most prestigious art competitions comes to Florida for the first time. J.N. ''Ding'' Darling National Wildlife Refuge along with BIG ARTS hosts the judging for the 75th Federal Duck Stamp Oct. 8 through 14. The public is invited, and islanders are expecting flocks of wildlife artists, art collectors, birders and nature-lovers.
The Ding Darling Refuge is largely responsible for establishing the island's environmental-friendly attitude and strong eco-tourism. Opened in 1945, it encompasses 6,400 acres of mangrove wetlands and hardwood uplands on and around the island.
Its four-mile Wildlife Drive draws close to 800,000 visitors every year. They come for the birds, the alligators, the manatees, the river otters and the one lone crocodile that call the refuge habitat. It is the nation's second most-visited refuge, after Virginia's Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
Birds flock to its ponds, and photographers typically line the banks in winter. Birders also climb the observation tower for an elevated view. By October, the much-awaited white pelicans begin to arrive. Roseate spoonbills and herons populate the mangroves year-round. In all, the refuge, part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, hosts more than 220 species.
INTRO TO ECOLOGY
The refuge's $3.3-million Education Center introduces visitors to the refuge's wildlife and its namesake, the vocal conservationist Jay N. ''Ding'' Darling, who visited the island in the 1930s and was instrumental in getting the refuge established.
Bailey Tract, part of the refuge that lies off the main campus about 3 miles away, presents a different upland lakeside habitat for hiking and biking.
Throughout the year tram, hiking, biking, birding, boat, and paddling tours take visitors into the waters and trails of the refuge for an in-depth look. During the 75th Duck Stamp celebration, which runs concurrently with the 18th annual Ding Darling Days birding and eco-festival, special tours will be offered at discount rates.
Highlights of the celebration include a wildlife art auction, judging of the Duck Stamp entries and a Family Fun Day. An ivory-billed woodpecker discussion featuring sighter Bobby Harrison, a nature photography workshop with Harrison, Junior Duck Stamp Awards, and showings of a historical film about Darling's life also will fill the week with environmental activities for all ages.
The Ding Darling refuge's eco-conscience has rubbed off on Sanibel to make the island a model for successful eco-tourism. Other nature attractions lie along its conservation corridor between Sanibel and Captiva.
GRAB A PADDLE
The refuge's recreational concession, Tarpon Bay Explorers, offers canoe and kayak rentals and tours at Tarpon Bay, rated among Canoe & Kayak magazine's 10 best paddling destinations in the U.S. It also does electric-powered pontoon nature cruises to the bay's rookeries in addition to tram tours through the refuge. During Ding Days, it discounts its tour fees.
Near the refuge, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation's Nature Center, trails, and special environmental programs further educate and entertain eco-minded visitors. The Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) and Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum also lie along the conservation corridor along Sanibel-Captiva Road.
The shell museum reinforces Sanibel's reputation as a top shell-collecting destination. It uses nature vignettes and artistically arranged displays to demonstrate the role of shells in ecology, history, art, economics, medicine, religion, and other fields.
Wildlife tours and programs are a cottage industry on Sanibel and Captiva. The new Sanibel Sea School takes kids and adults on interactive excursions into the refuge and other wilderness areas.
On the water, Captiva Cruises conducts daily narrated dolphin watch and wildlife excursions into local waters. Adventures in Paradise specializes in Sealife Encounter Excursions, where a marine biologist on board throws a seine net so that passengers can study the marine creatures it gathers before they are returned to the sea.