“Ten, eleven, twelve, they keep coming!” We hop off our bikes as bicycling-birding tour guide Elaine Jacobson narrates a surprise mass landing of roseate spoonbills on a sandbar just yards from our overlook. “I’ve never seen so many here at once!”
Rain can wash the fun out of a beach getaway, but not on Sanibel Island. Despite raindrops draining off my bike helmet and red rain poncho, I’m getting a workout for all senses at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
I aim my binoculars for a close-up of these preposterously pink birds with spatulas for beaks. Residing year-round on Sanibel, they also enchant motorists with whom we share the refuge’s freshly resurfaced Wildlife Drive. Couples and families tumble from vehicles to witness this truly wild spectacle.
Rain’s not stopping me from exploring this southwest Florida island’s outdoor attractions. The moist air’s refreshing. And even on sunny summer days, Gulf breezes keep Sanibel balmy.
A three-mile causeway whisks get-away-from-it-alls from Fort Myers’ bustling mainland to Sanibel, where refuge acreage covers nearly 70 percent of the 12-mile-long barrier island.
No stoplights, streetlamps or billboards clutter the landscape. At night, light comes from stars hole-punching dark skies. Signs mark gopher tortoise crossings. High-rises? None, unless you mean the wood platforms where ospreys nest, or the shell mounds created as storm-surge protection by the Calusa, who lived here from around 4,000 B.C. until the late-1700s when vanquished by invaders and disease.
The Calusa used shells for tools, money, decoration and building. Today, Sanibel’s a mecca for shelling. With their unusual east-west orientation, the barrier island and its western neighbor Captiva catch shells ferried by Gulf currents from the southern seas. But Sanibel harbors other treasures between the Gulf and San Carlos Bay.
Rain or shine, year-round, you can spot manatees, birds, conchs, alligators and other animals taking sanctuary in one of the world’s largest mangrove forests. Protected by Florida law, dense spider-legged mangroves stabilize ground above and below sea level, creating nutrient-rich habitats.
“Nature is our cradle here,” says Nikki Rood, chef at Sanibel Sprout, an organic cafe and market that opened in 2012. “I wake up each morning to manatees and dolphins playing off my dock.” Nikki points to a photo of a manatee striped with boat-strike scars: “She visits regularly, always rises to the surface and lets me touch her.”
Summer’s when ardent nature-lovers flock to Sanibel, says Chris Lechowicz, a Sprout lunchtimer and director of Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s Wildlife Habitat Management Program. The sea turtles are nesting and so are shorebirds such as snowy plovers, Wilson’s plovers and least terns. The island’s quiet, he says, with hardly any traffic.
“The plants and animals are the natives, we’re their neighbors,” says another local as I sip Chef Nikki’s new “Sproutaccino,” a dessert-type drink made with organic coffee, cashews and dates.
The islanders are clearly passionate about living in harmony with nature; nearly everyone I meet, including the chef’s mother, Edith, volunteers at the wildlife refuge, conservation foundation, shell museum or wildlife rehabilitation clinic. All prove easy to reach along the hiker-biker path. The reward: exhilaration beating that of any theme park.
BIRDS, MANATEES & ANCIENT SHELL MOUNDS
The wetlands of “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge are just as impressive without the sun beaming overhead. The two-hour guided biking-birdwatching tour is free with the $1 bike-in/hike-in trail entry fee. We pedal along four-mile Wildlife Drive, which every day except Friday provides wetland and woodland glimpses of the refuge’s 6,400-acre arc.
“Do you know the difference between a park and a refuge?” asks Elaine, who has volunteered at the refuge for years with husband Jake. Parks are for people, refuges for wildlife. The refuge is named for a political cartoonist who helped protect land in Sanibel from development and persuaded President Truman to establish the refuge in 1945.
As the spoonbills prance on sandbars, a reddish egret performs a vaudeville-style dance to stir up fish. A yellow-crowned night heron swoops above the water. Below our overlook, a ray glides into murky depths. At our next stop, an anhinga perches in a cove, drying black wings marked with white feathers resembling piano keys.
Pedaling off the drive to Indigo Trail, we dismount at a new boardwalk winding through mangroves. Elaine guides our gaze to black tree crabs clinging to tree-trunks, then gives a quick Mangroves 101 seminar: they provide critical habitat and storm protection; they muted the blow of 2004’s Hurricane Charley.
A bridge decorated with nifty scat identification displays leads to an elevated pavilion. Jake points to a bent branch at the water’s edge: There’s a 10-foot alligator as still as the tree.
After the tour, I bike to a refuge pavilion hosting free daily talks. Today, it’s manatees, marine mammals who reside in local waters. Surprisingly, these friendly “sea cows” have hardly any body fat; large, long lungs allow them to feed underwater on seagrass.
This endangered species suffers from dangers like boat strikes, discarded fishing line, extreme cold and red tide algae blooms that have reduced average lifespans to a fraction of their potential 60 years. The presenter shows a manatee bone gouged by a propeller; the average age of manatees killed by watercraft is just seven years.
Near the end of Wildlife Drive, a ⅓-mile wheelchair-accessible boardwalk circles shell mounds built centuries ago by the Calusa. Storm-felled trees and tangles of plants obscure the layers of shells. Signs explain how the Calusa used shells for tools to jewelry to home construction.
GOING TO REHAB
After turning from Wildlife Drive onto Sanibel-Captiva Road, I bike to the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife. Founded in 1968 by a few volunteers, CROW’s now a wildlife rehab leader, treating some 4,000 animals a year.
Treatment and recovery areas are off-limits to protect the patients, but live-action webcams show animals receiving treatment and recovering in micro-habitats from river otter pools to fresh-air bird enclosures.
The patients represent 160 species, including alligators, tortoises, snakes, eagles, songbirds, nine-banded armadillos, bobcats — even razorbills, arctic birds that rarely migrate this far south. Various rescues, rehab activities and releases play on at video kiosks. I cheer on injured burrowing owls, orphaned possums, turtles with broken shells, anhingas caught in fishing line and a red-shouldered hawk receiving physical therapy for a broken wing.
One interactive lets me play veterinarian, making diagnoses and choosing treatments. Another reveals how to help when finding injured animals and abandoned babies. (What to feed a rescued animal? Nothing; keep the animal warm until you can get to a rehab center.) Clear-your-gear fishing and boat safety kiosks describe simple practices to avoid harming wildlife.
Just east, habitat’s the focus at Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF). Founded in 1967, the nonprofit buys and maintains land for conservation. Displays describe monitoring of water quality, mangroves, algae blooms and fish populations, wildlife-friendly landscaping and “lights out” — turning off lights at night so that sea turtle hatchlings aren’t distracted on their critical journeys from beach to water, which they identify by moonlight on waves.
Outside, delicate zebra longwings feed on blossoms in a screened butterfly house, an ethnobotanical garden features plants used by indigenous cultures for medicine, and trails wind through various habitats. I stroll past tall swaying grasses and the tea-colored Sanibel River before climbing to the top of an observation tower.
This 360-degree bird’s-eye view of tree canopy reveals why avians flock to Sanibel. The island’s protected land and waters offer refuge for all animals, including the human kind.
SHELLS OF ALL STRIPES
Rain continues the next day. Yet beachcombers rise early to assume the “Sanibel stoop” posture, hunting shells and tucking favorites in mesh bags. The 400 kinds of shells found here include the Junonia, a prized caramel-flecked univalve.
Later, I retreat to the dry shelter of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. Its world-respected exhibits include magnified views of micro-mollusks as small as periods; videos of shell animals cruising in their natural habitats; the jet-propulsion and ink-squirting abilities of squids; “sailors’ valentine” shell art; and shells used as money and medicine. There’s even a record-setting 26-inch horse conch found off Sanibel’s coast.
Local specimens include lightning whelks and angel wings from the bay and lions-paw scallops and alphabet cones from the Gulf. I learn the best times for shelling: morning low tides, full moons and new moons, and just after northwest winds and storms.
At the live shell tank, volunteer Linda Miller gently handles an orange-bodied whelk who peeks from his coiled shell. Picking up a large purple-brown, wedge-shaped bivalve, Linda explains how pen shells extend frizzy threads to anchor themselves to seafloor rocks. This one was dislodged by a storm and brought in as a rescue.
Before heading home, I drive by Fort Myers’ Manatee Park on the Orange River. Thirty people huddle beneath umbrellas; some smile at my fluttering red poncho before returning their gaze to the manatees floating mere yards away.
The downpour muddies the water’s surface, but not the joy of sharing a rainy day with gentle giants.