Gulf Coast Conservation: Sanibel Island, Florida

On Florida’s Sanibel Island, shelling is the popular leisure past-time activity. It’s almost impossible not to participate because layers of seashells blanket the shoreline each time the tides wash out. Families wander along the beach, small bags in hand, eyes scouring the mounds of shells, picking out the perfect non-living specimens.

If your idea of a Florida winter getaway is more mangrove tree than outlet malls, head to nature’s refuge along the Gulf coast of the state near Fort Myers. That city is known for its white beaches, so many travelers stop there, but a short drive along the causeway gets you to Sanibel Island, on the west coast of Florida. This long narrow island is two-thirds conservation land and one-third creature comforts (ok, including some shopping). Accommodations are mainly vacation rentals that offer the benefits of home including kitchens and laundry.  By law buildings on the island cannot be taller than the tallest palm tree and no new chain restaurants are permitted. Beaches are easily accessible from rental properties and covered with shells, so many shells.

Once you’ve collected your share, head to The Bailey-Matthes Shell Museum to identify what you’ve found. This museum, dedicated to the humble shell, contains everything you’d ever want to know about the topic and more. The section called “Gifts from the Seas of Sanibel and Captiva” displays the seashell species on the island, which is more wilderness than water park.


Gopher Turtle

Nature walks are wonderful, but they can also be long, so sign up for one of the many tram tours meandering through the crown jewel of the island:  J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a sanctuary before eco-tourism was trendy. Established in 1945 thanks to the lobbying efforts of its namesake political cartoonist, this 7000-acre refuse is part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the U.S. You’ll learn about the importance of estuaries and mangrove trees, and if being on the water is desirable, Tarpon Bay Explorer also runs daily boat tours from nearby Tarpon Bay.

Cross the street to spend an hour at C.R.O.W., a sentimental non-profit wildlife rehabilitation centre and small museum started by one individual with heart and determination to rescue injured wild animals and reptiles of all kinds. C.R.O.W. is primarily a clinic, but there is a live video feed from the teaching hospital that treats approximately 5,000 injured fury, feathered and scaly patients a year. Overall, C.R.O.W. is a moving tribute to the unlimited capacity of human compassion, and Sanibel Island an outdoor playground of natural attractions. (

Originally Published in Mom & Caregiver Magazine, January 2015


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