You Can Get Away From It All Without Giving It All Up

By Rosalie E. and George Leposky

Long-famed for seashells and seclusion, Sanibel Island off Florida's southwest coast has metamorphosed in recent years into a posh resort community - with results both poignant and pleasurable.

The island's old friends justifiably bemoan increased traffic and encroachment by hotels, resorts, and condominiums on once-deserted beaches. Yet, development brought a diversity of accommodations, fine restaurants, elegant shops, after-dark entertainment, and other amenities, making a stay on Sanibel at once congenial and convenient. Today, in the words of a local Chamber of Commerce brochure, "You can get away from it all without giving it all up."

"The Sanibel Stoop"

Shelling remains a prime attraction on Sanibel and neighboring Captiva Island, where Anne Morrow Lindbergh stayed while writing about shells and self-awareness in Gift From the Sea. The surrounding waters harbor more than 400 species of mollusks, making the Sanibel-Captiva beaches one of the world's three most productive shelling areas. (The others are in Africa and the South Pacific.) From beds far offshore, underwater currents spawned by winds and tides sweep vast quantities of empty shells - and many inhabited ones as well - onto the islands’ white sands. Shell-seekers comb the beaches from dawn to dusk, hunched over in a sacroiliac-straining posture that islanders call "the Sanibel stoop."

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Credit: George Leposky
Shell-seekers doing "the Sanibel stoop."

"One cannot collect all the beautiful shells on the beach," Mrs. Lindbergh wrote. "One can collect only a few, and they are more beautiful if they are few."

Not all shellers share her insight. In the past, serious collectors used to wade or snorkel just offshore, but collectible shells were diminishing in abundance as collectors increased in number. In 1995, islanders persuaded the State of Florida to prohibit collection of live shells, sand dollars, starfish, and sea urchins on Sanibel Island and surrounding waters within half a mile of the shore. Elsewhere in Lee County, collectors of live shells are limited to two per species per person per day, but these trophies must be cleaned prior to the trip home - a lesson belatedly learned by more than one hapless tourist with smelly luggage.

Shells are big business on Sanibel. Each year the Sanibel-Capitiva Shell Club hosts a shell fair on the first weekend in March, attracting upwards of 10,000 people for four days of festivities. Books on shells and shelling enhance the revenues of island stores, and shell shops purvey polished shells and shell jewelry to visitors who don't want to bother finding and cleaning their own prizes. The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum - the most comprehensive museum in the U.S. devoted exclusively to shells - has exhibits devoted to shell biology and habitat, and the uses of shells in human endeavors as varied as agriculture, art, and religion.

Beach Evokes Delight

Even if you don't get manic over mollusks, the Sanibel beach evokes delight. Broad and clean, it slopes gently into clear aquamarine waters. Pelicans glide overhead. Circling gulls utter raucous, haunting cries. At night raccoons prowl the sands, and in late spring and summer huge loggerhead turtles plod ponderously ashore to lay their eggs above the high-tide mark.

Across the island, the 6,350-acre J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge encompasses most of the productive mangrove swamp shoreline along San Carlos Bay. Darling was a conservation-minded cartoonist who helped to establish the nation's wildlife refuge system. A Captiva resident, he was instrumental in securing the Sanibel refuge as a haven for migratory waterfowl. Exhibits in the refuge's visitor center include a recreation of Darling's art studio, and a display honoring him and other "heroes of conservation." The visitor center also has a bird-observation room where large picture windows offer a commanding view of surrounding woods and wetlands, as well as feeders that attract numerous birds.

You can drive through the refuge on a five-mile-long road. It runs atop a dike separating saline tidal flats from freshwater ponds where regulation of the water level controls mosquitos. These ponds attract vast flocks of shovelers, teal, pintails, wigeons and other northern ducks in winter. In all, the refuge's varied habitat supports over 200 avian species, including such rarities as the great white heron, bald eagle, reddish egret, and roseate spoonbill. At dawn and sunset the large wading birds are most active, striding through open shallows on both sides of the road to feed.

Fresh-Water Wetland

Sanibel boasts an interior fresh-water wetland unique among Florida’s Gulf Coast barrier islands. Preservation of this fragile ecosystem is a prime goal of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), a local environmental group. The SCCF maintains a 262-acre conservation center along the Sanibel River, with four miles of trails through alternating low swales and shell ridges. Cordgrass predominates in the marshy swales; atop the ridges grow cabbage palm, gumbo-limbo, strangler fig, and other tropical trees.

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Credit: George Leposky
The interior fresh-water wetland
Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation

The tract provides sanctuary for alligators, gopher tortoises, raccoons, otters, and many species of birds. Although the wildlife is wild and often hard to observe, you may have good luck with binoculars from atop an observation tower beside the river. A self-guiding booklet keyed to numbered markers along one of the trails identifies and explains what you will see. So do interpretive displays in the center headquarters.

If you're interested in gardening, be sure to visit the native plant nursery on the center's grounds. Horticulturists there are studying use of indigenous vegetation for energy-efficient landscaping. Such plantings can cut air conditioning and heating requirements for homes and offices, while eliminating need for fertilizers, pesticides and supplemental watering.

High-Caliber Commercial Establishments

In all, close to half of Sanibel's land area has been set aside for wildlife. On the other half, you'll find golf courses; tennis courts; 23 miles of paved bicycle paths; performing-arts presentations at the Pirate Playhouse, The Schoolhouse Theater, and Barrier Island Group For The Arts; some very special art galleries, boutiques, and restaurants; and Bailey's General Store in the Island Shopping Center, which sells fishing tackle, hardware, clothing, and almost anything else you might need - including groceries, if you're staying somewhere with a kitchen and want to cook a fish you've caught. The overall high caliber of commercial establishments reflects significant victories in the islanders' crusade for moderation in zoning and land use.

That crusade really began in 1833, when the first white settlers arrived. They reveled in isolation, though they did petition the U.S. government almost immediately for a lighthouse at Point Ybel, on the island’s southern tip, to guide mariners into Punta Rassa harbor on the mainland. At Punta Rassa, trade with Cuba flourished in the 19th Century and cattle from central Florida ranges were shipped to market. The lighthouse was built in 1884 and automated in 1949, but the keepers’ quarters are still there. The City of Sanibel leases them out as private residences.

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Credit: George Leposky

The Sanibel lighthouse at Point Ybel

To gain additional perspectives on those early days, take the Sanibel Historical Society's self-guided 2.5-mile walking and bicycle tour. It leads you to the lighthouse and 19 other sites that played a prominent role in the island's past. Also, visit the Sanibel Historical Village and Museum, which includes five elderly buildings relocated from their original sites.

The Era of Intrusion

Although a regularly scheduled ferry service to Sanibel began in 1928, insular inconveniences still fortified the souls of the island’s several hundred residents and a few hardy visitors. Anne Morrow Lindbergh knowingly wrote of the ferryboat days:

"People ... become like islands in such an atmosphere, self-contained, whole and serene; respecting other people's solitude, not intruding upon their shores..."

Intrusion upon Sanibel's shores came when a developer promoted the bridge from Punta Rassa into being in 1963 over the islanders' protests and lawsuits. Despite a $3-per-car toll to discourage casual traffic, ease of access unleashed a real-estate boom abetted by county officials.

The islanders rebelled in 1974 with an overwhelming vote for incorporation. Then the new city prepared a municipal land-use plan that capped growth far below what county zoning would have allowed, and limited the number of building permits issued per year to slow the rate of growth.

These measures merely kept the island semi-idyllic. Gone forever are the isolation and tranquility of the ferryboat era - but if Sanibel no longer stirs souls, at least it still can please them. For that achievement, the city fathers merit applause.

Rosalie E. Leposky is managing partner and George Leposky is editor of of Ampersand Communications, a news-features syndicate based in Miami, Florida.

For More Information

J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge -

Sanibel Island -

Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) -

Ampersand Communications

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