In May of 1963, a bridge from the mainland at Punta Rassa, Florida, to the shores of Sanibel Island was erected. (Prior to this, the only way to access Sanibel and adjoining Captiva Island was by boat, or by boarding a ferry that would bring you and your automobile to the island.) The three-mile long Sanibel Causeway opened up a new world to travelers who were curious about this quiet island community, and who had long heard about the seashells that washed up on the island’s pristine beaches. Sanibel Island was about to change dramatically.
Today, a drive over the Sanibel Causeway is one of the most beautiful journeys in Florida. Pelicans and osprey fly at near eye level as you make your way over the highest points of the bridge. Fishing enthusiasts stand along the Causeway beaches, hoping to land a “big one” while attentive herons and egrets keep an eye on their bait buckets. The Sanibel Lighthouse stands proudly in the distance, a beacon for the shorelines that are lined with shells of every size and color.
So what are you waiting for? There’s no time like the present to master the famous “Sanibel Stoop,” or learn how to identify the more than 250 avian species that can be spotted on the island. Let’s “dive” in the waters of Sanibel Island and discover one of Florida’s best-kept secrets!
More than 2,500 years ago, the Calusa people settled on Sanibel Island, expanding an empire that easily reached across the entire southern half of Florida. Known for their elaborate systems of waterways and canals, the Calusa also built large shell mounds — a material widely available on Sanibel — that were used as protection from storms, places of worship, and final resting places for their deceased. Visitors today can explore some of their ancient shell mounds in Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
Sanibel first appeared on a map sometime in the 1700s, and it is thought that Ponce de Leon may have made the first European discovery of the island. Pirate lore is also plentiful in Sanibel’s history books, with mention of pirates from Henri Caesar to Jose Gaspar.
The first “modern” settlement of Sanibel Island was made by the Florida Peninsula Land Company in 1832, but the colony never took off – it wasn’t until 1862 with the implementation of the Homestead Act that construction began on the Sanibel Lighthouse and a small community began to form. A visit to the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village is not to be missed if you’d like to get an idea of what island life was like for the hearty residents who inhabited Sanibel in its early years. You can walk Sanibel’s Heritage Trail or explore the preserved buildings that served as a school, tea room and homes.
What’s the best way to get around the island? (Hint: The answer is not by car!) Due to its small size and popularity during peak seasons, residents and tourists are often encouraged to leave their vehicles behind and take advantage of the abundant and well-maintained bicycle paths that run throughout the island. Bike rental businesses offer an ample supply of bikes to reserve, along with mopeds and quadricycles for a more memorable spin around the island. So whether you’d like to explore the shops along Periwinkle Way — Sanibel’s main thoroughfare — or enjoy a leisurely ride through Ding Darling National Wildlife Reserve, the island is extremely welcoming for cyclists of all ages and abilities.
Sanibel’s beaches are truly one of its greatest treasures. While there are several private beaches on the island, public beaches are abundant, pristine and affordable to visit. The array of shells on the beaches may also be different — depending on the tides and the area of the island you are exploring — so a good shell collector may want to take in as many of these public spaces as possible.
If you’re wondering what to eat when you visit Sanibel Island, we recommend seafood, seafood and more seafood. The fishing industry is alive and well in this area and fresh catches come in by the hour. (Some of the more remote island restaurants may actually have difficulty sourcing chicken or beef, but not fresh, out-of-the-sea oysters, savory conch fritters or melt-in-your mouth grouper.)
While more than 6,000 residents now call Sanibel Island home, wildlife preservation remains a critical part of Sanibel Island’s identity. The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the waterways and wildlife of the surrounding region, and to date, has protected more than 1860 acres from development.
For explorers who want to experience Sanibel’s “wild” side first hand, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge preserves approximately 2,800 acres of habitat and is home to more than 245 species of birds. Located within an estuary, an array of birds, mammals, invertebrates and more make their home in its mangrove forests and seagrass beds. The refuge welcomes cars and bicycles as means of exploring its beautiful acreage, and tram tours, kayaking expeditions and fishing trips led by Tarpon Bay Explorers are available at select times throughout the year.
The Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) helps local wildlife in ways that the refuge cannot — when an animal is injured or sick, members of the CROW team bring the animal in for expert veterinary care. Patients at the clinic have included Bald Eagles, osprey, owls, bobcats, armadillos, gopher tortoises, opossums and raccoons, just to name a few. CROW has an educational facility open to the public where you can learn about the region’s wildlife and get insight into how the CROW team helps to preserve and protect local animals.
Have you heard of the Sanibel Stoop? It’s a common posture seen across the island as beach goers bend down to examine and collect their favorite shells. There’s no shortage of shells to sort through as you make your way along the island’s beaches, and from gastropods to bivalves, one can accumulate an impressive collection in no time.
One hard rule applies, however: live shelling is not allowed. That means that if the gorgeous conch shell that you just picked up in the water still has a resident living inside, you should gently return it to the waters from which it came. There are plenty of shells on the beach without a host, and you are welcome to take those home with you.
If you’d like to learn more about the science behind Sanibel’s favorite pastime, a visit to the Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum is in order. The museum has one of the largest collections of shells in the United States, all classed by taxonomic, geographic and temporal data. You can also learn more about where to find the best shells on Sanibel, make use of the museum’s shell guide to help identify your findings, and learn about the rarest and most prized shell that you can find on local beaches: the Junonia.
Now that you’ve gotten an introduction to all things Sanibel, it’s time to plan your beach reading! One of Sanibel Island’s most famous residents is Randy Wayne White, a mystery author whose fictional hero Doc Ford is also the moniker of several popular local restaurants. Doc Ford’s first appearance is in White’s novel, “Sanibel Flats.” Another popular author is Jennifer Lonoff Schiff, whose Sanibel Island Mystery series includes “Trouble in Paradise: A Sanibel Island Mystery.”
To learn more about the island itself, we recommend books by none other than Road Scholar instructor Charles Sobczak, whose regional nature guide “Living Sanibel: A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands” is a local best seller.
If the natural beauty and quiet pace of life on Sanibel Island calls to you, we hope you’ll join us for a learning adventure on Sanibel and Captiva Islands!
Road Scholar Recommends: Beautiful Sanibel Island and the Southwest Florida Gulf Coast → Birding Southwest Florida, Sanibel and the Everglades →
My mother and I were on the Sanibel Island in the 70 's and we scoured the beach for beautiful shells which we brought home. I remember her calling our fun day there and experience the "Sanibel Stoop." Of course I thought it was her original name!
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