Ever since my childhood best friend brought a sand dollar she found on the beach on Sanibel to show-and-tell, it has been my dream to find one myself. I recently visited the Fort Myers, Sanibel and Captiva Island area on a media tour with the Lee County Visitors and Convention Bureau and triumphantly toted home three beautiful sand dollars. Mission accomplished.
On the trip, my group saw an incredible amount of wildlife: giant gopher tortoises named for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; blue crabs winding their way through the mangrove roots; a couple of adorable marsh hares with their signature tiny ears; an enormous great blue heron who dared us to come closer while he eyed a fisherman's chum bucket; and some live "pink gold," the large, pink gulf shrimp that originally brought riches to the region.
We toured the mangroves, sampled local black mangrove honey and found ourselves on secluded beaches, watching in absolute awe while bottlenose dolphins jumped and breached playfully in our boat's wake. Can't make it to Galapagos this year? This ain't a bad substitute.
The LCVCB knows what it's got, which is likely why it puts so much effort into promoting the area's natural beauty.
I asked Joanne Semmer, a Lee County native and director of the Ostego Bay Foundation, a local nonprofit, why she thought the Fort Myers area was such a draw for nature lovers. She said, "It is such a diverse area. We have so many ecosystems here, including the coasts, the estuaries, the Caloosahatchee River basin, Lake Okeechobee, salt- and freshwater wetlands, pine forests, cypress heads -- there is so much to explore."
She also told me that the interest in ecotourism and ecoadventure is growing in the area, largely because tour operators are getting wise to preserving the area's natural beauty. "They're learning more and are great conservationists. They're spreading the word to their guests, and educating our visitors is how we'll achieve our goals to keep this area as gorgeous as it already is."
The beaches of Fort Myers, Sanibel and Captiva Island are known for their shelling. Visitors who find rare shells can find themselves on the front page of the local newspaper -- pick up a shelling guide from the visitor's bureau before you hit the sand so you know which are most elusive. As soon as you step on the sand, you'll see plenty of beachgoers in prime shelling position, practicing their "Sanibel Stoop" or "Captiva Crouch," eyes glued to the tidal bounty. Grab a netted shell bag and join the fun.
The spot where I found my sand dollars is called Cayo Costa, a barrier island that's all but uninhabited, and accessible only by boat. We boarded a charter captained by captain Ryan Kane, owner of Southern Instinct Charters. If you're looking for local color, look no further than Captain Ryan. Personable, fun-loving and knowledgeable about the area, he knows everything and everyone there is to know off the coast of Fort Myers.
Our first stop was Cabbage Key, where we lunched at the popular Dollar Bill Bar at the Cabbage Key Inn. You'll want to carry cash for this excursion -- not because that's all they take at the register, but because the ceilings and walls are covered with one-dollar bills bearing messages like, "HG & RF 4EVR" and "Jones Family 2015." It's estimated there's about $70,000 in the place, and as the humidity melts the masking tape, bills fall to the ground. They're swept up and donated to charity -- the staff told us they donated about $12,000 last year alone. Pull out your bucks as soon as you sit down, and your server will bring a Sharpie and masking tape as a DIY project.
After lunch, we ventured out to the adjoining nature trail, where we took a short, circular path to see a bevy of tropical vegetation and evidence of animal activity. (There are alligators in the area -- and signs alerting visitors to their presence -- as well as deer, raccoons, tortoises and snakes, which are kind of par for the course in Florida but certainly noteworthy for visitors.)
Upon leaving Cabbage Key, we spent the afternoon lazing on Cayo Costa's sugar-sand beach, checking out secluded sandbars and searching for shells. Captain Ryan grabbed some cold beer from the cooler and joined us for a cold one, regaling us with stories from his shrimp-boat captain friends. After we pulled up the anchor, he took us out to sea for a close look at his friend's shrimp boat, the Big Pappa, anchored a few miles offshore, with its giant nets extended starboard and portside like it was ready to take off into the sunset. Talk about a perfect day.
A proper lesson in sustainable aquaculture and the area's marine habitat came in the form of a tour of the Ostego Bay Foundation's Marine Science Center, which educates visitors about the ecology and preservation efforts in the Fort Myers area. With our tour guide, we visited of one of the country's only "working waterfronts," where shrimp boats still come and go, harvesting the area's signature crustacean, which also happens to be one of the country's best sources of sustainable seafood.
We were cautioned not to get in the way of the shrimpers, and Dan, our jocular guide, made it clear that we needed to stick together. "There are two rules on this tour. Rule Number One: Stay with the group. Rule Number Two: See Rule Number One." Aye aye, sir. The tour began with a short video on shrimping and how the shrimp boats maintain an ocean-friendly fleet, including nets with sea turtle escape hatches, invented by a net maker from Fort Myers. Then we found ourselves in the shrimpers' supply store, touring the area where the shrimpers unload their catch, and took a look inside Trico Shrimp Co.'s seafood market, where I stopped on my way home to Orlando for a couple pounds of shrimp on ice.
The three-hour tours are offered on Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to noon and is priced at $20 for adults and $10 for children over 6 years old. All proceeds from the tour benefit the Ostego Bay Foundation.