I was interested in the refuge on Sanibel Island barrier partly because the area surrounding what had been the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapon production facility where I once worked has been designated a wildlife refuge. The Sanibel refuge was created after Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, a political cartoonist, urged Harry Truman to sign an executive order to create the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge in 1945. The designation blocked the sale of land to developers. The refuge was renamed after the pioneer conservationist in 1967. The refuge has over 6,400 acres of mangrove forests, sea grass beds, cord grass mashes, and West Indian hardwood hammocks. It makes up the largest portion of a total of five wildlife refuges on Sanibel with large populations of fish and the more than 220 species of birds and other critters that depend on fish for food.
Sanibel Island and the southwest coastal mainland of Florida were inhabited by Calusa Native Americans when Spanish explorers arrived and brought diseases that eventually mostly wiped out the tribe. It is thought a few might have made it to Cuba. The Calusa were still there in substantial numbers when Ponce de Leon organized a colonizing expedition using two ships that traveled to the southwest coast of Florida in 1521. The word “Calusa” was described to mean “the fierce ones,” and in keeping with that description the tribe attacked the expedition. Ponce de Leon was struck by a poisoned arrow, died of the wound in Havana, Cuba, and was buried in Puerto Rico.
We decided to take the narrated tram tour of the refuge which is operated by Tarpon Bay Explorers. The four mile tour is $13/adult and $8/child. You can pay five dollars to drive your own vehicle, but we decided we preferred the narration by an expert. Our guide was Barry Litofsky, and we were pleased with our decision to do the guided tour. We didn’t see any mosquitoes, but did get some bites from “No Seeums.” It would be a good idea to have insect repellant.
Barry said the most common question is, “Why do the mullet jump?” The fish were frequently jumping high enough to clear the water in the estuaries and landing with a splash. The answer to why they jump was something to the effect, “We don’t know. We don’t know how to ask a mullet.” However, the speculation is that they jump to dislodge sand that collects in their gills while they are bottom feeding.
We saw multitudes of birds, and I thought the two most memorable were a roseate spoonbill at a distance and an anhinga standing near the road with its wings spread to dry. The bird is called “snake bird,” because it leaves a ripple similar to that of a snake when it is swimming under water. The one we saw had a fishing lure stuck in its beak with a short piece of monofilament fishing line attached. There have been discussions on how to capture the bird and take it to the local rehabilitation center to remove the lure. The latest report is that the bird was never captured for removal of the lure and line. We are hoping that that the lure dissolved or fell out.
There are three bald eagle nests and over a hundred osprey nests on the island. Barry told us there are twelve types of small shore birds in the refuge, and they are collectively called “LBJ,” or “Little brown jobbies.”
Much of the discussion during the tour focused on the mangrove trees and their remarkable multiple roots that anchor them. There are three kinds of mangrove trees in Florida and Sanibel and many more in other parts of the world. The mangroves aren’t related except for the common trait that they live in salt water. All of them need to provide fresh water to their leaves. One type filters the salt out in the roots, another gets rid of the salt through pores on the leaves, and the other concentrates the salt in old leaves that then die. All three methods are variations of the reverse osmosis process that provides fresh water to Sanibel residents and visitors.
The mangrove trees are protected in part because they provide impregnable resistance to hurricane winds. The guide told us that mangroves were removed from Captiva to plant citrus trees. Hurricane winds ripped out the trees and eroded a trench across the island. Another reason to protect the mangroves is that the network of roots provides a nursery for fish. The fish in turn feed the predators, including the many species of birds.
There are American alligators in the refuge, and there was one crocodile that died along with much of the snook (fish) population during a recent incredibly (for the area) cold snap. The crocodile had lived on the island for decades, and over 200 people attended its memorial service. One lonely bear has taken up residence. Barry pointed out half dollar-sized black crabs that had crawled up out of the estuary onto the trees.
There was an interesting discussion of the Sabal or Cabbage palmetto trees, which is the protected State tree of Florida. The center of the trees was used by the Calusa as food. Floridians continued harvesting the trees, especially during the Depression, and the food was commonly called “swamp cabbage.” However, the extreme tenderness earned it a reputation as a delicacy, and the name became “millionaire’s salad.” Almost all of the “hearts of palm” sold in the U.S. is from South America, with just under half coming from Brazil. The trees are grown commercially and harvested when they are about five feet tall at the age of a year or a bit more.
Fishing is allowed in the refuge, and it looked to me to be quite productive. We saw one man with a really large needle fish (three feet long?) Crabbing is allowed only with dip nets. We certainly would enjoy a return visit to the refuge, and I’m hoping next time I have some fishing equipment and the required license, of course. I’m also hoping funds become available to open the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge so I can take my family there for a visit.