Sanibel Island was an ecotourism paradise. Then Hurricane Ian struck.
How do you recognize a snow egret? Note the sunny yellow feet. That’s just one of the many tips I learned from my animal-obsessed mom during our nearly 15 trips to Sanibel, a 33-square-mile barrier island off Florida’s southwest coast.
We spent hours each day marveling at the residents of the JN “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge — more than 6,470 hectares set in the country’s largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem and home to over 245 species of birds and alligators. manatees and bobcats.
On the island’s beaches, world famous for their shells, we marveled at the treasures washed up in ankle-high heaps from the Gulf of Mexico. Even as Alzheimer’s began to cloud my mother’s brilliant mind, the shared joy we found amidst the island’s natural wonders kept us coming back.
This is the time of year we would head south, but on September 28, 2022, Sanibel was catastrophically hit by Hurricane Ian, a Category 4 storm, damaging or destroying homes and livelihoods and injuring ecosystems.
It will still take the island many months, if not years, to fully recover. But there are encouraging signs. “It’s getting a little bit better every day,” says Toni Westland, refuge manager at Ding Darling.
It turns out that Sanibel’s longstanding conservation ethic, always a boon to nature travelers, was key to helping the island weather the storm.
An island with a plan
My mom first came to Sanibel on the ferry in the 1940s when her grandmother took her and two cousins to Florida for a month’s fresh air from school. Decades later, she introduced me to her happy childhood place. Until then, easy accessibility via a bridge had made the island a popular tourist destination with a range of hotels, restaurants and shops.
But it had managed to keep major developments at bay, thanks in large part to the Sanibel plan. In 1976, the islanders banded together and enacted regulations to limit construction and protect sensitive areas such as mangroves and swamps.
Nonprofit organizations like the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), which has preserved more than 1,200 acres on Sanibel and another 800 on neighboring Captiva, and the CROW Wildlife Rehab Clinic are also longtime advocates for the environment. The way these groups work together is “what’s special about the island,” says Westland.
Unlike nearby development-friendly destinations like Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel has two-thirds of its land protected, with most of it being Ding Darling. Named after the editorial cartoonist and conservationist who helped create it, the sanctuary attracts near-fanatic bird watchers and photographers, and my mom and I were two of them.
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On our first visit together in 2007, we took a naturalist-led tram tour to the aptly named Wildlife Drive. In every direction, animals did their thing: Yellow-crowned night herons stalk crabs. A river otter slipped into the water. Rosy spoonbills dozed in the mangroves, their long beaks clad in bubblegum-pink plumage.
Later we roamed the refuge on foot, bike and kayak and boarded boat trips to the bird colonies, sometimes pursued by dolphins.
On the Gulf side of the island, we strolled along with shell hunters along the beaches that hunched over in the classic “Sanibel stoop.” The island’s unusual orientation – east-west rather than north-south – makes it a gathering spot for whelks, clams, cockles and junonias, and offers both sunrise and sunset views from the same sandy beach.
At CROW, we toured the wildlife hospital, where staff take care of herons that have swallowed fish hooks, gopher tortoises that have been hit by cars, and all sorts of injured native creatures with the aim of releasing them back into the wild.
Year after year, my mom and I returned to the same places in Sanibel, feeling like we were visiting old friends.
ruin and resilience
Everything changed when the hurricane hit. Sanibel’s worst storm since 1926, Ian, blew in with winds exceeding 130 miles per hour and surf up to 12 feet. Huge power poles broke like toothpicks, buildings were flooded and parts of the causeway bridge were washed away, disrupting car traffic to the island.
A week after the hurricane, Westland drove to Sanibel and found surreal scenes. “A salt and pepper shaker would be in the kitchen where it should be, but everything else is upside down,” she says. Over by Ding Darling, Wildlife Drive has been ripped apart with craters that could swallow them whole. Much to Westland’s relief, the elevated visitor center was still standing, although it was in dire need of repairs.
James Evans, director of the SCCF, says the island’s ecology has suffered in two main ways: winds have cut down trees and swept away foliage, and flooding has turned about 1,300 hectares of inland freshwater wetlands into saltwater marshes overnight and killed fish and plants that cannot tolerate salinity.
Animals that could escape the storm, like birds, did just that. But terrestrial creatures had a harder time. Gopher tortoises, a key species, were trapped when their burrows filled with water and debris. A box turtle was swept across the sea to Cape Coral. Luckily, the random adventurer had a Sanibel research tag and was returned home.
As bad as the devastation was, it could have been worse. “The good news is that we have the Sanibel plan,” says Evans. By banning development on 70 percent of the island, it greatly reduced the potential economic impact. And it helps guide the island’s recovery. As climate change-induced hurricanes and sea-level rise increasingly threaten barrier islands, protecting vulnerable areas is more important than ever, he says.
Although the full impact of the hurricane is not yet clear, nature is recovering. New leaves sprout and birds flock back. In fact, bald eagle eggs recently hatched in a nest built next to a temporary garbage processing site. “Our wildlife and vegetation are very resilient,” says Evans.
So are the people. The rebuilt bridge has allowed repair teams to reach the island, and Sanibel’s local businesses are beginning to recover. Each week, the Chamber of Commerce posts updates on Instagram detailing the shops, restaurants, attractions and hotels that have at least partially reopened. This includes the 128-year-old Island Inn, where my mom and I always shared an ocean-view room.
Westland hopes to have Ding Darling on that list by the end of March. She now runs a mobile visitor center that looks like a food truck. “You just adapt, like the animal world,” she says. Refuge concessionaire Tarpon Bay Explorers recently resumed kayaking, which will bring much-needed revenue.
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On the eastern tip of the island, the 1884 lighthouse was badly damaged but survived. As locals finish repairs to their own home, they pitch in to repaint it and clean up beaches and wildlife sanctuaries. “The volunteer spirit out here is just amazing,” says Evans.
My mother would have been one of those volunteers, but she died a few months before the hurricane. On a recent visit to her, I pulled out photos of our Sanibel adventures. She couldn’t remember the details, but she remembered their joy. “How wonderful!” She said. “Let’s do it all over again.” If only we could.
When I return to Sanibel it will feel different. But I draw inspiration and comfort from the island’s resilience – and its enduring commitment to conservation. “While the community is recovering,” says Evan, “the best thing for our sanity is to get outside and enjoy our good nature.”