As we stroll together down the beach, I find myself lagging behind, paying more attention to the sand than to Sue. If I’m not stopping to pick up another shell that has caught my eye, I’m creeping along the water’s edge, bent forward for a closer look—a posture you see so much around here that the locals have a name for it: the Sanibel stoop.
Subtropical Sanibel Island, located off the southwest coast of Florida near Fort Myers, is said to be one of the best places in the world for collecting seashells. Nearly 300 kinds can be found in the shallows surrounding Sanibel and neighboring Captiva Island. “Shelling” here can become an obsession; I can attest to that.
The best times for collecting shells are at low tide or after a storm and early in the day before everyone else has picked over the sand. Winter, when storms unload a lot of shells on the beach, is a better season than summer, when currents tend to wash them away. But shelling can be rewarding at any time. During our many walks on the beach, I found more than twenty varieties of shells. Many of their fanciful names evoke the shells’ shapes or patterns of color: lion’s paw, spiny jewel box, alphabet cone, angel wings, zebra ark, banded tulip, auger, shark’s eye, slipper shell. Most are especially dazzling while they are still wet.
Some, like Van Hyning’s cockle, a corrugated, scoop-like shell, are so abundant I soon began ignoring them. Calico scallops are common too, but these pretty red-to-purple shells are harder to resist. So is the Florida fighting conch, a heavy, knobbed shell up to three inches long. A pristine angel wing or a perfectly white, nearly translucent common fig is a real find. I also came across a spectacular crab shell, cream colored and mottled with bright orange spots. Large shells in superb condition are rare, but size isn’t everything. Some of my favorite finds have been small, like the sand dollar I came across that was size of a nickel.
Shelling isn’t the only thing to do on Sanibel. The J. N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge, which covers a large part of the island, is a haven for almost 300 species of birds and scores of other creatures. Even if you aren’t much of a bird watcher, the sheer abundance and variety of birds here is a sight you shouldn’t miss. You can spot many exceptionally large birds, like the white pelican, the second largest bird in North America (behind the condor), and the great blue heron, which can stand 4 feet tall. Among my favorites was the anhinga, a big bird with a long, thin neck. The male is black with a striking white pattern on its back and wings. It often perches on a branch with its wings half spread, as if to show off its plumage. Other notably lovely birds include the snowy egret and the roseate spoonbill, a white and pink bird sometimes mistaken for a flamingo.
Besides birds, the one thing everyone wants to see here is an alligator. We found one moving slowly through a shallow pool, its eyes, snout, and part of its back poking above the water. There’s something creepy about such a large reptile, evolved to carnivorous perfection over several million years, gliding by just a few yards away.
“Ding” Darling is open from sunrise to sunset every day but Friday. The best way to see it is by taking a leisurely bicycle ride along the 5-mile, one-way dirt road that runs through the refuge. The one-speed bicycles with coaster brakes that we rented at our motel were sufficient for getting around the refuge and the bike trails that traverse the flat, 12-mile long island.
Sanibel also has a shell museum and a historical village and museum, neither of which we got around to visiting—it’s always nice to save something for a future trip. Instead, we drove over the long causeway that connects Sanibel to the mainland and down palm-lined MacGregor Boulevard to visit Thomas Alva Edison’s winter home in Fort Myers. The estate encompasses his house and laboratory and a museum displaying the largest collection of Edison memorabilia in the world. The grounds are a botanic garden filled with local and exotic plants, which Edison used in his experiments. What appears to be a sprawling tangle of trees is actually a single banyan tree, the largest in the country. We also toured the home of Edison’s next-door neighbor and friend, Henry Ford, before heading back to the island.
Sanibel is an appealing place even apart from its shell-covered beaches and spectacular wildlife, a homey, attractive community with shopping centers, restaurants, theaters, and churches set among mangroves and palms. Sue and I stayed at a well-kept, two-story motel right on the Gulf shore and about a mile and a half from the entrance to the wildlife refuge. The motel was situated at the end of the long string of shoreline hotels and resorts, so by walking the few hundred feet to the water’s edge and then heading north, we could quickly leave the commercial development behind and enjoy miles of unspoiled beach.
Our room faced toward the Gulf and had a screened-in balcony, where we ate breakfast in the morning and watched the sun go down in the evening. One night a thunderstorm tore across the island, and we stood by the screen entranced by the sight of palm trees shaking in the wind and silhouetted against a flashing sky. Other nights I would lie awake listening to palm fronds rattling in the breeze and waves lapping onto the shore.
Back on the beach, I’m at it again. “Don’t you have about twenty of those?” Sue asks me as I stoop to collect yet another beautiful lightning whelk. “What are you going to do with them all?” I’ve already thought about that. I’m going to sort them, keep only the best, and dump the rest back on the beach. When I get home, I’m going to buy a nice glass jar and arrange the shells in it so the finest ones can be seen. Then I’m going to set the jar on shelf where I can look at it often.
And when I do, I will think of a storm lashing the palm trees and electrifying the night, and an alligator stealthily slipping through dark waters. I will see an anhinga resting on a branch, its wings spread for all the world to admire, and pooled water on the beach at low tide reflecting the orange light of dawn. I will remember the Gulf waters lapping over the sand, leaving behind, as they retreat, glistening treasures for me to find.
David Romanowski, 1998