From Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island to Manatee Park

by Karen Rubin

The awesome beauty of the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island A roseate spoonbill flies overhead moments after we arrive at the J. N Ding Darling Natoinal Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Going to Sanibel Island on Florida’s Gulf Coast is like going to Eden. You get to this subtropical barrier island by a long, arching bridge and find yourself in its own world

Here, just west of Fort Myers, you will find the incomparable J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. One of the first national wildlife refuges, it was created to safeguard and enhance the pristine wildlife habitat of Sanibel Island, to protect endangered and threatened species, and to provide feeding, nesting, and roosting areas for migratory birds. Today, the refuge provides important habitat to over 220 species of birds.

A political cartoonist with an eye toward conservation, Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling was instrumental in the effort to block the sale of a parcel of environmentally valuable land to developers on Sanibel Island. At Darling’s urging, President Harry S. Truman signed an Executive Order creating the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge in 1945. Darling was an editorial cartoonist and came up with the idea to sell the drawn duck stamps to raise money for conservation.

The majestic Great Blue Heron, once hunted almost to extinction because of their feathers used for women's hats, now protected at J. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island © 2010 Karen Rubin/

The refuge was renamed in 1967 in honor of the pioneer conservationist. The refuge consists of over 6,400 acres of mangrove forest, submerged seagrass beds, cordgrass marshes, and West Indian hardwood hammocks. Approximately 2,800 acres of the refuge are designated by Congress as a Wilderness Area.

The highlight of the experience is The Wildlife Drive, the refuge’s public access road, open Saturday through Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to 1/2 hour before sunset (the best viewing times are early or late in the day when the birds are most active, and at low tide, when you can see birds foraging for fish (when we were there this winter, the unusual cold snap was killing off the fish and the birds were having a feast).

It is important to note that The Drive is closed every Friday to all access, to give the animals a rest from people. It also gives refuge staff the opportunity to do maintenance along the road without endangering the public and allows biologists to do surveys and other research without human interference. (The Wildlife Drive is open on all federal holidays unless those holidays fall on a Friday. Dogs are allowed on the Drive as long as they are kept on a leash no longer than 6 ft. at all times.)

Be sure to stop into The Education Center, the refuge’s visitor center, for a fabulous video orientation and interactive exhibits on refuge ecosystems, the work of “Ding” Darling, migratory flyways, the National Wildlife Refuge System, and a hands-on area for children. (The Center is open daily except most federal holidays; January – April from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and May – December from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Center is located two miles west of Tarpon Bay Rd. on Sanibel Captiva Rd.)

A flock of ibis take off in late afternoon at J. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Then go on to the Wildlife Drive – you pay an entrance fee of $5 per vehicle or $1 per walker/biker over 15 years old (we went in the first time on bikes and returned for a second visit, before sunset, by car; if you bring your bike).

There are three trails that can be accessed from Wildlife Drive. The four-mile (round-trip) Indigo Trail leaves from the Education Center parking lot and ends at the cross-dike, which extends from the Drive (the trail goes only one way). Along the trail, visitors often spot wildlife such as alligators, night herons, and white ibis. It’s a hard-gravel path, so you might want to have a hybrid bike, as I did (and take a bike lock so you are free to wander). The beginning of the trail offers some of the most scenic areas, with small coves where Great Blue Heron and egrets were strutting their stuff and taking flight, and the roseate spoonbill (which I was lucky enough to get a shot as it flew directly overhead).

The Wulfert Keys Trail off the Drive is a 1/4 mile trail leading to a view of Pine Island Sound. The Shell Mound Trail is a 1/4 mile, universally accessible, interpretive boardwalk. The vegetation along the trail sustained a lot of damage in 2004 from Hurricane Charley, but visitors can still learn about the ancient Calusa Indian and the native vegetation while reading interpretive panels along the boardwalk.

The preserve is big, but not overwhelming. The concentration of birds and wildlife is amazing. Within moments, you see wonderful varieties of water fowl (my favorites) – in small coves among mangroves, or on sand bar in the marsh.

People drive (slowly) on the trail, and pull over when they want a better view, but it is so much better to bike – you are at a better pace, are more energized and involved – you are part of the scene. The trail is easy for a family.

Sunset is a magical time J. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island © 2010 Karen Rubin/

In this preserve, you think you are in Eden, far, far away from civilization – but it is literally out the door, steps away to the road.

Try to make time to experience the preserve by kayak – that eye-level view gives you a more direct connection to the surroundings.

Our plan was to go kayaking first, through the park’s outfitter, Tarpon Bay Explorers, but weather conditions did not allow (we tried again in the afternoon, but no luck).

You can rent a kayak or canoe or take a guided tour with a naturalist through the mangrove forest along the Commodore Creek water trail to learn about the rich back-bay ecosystem and the wildlife that lives there, surrounded by red mangroves, wading birds, and unsurpassed peace and quiet. Tarpon Bay Explorers also rents bicycles, pontoon boats, and fishing equipment, and sells bait and fishing licenses, and books charter fishing trips. (Tarpon Bay Explorers, 900 Tarpon Bay Road. Sanibel Island, FL 33957, 239.472.8900,

A second designated kayak/canoe launch sites is located along the Wildlife Drive through Canoe Adventures (239-472-5218) There is also kayaking/canoeing around Buck Key off of Captiva Island.

After we completed our first circuit by bike on the Indigo Trail, we biked a short distance to Island House Restaurant (972 Rabbit Road, 239-472-8311) to enjoy the beach-pub atmosphere and burgers before biking to the next preserve area, Bailey Tract (we didn’t get to see much wildlife, but it was interesting; entrance is free).

A roseate spoonbill flies overhead moments after we arrive at the J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Just diagonally across from the entrance to the Ding Darling preserve, is the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) and its relatively new visitor/education center (opened 2009).

Established in 1968, CROW is one of the nation’s leading wildlife rehabilitation hospitals for tropical native and migratory wildlife. A non-profit veterinary hospital, CROW provides medical care for more than 4000 injured, sick and orphaned wildlife patients every year, with the goal of returning them to their natural habitat.

Visitors don’t actually get to see the “patients,” though (as you do at the Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital in Marathon, or the Clearwater Marine Aquarium). “Would you like people ramping through your hospital room?”

Instead, the visitor center makes the work that this nonprofit does much more visible to the public, and raises awareness of the impact of human activity which has caused so many of the injuries – like fishing hooks and line, car accidents, gun shot wounds, and nests destroyed by developers.

There are graphic images – “view at discretion” which is like a mirror to what we have wrought.

A pelican at J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Most fascinating is to learn about some of the medical methods – here, they practice a combination of Chinese and Western medicine. For example, they use acupuncture on a tortoise.

You also learn what you should do if you encounter an injured animal: put a towel over its head, keep it warm, dry. Call a vet or CROW even if out-of-state.

The exhibits are well displayed to fascinate adults and engage and inspire children – there are kiosks with case studies, a lot of interactive stations, video screens.

CROW provides educational opportunities for students from across the United States and other nations to participate in the wildlife rehabilitation process while introducing them to both Western and Eastern medical traditions.There are also scores of volunteer opportunities, such as tortoise grazers. (CROW, 3883 Sanibel Captiva Rd. , Sanibel, FL 33957, 239.395.0050,

For a change in pace, you can go back in time at the Sanibel Historical Museum & Village, founded in 1982 as a tribute to the early pioneers on Sanibel Island. Each building has been restored to its original state. Volunteer docents guide visitors through this mystical place. (Sanibel Historical Museum & Village, 950 Dunlop Road,Sanibel, Fl. 33957, 239.472.4648,

While you don’t see animals at the CROW hospital, you can have wonderful encounters at the Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium, in Ft. Myers. The 105-acre private, not-for-profit environmental education organization has a museum, three nature trails (very pleasant), a wonderful Planetarium, butterly and bird aviaries and picnic areas.

At Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium, explore 105 acres of subtropical environment © 2010 Karen Rubin/

e arrive at the tail end of one of the live animal demonstrations – a kind of show-and-tell and get to touch a two-year old alligator and learn about opher tortoises (who knew it takes 9 years before they are sexually mature, they produce only 30 eggs, and can live to 100?).

The Planetarium show presented by Carol (“Celestial Goddess”) is a wonderful tutorial about how to locate constellations and stars in the sky – the different positioning based on geography and season. (Open daily. Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium, 3450 Ortiz Ave., Ft. Myers, FL 33907, 239.275.3435,

Next, we go to see animals that are undergoing rehabilitation here . Naturalist Melinda Russick, describes the different animals as she goes into the cages to bring them food.

There’s the Marsupial American Possum, which has poor vision and faints (plays possum) when confronted by a predator which makes them look dead and most don’t eat dead things; an albino raccoon which is very smart and can open things; and a turkey vulture that is so social, it has friends who visit every morning and chat. “They are adapted to eat things that are dead.”

There are two bald eagles looking very entitled. Melinda tells us, “They are fierce and magnificent, aloof, they keep to themselves; Native Americans think can talk to God. Because protected, have to account for every feather and send to US government.”

Another marvelous place to visit in Ft. Myers is Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve which offers a 1.2-mile long Boardwalk Trail that penetrates an otherwise inaccessible 2,200-acre wetland that is a natural wildlife corridor for white-tailed deer, bobcat, and turkey. Ibis, bald eagles, snowy egrets, raccoons, warblers, and alligators are often present. There are elevated observation platforms and a photo blind. (Open year-round, but the best wildlife viewing is November-March.)

More Ways to Explore Nature

New: The Butterfly Estates: Located in the River District of downtown Fort Myers, visitors surround themselves with thousands of butterflies at this new eco-attraction. The venue includes a botanical garden and butterfly habitat with cascading waterfalls, lush tropical nectar plants and butterflies that delight guests with their astounding beauty. ($15/adults, $9/children 3-16; 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. daily; 1815 Fowler St., Fort Myers, FL 33901, 239-690-2359,

A bald eagle is one of residents at Calusa Nature Center's sanctuary for injured animals unable to be released back into the wild, including birds of prey © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium: Rustic boardwalks outdoors lead visitors on a tour of 105 acres of subtropical environment. Inside, permanent and changing exhibits of the natural history of southwest Florida are on display. Butterfly, alligator and other animal presentations are scheduled daily. Naturalists guide walks and aviary tours are scheduled several times a week. The facility is also a sanctuary for injured animals unable to be released back into the wild, including birds of prey. Planetarium fans also enjoy the changing starlit astronomy shows in the relaxing 90-seat theater. (Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.- 5 p.m., Sundays 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.; $9/adults, $6/children 3-12; 3450 Ortiz Ave., Fort Myers, FL 33905, 239-275-3435,

Imaginarium Hands-on Museum and Aquarium: An interactive learning center where all ages explore the principles of science, the mysteries of the humanities and the uniqueness of this geographical region. A giant Pipe-O-Saurus greets visitors at the entrance to the Florida wetlands zone. Once inside, visitors stand in a Florida thunderstorm without getting wet, watch Eelvis, the live eel, slither through the coral in one of three 900-gallon aquariums, get blown away in the Hurricane Experience, tour the Animal Lab and broadcast the weather from a TV weather studio. Outside, visit the lagoon where fish, turtles and swans live beside a reptile retreat with iguanas, tortoises and more. There are Theater in the Tank video presentations and 3-D shows. (Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m. $8/ adults, $7/eniors, $5/children 3-12; 2000 Cranford Ave., Fort Myers, FL 33901, 239-321-7420,

Manatee Park: Visitors observe endangered Florida manatees in their non-captive habitat from three observation areas during “Manatee Season,” November through March. Interpretive naturalists work onsite presenting programs about manatees, butterflies and native plants. Kayak rentals are available daily. Year-round opportunities include picnicking, fishing and kayaking from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Walk the accessible paths through the restored native plant habitats and beautiful butterfly gardens. (Open daily, year-round 8 a.m. to sunset; free admission; parking $1/hr per vehicle, maximum $5; 10901 SR 80 in Ft. Myers. Directions from I-75: take exit 141 east 1.3 miles, directly across from the FPL power plant; pets are not permitted; 239-690-5030 or visit

Manatee and River Tours: Tour boats take visitors on a two-hour narrated cruise into a natural manatee and wildlife habitat of the Caloosahatchee and Orange rivers. Although seen all year in Florida, manatees congregate in the area during the cooler winter months to feed and stay warm. The area is also home to native birds, plants and animals. (Tours operate at 11 a.m. daily (except major holidays) Nov. 1 through April 30, reservations are required; Adults/$20, Children 3-12/$10; 16991 State Road 31, Fort Myers 33905, 239-693-1435,


Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve: Explore this 2,200-acre wetland ecosystem along a mile-long boardwalk trail, where southwest Florida’s diverse plant and wildlife are found. See subtropical ferns and bromeliads. Watch birds like herons, egrets, ibis and anhingas. (Free admission. Parking costs: $1 an hour, $5 daily maximum. Open year round 8 a.m. to sunset. Guided walks daily, January through March at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., and April, November, and December at 9:30 a.m. Walks at 9:30 a.m. only on Wednesdays,May-October. Handicapped accessible. Six Mile Cypress Parkway, 1-1/2 miles north of Daniels Parkway, (exit 131 off I-75), Fort Myers, FL 33912, 239-533-7550,

Matanzas Pass Preserve: This peaceful retreat on Estero Bay allows visitors to explore a live oak hammock and mangrove forest by a wandering boardwalk and foot trails. Slow your pace to fully enjoy this pristine, barrier island forest with its abundant wildlife and diverse, native, plant species. After crossing two bridges on the entry trail, a boardwalk winds through the mangrove swamp. At the end of the boardwalk, a pavilion overlooking the water provides a spectacular view of the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve. Jumping fish, wading birds, even the shy manatee can be seen from the overlook. (Open daily from sunrise to sunset, free parking; 119 Bay Road off Estero Boulevard, Fort Myers Beach, FL 33931, 239-463-0435 or

The Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau (The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel) is the best source for trip planning (12800 University Drive, Suite 550, Fort Myers, FL 33907, 239-338-3500, 800-237-6444,, email:

See also: Fort Myers: Cultural & Historical Attractions

Thursday, 10 June, 2010


© 2010 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at and at Send comments or questions to


This entry was posted in U.S. Travel by Travel Features Syndicate. Bookmark the permalink.

About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including, Huffington Post and and blogs at "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at 'Like' us at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *