This post is sponsored by The Beaches of Ft. Myers & Sanibel. As always, all thoughts & opinions are my own.
Over the course of my life, my mom has always collected seashells. Every summer, we would go on walks to see what we could find–– periwinkles, horseshoe crabs, jingle shells, and the always coveted blue seaglass. So it was no surprise when a few years ago, my mom started talking about a place she wanted to go: Sanibel, Florida.
Maybe it’s because I first heard of Sanibel from my mom, but to be honest, I thought it was just for retired people looking for a beach vacation during the winter. 😂 And while sure, it’s a great place for East coast “snowbirds”, this is also a beautiful and thriving environment for those interested in wildlife, the outdoors, and unplugging for a little while (or for as long as you can, anyway).
The area is certainly known for its seashells, and is a popular spot for shelling (the actual word for collecting seashells). Two thirds of Sanibel is protected, and it seems that everyone acts with nature in mind. Sanibel’s vibe is laid back and relaxed, with biking a popular mode of transportation. There are plenty of activities for the outdoorsy crowd, numerous scenes for wildlife and outdoor photography, and stunning beaches if you happen to be traveling with someone who isn’t as into photographic pursuits as you are.
When working with destinations as I was on this project, I don’t always get to choose my itinerary. In this case, I was able to do all of the activities I was interested in, and I could have filled even more days very easily. I figured I would lay out this post in the format of my personal itinerary so that you can utilize it if you visit in the future. Though I was by myself for most of this adventure, my parents joined me for a few activities, and in general, I found this area to be great for both solo and family travel.
On my first day, I headed out early to Captiva at the northern end of Sanibel to meet with Captain Brian. I had known that I wanted to island hop around the area by boat (um hello, dolphins, manatees, and a TON of birds… obviously.), and did some research on how to go about it. While I am 100% positive that Sanibel is full of knowledgeable and fun captains and charters, I feel like I seriously lucked out with Captain Brian. This guy is amazing, not just for the places he took me to, but he is extraordinarily passionate about wildlife, the outdoors and the cultural history of the area.
Along with the wildlife, I was intrigued by the Calusa shell mounds that remain from pre-colonial Florida. Much of Southwestern Florida is ancient Calusa territory, and I believe it is so important that we as visitors seek out information about whose land we are on. As we traveled through the estuary, Capt. Brian started painting a picture for me of what the civilization may have looked like during its peak, around 700-900AD. The shell mounds were often ceremonial, but may have been used as a sophisticated form of navigation as well.
Our end point for the day was Cayo Costa State Park, where we’d be camping. It’s safe to say that nine miles of beach (with boat-in only access) is one of my love languages. I chose to reserve a cabin, but the tent sites looked great as well. One factor (which some of you messaged me about) is the bugs–– apparently they can be less than enjoyable, depending on the time of year. Luckily for me, we experienced almost no bugs. Just bring bug spray to be safe!
For sunset, I walked to the beach and had so much fun capturing the pink and orange light in the seafoam. There were a few other people on the beach, but knowing they were all camping too made them feel like friends. By this point, Capt. Brian and I were good buddies, and as an adventure guide myself, we had lots of stories to share by the fire before calling it a night.
I was so tired in the morning, but the hope of a nice sunrise was enough for me to drag myself out of my sleeping bag. Though the clouds didn’t end up breaking through too much for us, it was still cool to check out some of the old fish houses on the water. I think these would be great to photograph at any time of day, as there were lots of birds hanging around. We next headed to Tarpon Bay Lodge on Pine Island to warm up a bit (plus I legitimately could not keep my eyes open… oops). After a much needed cup of coffee, we walked across the street to the Randell Research Center–– a must if you’re as interested in culture as I am! Capt. Brian and I walked the self-guided trail, which features illustrations and informational plaques, as he shared his extensive knowledge of Calusa people and history. If you can’t make it to Randell, but are interested in Calusa history, check out Mound House in Fort Myers.
Sadly my guided charter was coming to a close. I thanked Captain Brian for an excellent trip and headed to check in to my cottage, home for the rest of the trip. Blind Pass Beach was my first sunset stop on Sanibel, and where I hung out with a Great Blue Heron that was walking along the tideline. There were a few other people shooting the sunset, while others were collecting shells. Of course, the beach itself is pretty, but this week my real interest point was photographing the birds.
At the recommendation of Captain Brian, I woke up to shoot sunrise at McCarthy’s Marina. I was setting up as I saw a man walking toward the dock with a plastic chair and a towel. I thought to myself, no way is this dude about to go swimming. It was not exactly warm. But the man passed me and walked to the end of the dock, positioned the chair toward the sun and sat on the towel. He was pulling up a seat to watch the sunrise. He definitely had the right idea. Moments like that remind me to be present.
My parents drove up to join me for a tour of J.N. “Ding” Darling National Preserve with environmental educator Toni Westland (who I would learn is an incredible human being). I was originally not sure if this tour was going to happen because of the government shutdown, but luckily 38 “priority” National Preserves were re-opened the week before I arrived, and Ding Darling happened to be one of them. The main purpose for National Preserves is the protection of wildlife, and it’s unfortunate that the other 500-something Preserves were going unstaffed during the shutdown (not to mention the National Parks, EPA, and other federal entities), and of course, that employees were going unpaid.
Toni took us on a tour of Wildlife Drive, which is a 4 mile loop you can drive or bike. Initially instituted for mosquito control, Wildlife Drive is now a fantastic place for wildlife viewing at multiple viewpoints. The estuary was super calm and full of birds. Indeed, this feels like a sanctuary.
As if it were her grand finale, Toni took us out on the Wildlife Education Boardwalk (or “WEB”), which was a collaborative project with the school that shares a border with the Preserve. Toni told us about the creation of the WEB, which features animal tracks pressed into the surface, and sculptures of animal poop along the side (super educational and fun). We rounded the corner to see 12 Roseate Spoonbills on the trees and both Toni and I whisper-yelled with excitement. This was one of the birds I really hoped to see on my trip.
Massive thanks to Toni for being an enthusiastic and informative tour guide. I am so grateful for people like Toni, who are deeply passionate about the important work they do for wildlife! If you come to Sanibel, spend at least a morning in Ding Darling and leave time to just observe. There is a lot to see, especially if you takes some time to really look. 😉
Bowman’s Beach was my next sunset location. It was fun to shoot the little birds at golden hour while I waited for more color. I felt like I was getting to know these birds as I photographed them. After sunset, I was able to spend some quality time with a great blue heron who seemed to be posing for me. Overall I fell in love with the soft colors here. If you have limited time on Sanibel, Bowman’s Beach is a good bet for an afternoon stroll and a nice sunset.
My first stop for the day was the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, aka CROW. CROW exists to care for sick, injured, or orphaned wildlife, and takes in 200-400 patients per month. If you’ve got some time on Sanibel, there are tours and various programs available for those who would like to learn more about the work.
Since everything on Sanibel is relatively close, I decided to spend the early afternoon driving around to get a better feel for the island. I went down to Sanibel lighthouse and saw lots of people out having a beach day. The water was turquoise and calm and I definitely wished I was not wearing jeans! After a quick walk, I went to get some ice cream (+1 for Joey’s Custard) and took a moment to write down my thoughts. As I am usually very active when visiting a new place, it can be nice to sit down and reflect on the trip, while collecting my thoughts to share with you.
My last scheduled activity was a sunset paddle in Tarpon Bay. I met my guide at Tarpon Bay Explorers in the afternoon and got on the water. Any wind that there was completely died down… the water was calm and clear, and I could see the bottom for most of the paddle. I could seriously not believe my luck. For the next few hours, I had a peaceful and dreamy paddle around this gorgeous estuary surrounded by mangroves and pelicans.
To top it all off, we were treated to a beautiful, calming, and colorful sunset. If Florida wanted to show off, it was doing a great job.
I had a slow morning packing up my cottage and made Bunche Beach Preserve my last stop on the way to the airport. Bunche is a preserve closer to Ft. Myers, and seems more accessible than the Sanibel beaches (which are all on the other side of a road toll). If I had more time, I definitely could have spent a few hours reading and enjoying the sun at Bunche Beach. There are lots of little pockets in the sea grape trees for privacy.
My overall impression? Such a lovely place, and hugely underrated by people like me! What do I mean by that? Well, this isn’t a spot we typically see on Instagram, and it might not a spot you first think of when you want to go on an outdoor adventure. This trip showed me that we should absolutely re-consider.
In general, there are some fantastic wildlife photography opportunities here. I would recommend that any photographer visiting Ft. Myers and Sanibel make good use of their time by prioritizing sunrise and sunset in order to get the best light. The soft colors at dawn and dusk made for some beautiful images.
Somewhere, there’s a Floridian cursing me for exposing a well-kept secret. I’m here to tell you that Southwest Florida is not just for spring break or your parents. There is more to it than you think.
Click images to view in slideshow.