Florida has something of a reputation for being the final destination of the retired, the infirm and the snowbird. In many ways, Sanibel Island is a microcosm of this and while it’s difficult to determine the average age of the multitude before you it’s clear that most people have grey hair and an aged disposition. The island is essentially a place to retire and live out your later years in a friendly, benign climate or pursue a not-to-strenuous activity in some winter sunshine. The economy has developed in support and, consequently, the driving forces are real estate, recreational shopping, investment and, of course, healthcare. You feel as if you’re surrounded by older people but actually that doesn’t do the island justice. There is an active resident population but it is overwhelmed by an influx of visitors that flows in and out like a sedate and soporific tide. Vehicles, cycles and pedestrians alike creep along at glacial speed. The symbiosis that exists between the local economy and the visitors means that pharmaceutical sections in the supermarkets are the largest you’ll ever find and the selection of liquidised food is second to none.
Sanibel is a barrier island, which is a long and low strip of land running parallel to the coast, just of Fort Myers. It was joined to the mainland by a causeway and bridge in 1963. Until then it had been served by a ferry and could only be visited by the determined few. The causeway meant that access was then available to the ubiquitous SUV but the residents, to their immense credit, involved themselves in developing a Comprehensive Land Use Plan that sought to avoid overdevelopment and balance the island’s ecology. No chain franchises are allowed – so no McDonald’s, IHOP or Starbucks. As a direct consequence more than half the island comprises managed conservation areas and this is what makes it so attractive. The largest of these is the JN ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
Essentially, the landward side of the island is mostly mangrove fringe around tidal inlets while the seaward side has long, white sandy beaches that are world-famous for the quantity and variety of seashells that occur. There are several distinct habitats that support a wide variety of tropical native plants. These, in turn, support extensive birdlife, several breeding pairs of Bald Eagles, generous numbers of Roseate Spoonbills and a huge variety of wildlife that includes manatees, crocodiles, alligators and bobcats. You can see dolphins every day. It’s almost – but not quite – possible to get away from people.
Sanibel was named by the Spaniards in about 1768, a few years after a harbour was first indicated on contemporary maps. There’s a well-documented history of pirates using the island and local mythology suggests that there is still buried treasure waiting to be discovered. I suspect that if there is any it’s under a ‘vacation rental by owner’ or a golf course.
But it’s the seashells that do so much to give Sanibel its singular character. On any day and at any time the long beaches are filled with people wandering back and forth, heads bowed and rooting around in the sand. Each carries a plastic bag or bucket; sometimes a net or even an old hat – any form of container. Brown-skinned locals, jaws set in an expression of deep concentration and dressed in ripped-off denims and windcheaters, mingle with northern or European visitors in beachwear. Together they move in somnambulant synchronicity in performing the macabre dance known as the Sanibel Stoop; stroll, turn, bob and pick. I can’t work out if shelling is a pursuit that attracts people who have slow movements, bad posture and sloping shoulders or if the Stoop causes it. Literally thousands of kilos of shells must be picked up each day; the unburied treasure of Sanibel Island that sometimes delivers a rare Sundial, Junonia, Nutmeg, Scotch Bonnet or Lion’s Paw. But in the tradition of all holiday romances the affair is often short-lived and the dance over all to soon; the back of the beach, where it joins footpaths, car parks or condominium gardens is littered with sad little piles of discarded shells.