By Chelle Koster Walton
On Florida's Gulf waters, the beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel satisfy a nature lover's curiosity with world-class shelling and nature.
Left-handed shells. A fish with fins, legs, wings and obviously an identity crisis. Crabs that give themselves time-outs. Bones once belonging to prehistoric monsters. Birds that eat with big pink spoons. What kind of place is this anyway?
No, you haven't stepped into a Dr. Seuss book. This is Lee County, The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel in Southwest Florida, where wondrous creatures past and present make a family treasure hunt better than fantasy.
Begin your Lee County treasure hunt in the past. The way past. Hook up with Fossil Expeditions, operated by a vocational paleontologist-author and his artist wife in Lehigh Acres. Paddling along the Caloosahatchee and Peach rivers, Mark and Marisa Renz take you in search of fossil teeth and bones from some of Florida's extinct early inhabitants, including mammoths, mastadons, giant sloths, rhinos and saber-toothed cats. Expect to get wet as you snorkel or pan for treasures with a screen sieve in knee-deep water. Any historic or scientifically important finds go to the State; the rest of the booty you keep.
Shell of a Treasure
In case you haven't heard, Sanibel Island beaches rock when it comes to shells. You can't take a step without crunching down on a dozen or so. All you need is a bag and a bendable back to do the so-called Sanibel Stoop. A shell ID chart helps, or you can stop at The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum to learn more about your finds. (And to find out why the lightning whelk is called a left-handed shell.)
The islands above Sanibel also hold treasure troves but are less accessible due to a lack of bridges. Good news: that makes their shell hoards less plundered. Adventures in Paradise, east of the Sanibel causeway, makes your family's entry into the world of shelling fun and instructive with boat cruises to help you find and classify your finds. The six-hour shelling and lunch cruise aboard catamaran Dolphin Waters stops at the beaches of North Captiva Island.
It's a type of treasure too precious to keep: Lee County's bounty of sea, air and land critters sends treasure hunters home instead with incredible experiences to share. The list of wildlife-spotting possibilities goes on and on. As a major stopover along a well-traveled flyway, Lee County counts bird species in the more than 200s, including great blue herons, ospreys, red-shouldered hawks, great white egrets and those comical roseate spoonbills, whose name comes from their pink spatulate beaks. To see them in their natural habitat - along with alligators, otters, and squirrels - do the boardwalk at Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve. Here the treasure hunting gets a little tricky, requiring high levels of quiet, stealth and keen observation. To help your family on your first attempt, tag along on a guided walk held twice daily January through March and May through October, Wednesdays only; once daily, April, November and December.
For the benefit of the less patient in the family, head down the road to nearby Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium, where butterflies, pelicans, alligators, egrets, snakes and recovering injured birds are contained for easy observation. Stay for the live animal demonstrations, a show in the Planetarium, or explore 105 acres of "Old-Florida ecosystems.".
An empty shell, a bird feather (as long as it didn't come from a protected species, in which case it's against the law to keep), a shark's tooth, a photo of a pelican, and a wealth of knowledge about life in the subtropics. It's been a successful hunt, but the greatest treasure, you understand, lies in the family time spent together and memories that you hold only in your hearts.