Sanibel Island is a barrier island located off of the southwestern coast of Florida. This island is only 12 miles long and 4 miles wide. One of the main attractions to this island is the sea shells that wash up on the shores in large quantities. Similar to the Florida Keys, Sanibel Island is situated on the large, underwater plateau of the Florida peninsula where many bivalves and other sea shells thrive. The unique “shrimp-like” shape of the island catches shells as they move with the tide onto the shore. Sanibel Island is also home of The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, one of the world’s few museums dedicated solely to the study of seashells. More than half of the island is composed of wildlife refuges. For this reason, the island is popular for tourists who visit the sanctuaries to explore Florida's unique wildlife.

Sanibel Island

Sanibel Island

Much of Sanibel Island is dedicated to wildlife refuges protecting creatures such as scallops and other mollusks, native and migratory birds, American alligators, and many native plants such as Mangroves. In fact, mangroves are very prevalent on Sanibel Island and play a major role in keeping the islands natural habitats intact. The largest wildlife refuge is the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge “consists of over 6,400 acres of mangrove forest, submerged seagrass beds, cordgrass marshes, and West Indian hardwood hammocks.”[1] Fishing is also a main attraction to the island, with many species found in the bay areas between Sanibel and the mainland as well as in the Gulf of Mexico. Common game fish species include sea trout, redfish, tarpon, and others that make this area a very popular fishing destination.

The surrounding waters near Sanibel Island are susceptible to harmful algal blooms, known as red tides because of their orange-red appearance. According to Dr. José Leal, Director of The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, “red tides are caused by large blooms of a marine microorganism called Karenia brevis.” Karenia brevis is a member of the phytoplankton and naturally produces neurotoxins. These large blooms produce high levels of the toxins released into the water and over extended periods of time, can kill many marine animals and plants. When marine organisms die and decompose, large amounts of oxygen are used up, causing the area to become anoxic.

As of mid-July 2010, no oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster has reached the Sanibel Island and is not expected to reach the shorelines of western Florida, with the exception of the Florida Panhandle. However, the oil spill has greatly diminished the level of tourism that this area economically relies on. Dr. Kumar Mahadevan, President of Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, said that “People are going elsewhere. It’s not even the oil that is the problem, it’s the perception. The media gives the sense that all the areas are affected.” Although the oil might never reach the white sandy beaches of Sanibel Island and the surrounding areas, the oil spill is taking its toll on the local economy.

Resources for Sanibel Island

[1] Sanibel Island