Captiva Island: sanctuary for birds, peaceful for visitors

Captiva! The very name captured our imaginations. We were on tour of the southern coastline of Florida, passing through Sanibel and heading northward to Fort Myers, and the sign that said Captiva seemed an audible invitation to us to stop and explore.

A winding asphalt road led over a narrow bridge to the small sliver of land lying parallel to the mainland. Following the serpentine route through lush, junglelike vegetation, we came upon a smaller road branching off to the left. It appeared to terminate abruptly at a row of tall trees silhouetted against a brilliant light.

We went to investigate, and found that the road did indeed come to a full stop. We stood on the bank, stunned by the sight of a sunset on the Gulf of Mexico. We paused -- and stayed two weeks.

All kinds of sea fowl have selected this spot as their sanctuary. Egrets, herons, gulls, pelicans, cormorants, and sandpipers have taken completed possesion of the sandy strip that surrounds the island. You are concious of being an intruder. The white sand is covered with seashells of every size, shape, and color. A fresh supply comes in with every tide and substantiates the early settlers' right to call it "the island of shells."

The Gulf water, off the ship lanes, is disturbed only by occasional small boats used for fishing or pleasure. More often, one sees schools of dolphins and sometimes sharks -- fortunately of the non-man-eating variety.

Only a botanist could name all the plant life that thrives here. But one of the most unforgettable species is the night-blooming cereus, which at dawn turns its golden face to the sun and dies. One senses that here nature fullfills its destiny undisturbed by man.

It was not always so. There is evidence that man invaded this spot and settled here hundreds of years ago. The first known arrivals were the Caloosa (or Caluso) Indians of Caribbean or South American origin. They were primarily fishermen. Remains of dwellins apparently built on pyramids of shells give a hint of their homes and burial grounds.

In the 15th century, European explorers followed. Amerigo Vespucci, Ponce de Leon, Panfilo de Varvaez, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, and a few minor explorers visited this spot in pursuit of slaves, gold, and new lands to conquer. But the Caloosas were unfriendly, and managed to reject all attempts to enslave them.

This period was followed by the invasion of pirates. After murderous raids on ships on the Atlantic, they rounded the tip of Florida and found safe haven in the quiet waters of the west coast. It was around this time that the Indians completely disappeard. Two pirate names (evidently the worst of the lot) remain from that ghastly time: Black Caesar and Gasparilla.

There is no doubt that Sanibel was named after Santa Isabella, queen of Aragon. There is some Question about who named the island, however; some say that it was Ponce de Leon; other sources claim that the pirate Gasparilla named it in what was probably an uncharacteristic gesture of patriotism. In any case, there is no doubt that the pirates named Captiva, after the Indian women they enslaved there.

Blockade runners took refuge in the safety of these quiet waters during the Civil War. YEars later, during Prohibition, rumrunners from Mexico and South AMerica took advantage of the same protection.

Between these two phases, in 1883, serious farmers did try to settle and raise crops. But much of the area around Captiva is claimed by mangrove trees. Grotesque, almost comic, these form what looks like a forest on stilts. Their exposed roots reach down into the salty ocean water that sustains them. Most of the farmers eventually moved to more suitable areas; the few who remained catered to tourists as fishermen or operators of shops selling aritcles made or decorated by shells.

It was on this island that Anne Lindbergh had the inspiration for her classic: "Gift from the Sea." A longtime resident who knows and loves all the living things on the island pointed out to us the tree under which Mrs. Lindbergh sat, week, while she worked on her manuscript.

Despite Captiva's isolation, accommodations are available and moderately priced. On the island itself, a longtime resident has a number of cottages either singly or in little "cluster villages." They range from two to four rooms , and are fully equipped for housekeeping (gas stoves, refrigerators, air conditioners, and TV sets). All are within a few minutes' walk to the shore.

Too, there is a little corner grocery store with an amazing assortment of "things you mat have forgotten to bring."

We soon set out our pattern: We ate the two early meals of the day in our bathing suits, spending the time along the ever-changing beach with its varied activities, and returning about 4 o'clock t shower and dress before "going to town."

From this area it is possible to be in Fort Myers in about 25 minutes and enjoy all the advantages of a Southern city.

Nof Thomas a. Edison, where he spent his last years. Set in a tropical garden that has trees and plants from every part of the world, including africa, is the house as he lived in it, his workshop, his laboratory, and a museum of his many inventions. Days could be spent here.

But like the birds, at night, we always came home to Captiva. Often outside our cabin we spotted a raccoon standing in the middle of the road.

hen all that we would hear would be the water gently lapping the shore.

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