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Islands offer a multitude of opportunities to learn more about the environment, conservation

By Staff | Sep 8, 2010

Kids can snorkel through sea grass when they sign up for the Sanibel Sea School.

School is officially back in session, but many Sanibel and Captiva organizations are working all year long to make sure that residents and visitors are getting the kind of education that can only be achieved through hands-on, experiential opportunities that put them within close proximity of the ecosystems they are studying.

Whether it involves cruising the Caloosahatchee or snorkeling through the sea grass, the islands provide unique opportunities for people of all ages and environmental interests.

Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation

3333 Sanibel-Captiva Road, Sanibel


Nick and Jake Atkinson study one of the oysters living in the Tarpon Bay Explorers’ Touch Tank.


In 1967, SCCF began purchasing and conserving tracts of land that include critical wildlife habitats, rare and unique subtropical plant communities, tidal wetlands and freshwater wetlands. Throughout the years, the SCCF has continued to make education for visitors and island residents a core part of their mission.

“For general visitors to the island we have the nature center, which is open five days a week. We have our marine touch tank and turtle exhibits, and you can see how each creature has its own niche to play,” said SCCF Education Director Kristie Anders. “Dee Serage Century also organizes wildlife lectures on Fridays, and every Thursday morning we have our turtle education program. We also spend a lot of our time speaking to civic groups. We’re all eager to be able to talk to people and we’re always looking for those opportunities. Another aspect of education comes with our native plant nursery, not only in helping people design landscapes for wildlife, but finding out what’s blooming and how wildlife use those plants. The native plant nursery provides as much education as it does landscaping.”

• Touch Tank

The Nature Center touch tank includes aquariums that are home to a variety of crabs and turtles, tulip and lightning whelk shells and sea urchins.

SCCF Docent Gillian Bath, third from left, answers questions from youngsters about the creatures found in the SCCF Touch Tank.

• Turtle Tracks

A short video of a loggerhead sea turtle digging a nest and laying her eggs will help begin a discussion of the life-cycle of the sea turtles that nest on Sanibel and Captiva beaches. The program is followed by a beach walk.

Every Thursday at 9 a.m. Free to members and children, $5 for non-members. A $2 beach parking fee may apply.

In addition to monthly policy programs, hosted once a month by SCCF Policy Director Rae Ann Wessel, Serage Century often presents various programs about bobcats, alligators and frogs. Call SCCF for times and dates.

The SCCF also has a partnership with Captiva Cruises and offers many opportunities for visitors and locals to learn more about the wildlife and waters that surround them.

Captiva Cruises Environmental Educator Richard Finkel shows passenger Harry Kotses and Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Education Director Kristie Anders how to interpret the readings on the hydrolab, an apparatus that measures for certain characteristics of water quality.

Captiva Cruises

11401 Andy Rosse Lane, Captiva



Paul McCarthy, owner of McCarthy’s Marina and Captiva Cruises, has partnered with SCCF since 1988 on many educational cruises.

Local families can enjoy a paddle through the mangroves with a kayak rental at Tarpon Bay Explorers.

“The partnership between SCCF and Captiva Cruises is extraordinarily important and it’s a way for us to reach over a quarter of a million visitors a year and there is no way that SCCF could even come near that without their help,” Anders said.

Educational cruises include:

• Dolphin & Wildlife Adventure Cruises

Narrated by Conservation Foundation docents, this Captiva Cruises trip is one way to enjoy dolphins, other wildlife and learn about the ecological history of Pine Island Sound and the islands. Reservations are required.

Daily at 4:00 p.m.

• Be a Marine Biologist

This hands-on scientific inquiry is fun for all ages and passengers take part in actual scientific research that will be utilized by the SCCF’s Marine Lab. Call for dates and times.

• Shoreline Discovery Cruise

Passengers can participate in a guided shoreline walk as they learn about coastal sea life and beach dynamics, including an exploration of mudflats, sea grass beds and a some of the Back Bay Estuary ecosystem’s small but magnificent inhabitants. Call for dates and times.

• Sailing Under the Stars Cruise

After enjoying a beautiful sunset, passengers will have the opportunity to identify planets, stars and constellations, while learning more about the mythology and mysteries of the night sky. Call for dates and times.

• River Meets the Sea

A hands-on, monthly cruise that explores the mouth of the Caloosahatchee and its estuary. Passengers will be conducting their own water quality sampling while traveling through back bay waters and learning more about SCCF’s River Estuary Coastal Observing Network (RECON) program, which tracks key water quality parameters from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico. Hosted by Anders and Captiva Cruises Education Director Richard Finkel.

“Another wonderful thing about this beautiful partnership is that some of the proceeds from the ticket sales for the Dolphin & Wildlife and water-quality cruises go to provide funding for environmental education, and these days, we all know how important that is,” Anders said. “It allows us to do things we might not normally do because of funding issues. We’re a not for profit. We earn our way every day, every minute, and certainly the generosity of businesses such as Captiva Cruises has helped us along the way for a long time, and we hope that it continues. It opens up more avenues for story-telling, and that’s what education is — telling stories and hopefully stimulating curiosity.”

Finkel and McCarthy are also partnering with the SCCF to give kids more opportunities to learn about the environment with the “No Child Left Onshore” program.

“The intent is to get kids out on the water for a hands-on experience, especially school kids and area youth that just don’t have the opportunity by any other means, and learn with an experiential field trip,” Finkel said. “It’s going great. We’ve taken kids from The Immokalee Foundation, Brightest Horizons, Dunbar and Fort Myers. We’ve had a lot of great feedback. A lot of those kids had never been in the water on on a boat. We want them to enjoy and experience the environment they live in.”

A full list of cruising and sailing opportunities is available at Captiva Cruises’ website, www.CaptivaCruises.com.

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge (

1 Wildlife Drive, Sanibel



The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge Education Center features interactive exhibits on refuge ecosystems, the work of J.N. “Ding” Darling, migratory flyways, the National Wildlife Refuge System and a hands-on area for children. The Center is open daily, excluding federal holidays, January through April from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and May through December from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Education Center also houses a bookstore full of field guides, nature books and educational children’s books. Revenues from the bookstore help to fund many different programs at the refuge.

“Ding” rangers also spend a lot of time on and off-island educating students about the environment, wildlife and conservation through free guided field trips in the Education Center and the refuge, as well as on-site presentations at schools.

Programs include:

• Importance of the Estuary

• Our Feathery Friends

• Reading in the Refuge

• Nocturnal animals

• Magnificent Manatees

• Fabulous Flyways

• Who was Ding Darling?

“All of our programs for kids and adults are up to Sunshine State standards and all-encompassing, well-rounded and cover all facets of environmental education,” said “Ding” Environmental Education Specialist Becky Wolff. “We want to teach them all of the little things, so that by the end of the program, they start to understand the big picture — just like the circle of life, a circle of education.”

But “Ding” Darling isn’t just for kids.

Visitors of all ages can tour the refuge all year-round through Tarpon Bay Explorers, which offers a wide array of tours including tram tours of the Wildlife Drive, in addition to kayak, pontoon boat and touch tank tours.

Tarpon Bay Explorers

900 Tarpon Bay Road, Sanibel



As the licensed concessionaire of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Tarpon Bay Explorers provides low-impact recreational and educational opportunities to the public under contract with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Our mission is to educate both visitors and locals about all aspects of the wildlife refuge — the environment, the ecology, the birds, dolphins, manatees and alligators. We also teach the history of the area and about conservation in general. We want to give people an understanding about why the refuge is important and why we need to protect it,” said TBE co-owner Wendy Schnapp. “We have various options for tours — guided kayak tours and our nature and sealife cruise, which includes a 30 minute aquarium and touch tank presentation. The idea is to give you the whole picture — what’s below the water, what’s on top of the water and what’s in the air. We also do the tram tour, which is very comprehensive about the ecology of the area and on that trip, you have a great chance of seeing alligators.”

• Tram Tour

Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.

Join one of TBE’s experienced naturalists for a one-and-a-half hour tram tour of the J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge.

• Touch Tank

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Tuesdays and Thursdays, 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Saturdays, 3:30 p.m.

Sundays, 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.

The TBE touch tanks are teaming with live shells, sea urchins, hermit crabs, oysters and more and their aquarium displays will introduce visitors to some of the more unusual fish in Tarpon Bay and the surrounding waters, including puffers, filefish, pipefish and sea horses.

• Kayak Trail Tour

Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturday 10:30 a.m.

Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, 8:30 a.m.

Kayak for an hour-and-a-half with a TBE naturalist through the mangrove forest along the Commodore Creek water trail, where you’ll learn about the rich back-bay ecosystem and the wildlife that lives there. All ages and skill levels welcome.

• Sunset Rookery Paddle

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 5:30 p.m.

For a unique tour experience, join TBE during sunset as you kayak paddle to the Rookery Islands where you’ll see hundreds of egrets, herons, ibis, cormorants and pelicans that have come in to roost for the night.

• Nature & Sea Life Cruises

Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Go on a relaxing cruise aboard TBE’s environmentally friendly, covered pontoon boat where you’ll observe an amazing bird rookery and learn about the mangrove estuary, the J.N. “Ding” Darling refuge and the islands’ amazing wildlife — dolphins and manatees are often spotted. All cruises also include the touch tank presentation.

TBE also offers a Breakfast Cruise (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 8:30 a.m.) and an Evening Cruise (Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays at 5:45 p.m.).

Sanibel Sea School

414 Lagoon Drive, Sanibel



Established in October of 2006, the Sanibel Sea School is a comprehensive educational endeavor of Dr. Bruce and Evelyn Neill, who are trying to instill in kids — and adults — an intense love for the ocean and a passion for conservation.

“Conservation is 100 percent of what we teach. The mission of the non-profit foundation is to promote marine conservation through experiential learning, research and communication,” Neill said.

Through snorkeling in sea grasses and learning all about the various components of the islands’ delicate ecosystem, the Neills have helped to educate and impassion hundreds of people.

“What we’re truly trying to do is to allow people the opportunity to fall in love with the ocean. There are a lot of ways to fall in love with the ocean — we believe that we have to protect what we love. But before we can love something, we have to understand it,” Neill said. “We want kids to truly understand the ocean in a meaningful way so that, as adults, it becomes more than an academic subject, it becomes a part of their lives, it’s woven into the fabric of their existence.”

But the Sanibel Sea School isn’t just for kids.

“The adult programs are much more academically-oriented. That’s what differentiates us from eco-tourism. We give you research material and we go out in the field. We talk about complex subjects, such as tides. We could spend an hour talking about tides and still not really completely dive into the complexities of that subject — but we’ll give you the resources and materials you need if you want to study it further,” Neill said. “We’re very curriculum-based and we spend a lot of preparatory time on that curriculum. That’s what makes us unique.”

All-day adventures at the School are $90 for both children (ages six to 13) and adults (ages 13 and up) and $55 for half-day programs. To learn more about the sessions, camps and opportunities available, go to the Sea School’s website or call 472-8585.