Living Sanibel: Gasparilla Island State Park
Located on the southern tip of Gasparilla Island, this 144-acre point of land is one of the most valuable pieces of undeveloped real estate in the entire state park system. A short distance north of the park lie the walled Gulf-front estates of members of the du Pont family, as well as movie stars such as Kathleen Turner. Boca Grande is a favorite fishing spot for the Bush family, with both former presidents George W. and George H. Bush visiting the island to wet a line. Gulf front homesites along this stretch of beach can run as high as $40,000 a foot!
Gasparilla Island State Park fronts on Boca Grande Pass, which translates to “wide mouth” in Spanish and separates Gasparilla Island from Cayo Costa. The deep-water pass is world famous for the schools of tarpon that arrive every spring around late April and depart near the end of summer. If you visit the park during these months, with a good set of binoculars you can actually see these 100-pound “silver kings” from the observation deck surrounding the historic Boca Grande Lighthouse. Tarpon have a primitive lung allowing them to take in oxygen from the air when the surrounding water is too hot to hold enough suspended oxygen for fish this large to survive. When they surface they roll and kick up their tails. On a calm day it is not difficult to spot these fish, some of which are six feet or more in length.
The fishing here is spectacular. Almost every game and sport fish found along the west coast of Florida can be caught in and around the Boca Grande Pass. Farther north along the beach and well away from the pass are a number of artificial reefs positioned a few hundred feet offshore. Common catches include gag grouper, mangrove snapper, snook, goliath grouper, flounder, sea trout, and large jack crevalle. The world-record all-tackle hammerhead shark was caught just offshore of the pass in 2006. That fish was 14 feet long and weighed an astonishing 1,280 pounds.
The presence of numerous sharks, along with strong rip currents, makes swimming in Boca Grande Pass ill advised. The rip currents are created by the immense tides that wash in and out of the pass, feeding into Charlotte Harbor, one of the largest estuaries on the west coast of Florida.
Gasparilla State Park has much to offer. The central attraction is the restored lighthouse, built in 1890. Its museum and interpretive center shed light on the history of the abandoned phosphate docks and the legendary captains who plied the waters for the elusive silver kings. Also on display are Calusa artifacts, sea-turtle shells, and an assortment of fish mounts. The bookstore and gift shop offer an array of products that focus on the area.
Hiking and biking are popular activities in and around the park. Gasparilla Island has a Rails-to-Trails bike path that runs north/south throughout much of the island. The park also has covered picnic areas, and an old chapel on the grounds is available for rent for weddings and family get-togethers.
The park attracts a steady stream of shorebirds and seabirds, including black skimmers, snowy plovers, magnificent frigate birds, and even rare sightings of northern gannets and parasitic jaegers. Migratory warblers mingle with raptors such as red-shouldered hawks and osprey as the sun sets over the Gulf.
While the shelling isn’t as good as it is on Sanibel and Captiva, there are still plenty of fine shells to be found while beachcombing the shoreline of Gasparilla Island. Spectacular sunsets present the perfect opportunity to take a break and watch the world go by.
From snorkeling to fishing to just kicking your shoes off and relaxing, Gasparilla Island State Park beckons visitors to stop by and enjoy. It’s that easy to do.
This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.