SANIBEL, Fla. — It’s Friday night in Sanibel, one of Florida’s causeway islands, and like many other Jews on the island, I’m headed to church – the United Congregational Church of Christ on Periwinkle Way, to be precise. We’re not searching for Jesus, though – our destination is the church’s fellowship hall, where an Aron Kodesh sits unobtrusively in the corner, its doors opened only when the Jews convene for services.
The church has been an unlikely gathering point for members of Congregation Bat Yam for the past 20 years, though I’ve come on a quiet night, I later learn. The dozen older couples gathered for this yarmulke-optional service, many in flip-flops, are by no means representative of the crowd Friday night services usually attracts. “We have 132 families as members,” says Mike Hochschild, a Sanibel resident for the past 12 years. “Eighty-three people showed up for our Passover seder.”
As the only child in the room, my eight-year-old daughter, Amy, attracts appreciative glances from the worshippers, most of whom live far from their children and grandchildren. When the service wraps up and the lay leader asks if anyone has any good news, many are keen to talk. They voice the progress their grandchildren are making in distant states, glowing with pride as they share news of their family. One granddaughter is accompanying a Birthright group to Israel just weeks after receiving her graduate degree; another is performing in a play that night. The members of Bat Yam have chosen the Sunshine State for their retirement, but its price is distance from the kids and grandkids they cherish.
Later, over mango sorbetto from the local ice-cream shop, Mike describes why he loves the island. “We have 20 miles of biking trails, and no buildings higher than three stories,” he says.
“Seventy per cent of the island is a nature preserve,” adds his wife, Tanya. “Today, while playing golf, all I could hear was the hoarse croak of alligators in mating season.”
True, in terms of wildlife, the causeway islands are rich. At the marina of the South Seas Island Resort on Captiva, a half-hour’s drive north of Sanibel, we watch 1,300-pound manatee cows, bulls and calves feed on the seagrass that sustains them. We listen to the breathy snorting of these gentle giants of the sea, relatives of the elephant family who move slowly and lack any ability to defend themselves whatsoever. Their snouts and grey backs are the only parts of their mammoth bodies visible as they gorge, luxuriating in the marina’s warm water.
Clambering aboard a Captiva Cruises ferry to Cabbage Key, more wildlife is minutes away as dolphins dip and dive in the vessel’s wake. For a hobby orthithologist like me, the islands are a bird-watching mecca. Ospreys are almost as numerous and vocal as seagulls, grabbing fish from the gulf and trailing it in their talons to their nests. We see pelicans gliding inches from the ocean, egrets and herons standing stockstill in the shallows, and giant frigate birds suspended on the thermals as if attached to the string of a long kite.
But it’s the shell-hunting we’ve come for. The location of the causeway islands coupled with the movement of the tides means that an exquisite array of shells washes up on the beach each day. Finding them means long walks on the soft white sand, with eyes to the ground and frequent stops to unearth and inspect a brilliant array of shells. With the help of a sheller’s identification guide we separate bivalves from univalves, conches from whelks.
Later, at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, we gawk at the immaculate specimens others have foraged from Florida’s beaches: the brilliant, fiery orange hues of the lion’s paw and the graceful arch of the lightning whelk. Behind glass cases we see the exquisitely symmetrical spots of the dubious volute and the sharp spines of paz’s murex.
The word “paradise” is tossed around a lot in Sanibel, and you don’t have to look far to see why. Devoid of high-rises, big-box stores and large shopping malls, the island is a place to appreciate the simple pleasures of life, particularly on the endless expanses of its pristine beaches. Families come to this conservation-focused island to cavort in the warm surf of the Gulf, build elaborate sand sculptures and hunt for the trophy shells that literally litter the beach.
For a deeper understanding of the island’s ecology and wildlife, we take a guided tour through one of the nation’s busiest national wildlife refuges, the 6,000-acre “Ding” Darling. Here, we learn about the ubiquitous mangrove trees with finger-like roots that anchor the islands in place. The only trees that survive in saltwater, the mangroves prevent hurricanes from tearing the islands to shreds and create invaluable habitat and nutrients for aquatic life. We watch tree crabs scurry over mangrove branches, ospreys feed their young and egrets as they catch their next meal. We also learn about the 11-foot American crocodile that once called Sanibel home.
“She lived quite happily in the “Ding” Darling refuge until folks starting feeling sorry for her,” says Barry Litofsky, our naturalist. “They felt she should be with other crocs, so she was caught and relocated 60 miles away.” Just months later, that old croc was back, though. “She’d swum up river, seen the sign for Sanibel and taken a right turn,” jokes Litofsky. A popular fixture at the refuge, she stayed there until her death in 2010, but her passing caused enough commotion to warrant a memorial service at “Ding” Darling. “Two hundred and fifty people showed up for that service,” he says with a wry smile. “They brought pictures and memories, toasting that old croc with Gatorade.”
If You Go: For general information on Sanibel and Captiva, call 1-800-237-6444 and/or visit www.fortmyers-sanibel.com.