At first blush, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge seems quiet. Stay a while, though. Climb the observation tower, park your car and walk the grounds. You are sure to be rewarded.
By Chris Umpierre
SANIBEL, FLA. — My family and I are standing at the top of Ding Darling’s wooden observation tower admiring the refuge’s long stretch of water, undisturbed landscape, colorful birds and all-around beauty when we hear a jarring and unmistakable sound.
We look out to the water. What is it, my daughters ask me.
We turn our heads to the shore and see an 8-foot American Alligator devouring a Frisbee-sized horseshoe crab. With his feet still in the water, the Alligator has the crab in its mouth. The gator’s jaws are shut. After a few minutes, the Alligator opens his mouth and goes to work. The poor gray crab flops inside the gator’s mouth with each bite, growing more and more indiscernible.
Wildlife experts say it’s a rarity to see an Alligator devour a horseshoe crab. We saw it up-close in one of the nation’s top wildlife refuges this summer. The experience underscores the belied power of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. At the surface, it seems quiet. Stay a while, though. Climb the observation tower, park your car and walk the grounds. You are sure to be rewarded at what is America’s best place for birding.
The Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, which was created to help protect endangered and threatened species on Sanibel Island, is a national treasure. More than 245 different species of birds live here. The refuge is known for its migratory bird populations. The refuge has more than 6,400 acres of mangrove forest, submerged seagrass beds, cordgrass mashes and West Indian hardwood hammocks.
But there is more to Ding Darling than birds. On our recent trip, we saw mullet jumping out of the water, crabs, mangroves and more. During our Sanibel Island vacation, we marveled at all of the animals. On Sanibel beach (starfish, jelly fish, countless shells and a dolphin); at the Sanibel Lighthouse (a gopher tortoise); at Pointe Santo resort (a rabbit, a gator and several turtles); and at the Captiva Marina (two inquisitive manatees swam at the surface).
Lee County and Sanibel’s conservation efforts made this unique experience possible. Administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge has protected habitat for wildlife since 1945. It was renamed in Jay Norwood Darling’s honor and officially dedicated to him in 1967.
Alligator Al Eats His Lunch
Dozens of tourists, including yours truly, immediately flocked to take photos of the Alligator eating his lunch. My sister-in-law, Vivian, nearly fainted as a family of four got five feet away from the beast to take photos on their smartphones.
“They are crazy,” she said.
The gator was biting on the crab on the shore. The only thing protecting the family was a smattering of tall grass.
A few minutes later, more tourists showed up. One man took many photos with a DSLR equipped with a long white lens. You don’t often get the opportunity to see an alligator open and close his massive jaws this close.
What the alligator was eating was equally interesting. Horseshoe crabs are one of the oldest animals on the planet. Often called “living fossils,” horseshoe crab ancestors can traced back through the geologic record to around 445 million years ago. That’s 200 million years before dinosaurs existed!
Crabs Living on Mangrove Tree Roots
While our trip to Ding Darling, we made it a point to park our car on Wildlife Drive and walk around. We parked at one spot and crossed a few small bridges to see mangroves.
My brother-in-law, Danny, pointed out the countless number of tiny crabs on the mangroves. My daughters loved looking at them.
The Refuge’s website details these crabs. Mangrove tree crab (Aratus pisonii) are small crabs that live on mangrove tree roots and feed on mangrove leaves and animal matter.
Seagrass beds and mangrove forests serve as shelter, nursery, and feeding areas for many fish and other marine organisms at the Refuge.
Taking a Walk on the Wild Side
Later, we parked again on Wildlife Drive and walked half a mile along a walkway.
My daughters ran long the dirt part. My mother-in-law paid special attention to some crabs and crustaceans she found and pulled us over to check them.
Finally, we came across a bench, which faced miles and miles of undisturbed water.
No boats. No buildings. No development. The only noise you hear are insects beeping in the background.
My brother-in-law found a dead fish in a nearby canal. We wondered what happened to the fish and why was it out here?
Sanibel’s National Shell Museum
After visiting Ding Darling, we wanted to continue our mammal discovery by taking a trip to the island’s Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum.
Now in its 21st year, The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum on Sanibel Island is the only museum in the United States that is solely devoted to shells and the mollusks that make them.
We learned how scallops have eyes and can move. We learned how mollusks make their shells. We saw four world record shells (the Goliath conch, the lightning whelk, the Atlantic trumpet triton, and the horse conch).
We made some shell critters. We talked to a marine biologist about mollusks. We saw shells from all over the world.
Our visits to Ding Darling and the National Shell Museum showed us the power and beauty of sea life small and large. From the 8-foot Alligator chomping on his meal to the tiny crabs walking on undisturbed mangroves and animals have a thirst for life that’s beautiful to see up close.
IF YOU GO
- What: J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
- Who: Home to 245 different species of birds, animals, etc.
- Where: 1 Wildlife Dr, Sanibel, FL 33957
- Admission: $5 per vehicle, $1 per pedestrian, $1 per bicycle
- Website: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/jn_ding_darling/