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The wild, west side

By Paul Knowles

Getting up close and personal with birds and beasts on Florida's west coast. (First published in Southbound; All photos by Nancy Knowles).


It was low tide; the receding water had exposed a gigantic sand bank, although we could see little sand, because the area was covered with thousands of white birds – from delicate plovers and sanderlings to stately egrets. Suddenly, the entire assemblage exploded upward, while down through the cloud of ascending birds plummeted a bald eagle.
The eagle captured his lunch on his way through the panicky pack, and landed – now alone on the sandy expanse – to eat in peace.
A 40-mile drive inland, we were surrounded by tigers and bears... oh my!... when a male lion, a few meters away, decided to roar – an overwhelming soundthat reverberated through my entire body. 

Half an hour north-west, we caught a boat bound for Cabbage Key, and spent much of the voyage enrapt, leaning over the rail, up close and personal with frolicking dolphins. Those are just three snapshots of the almost unending opportunities to experience the wonders of nature, on Florida's west cost – especially in the area bounded by Sanibel Island and Fort Myers in the south and Port Charlotte in the north – no more than a 50-mile circle. You can watch birds, encounter sea creatures, see alligators and – most unlikely of all – visit big cats and other carnivorous beasts that are being cared for with tender, loving attention.
The best place to see birds – and some other fascinating creatures – is the Ding Darling National Wildlife Centre, on Sanibel Island. It's an expansive site, which you can visit on the Centre's tram tour, in your car, by bike or even on foot. We took the tram tour – lots of good information from a friendly guide – and then repeated the route in our car, stopping frequently.
Ding Darling (named for a cartoonist who was also a passionate conservationist) has been rated one of the 10 finest bird-watching locations in the United States; throughout the course of a year, 238 species can be found here. Watch especially for the tri-coloured herons (which dance while they fish); the majestic white pelicans; and the gorgeous roseate spoonbills.

You are also likely to see alligators, perhaps snakes, and at one point where a boardwalk stretches through the mangroves to the shore, fascinating mangrove tree crabs.
As terrific as the trail is, there is much more on Sanibel and its adjoining island, Captiva. A few miles from the Ding Darling Visitor Centre is another part of the refuge – Tarpon Bay, with nature and sea life cruises (which include an on-shore, "touch tank" experience), and where you can rent kayaks and canoes – for independent exploration or as part of a tour. On our Sea Life Tour, on a small deck boat, we encountered bird life, and several up-close dolphin sightings.
There are cruises on larger boats, out of Captiva Island, and also from the lovely village of Punta Gorda, that also offer a very good chance of multiple dolphin sightings. We did both – a dolphin watch cruise on Captiva Cruises, and a cruise to Cabbage Key on a King Fisher Fleet craft, out of Punta Gorda. Between the two, we saw dozens of dolphins. Cruises with either operator can include a stop at Cabbage Key, with a quaint restaurant/pub that claims a connection with Jimmy Buffet's "Cheeseburger in Paradise". Cabbage Key is also home to a colony of gopher tortoises – so named for their dedication to digging – and a short but interesting wildlife trail complete with – this being Florida – cautionary signs about the fauna to avoid.
Boat cruises here on Florida's west side may also provide opportunities to see other sea creatures – sea turtles, and manatees ¬(large, cumbersome creatures, so ugly they really are beautiful). There is a good chance of spotting a manatee at almost any dock area along the coast, and especially at Lee County Manatee Park in Fort Myers.
But didn't we promise lions and tigers? Indeed. Perhaps the most unusual animal attraction in this part of Florida is the unique Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary. This volunteer-run sanctuary provides a peaceful home for large, wild animals that have been ill-treated or abandoned by their owners – animal trainers, former owners who didn't think the thing through, and so on. It was created more than three decades ago by donors and volunteers who were appalled at the fate of ill-treated larger animals; today, it has become home to over 200 exotic animals.
You enter past a simple hut, with a jar for donations. All available resources go toward care of the animals, not toward an impressive entrance. Volunteers care for the tigers, lions, bears, cougars, ocelots, leopards, foxes, alligators, birds, small animals, and more. The need is not decreasing; in the days after our visit, several more ill-used tigers were to arrive. Schedule at least two hours for your visit – you will want to hear the volunteers' stories... and there are dozens of stories.
From dolphins to herons to tigers to alligators, there is much to be seen – and learned – in this fascinating section of the sunshine state. And these suggestions are just the beginning. Many communities have rescue facilities with a visit – like the small but interesting Peace River Wildlife Centre in Punta Gorda.
There are many fine accommodations in the Fort Myers and Charlotte Harbor areas. We stayed at the Best Western Fort Myers Waterfront, right on the Caloosahatchee River; and then in the lovely Fishermen's Village in Punta Gorda, located on the harbor – comfortable, two-bedroom apartments close to a lot of the local attractions. We'd recommend both.
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