Spotlight: Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Sanibel, Florida

By Chris Umpierre with additional reporting by Amy Beth Wright


● What: J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge
● Who: Home to 245 different species of birds, marine animals, and wildlife
● 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/

 

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.

CRUNCH! We look out to the water. “What is it,” my daughter asks.
Near the shore, an eight-foot American alligator devours a Frisbee-sized horseshoe crab. The gator’s jaws are deceptively closed, but after a few minutes its mouth opens, and the doomed crab flops inside the gator’s mouth.

Wildlife experts say it’s a rarity to see an alligator devour a horseshoe crab, and yet we saw it up-close—the experience speaks to the subtle power of the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. At first, it seems quiet. Stay a while, though.  

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The Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge protects endangered and threatened species on Sanibel Island. It is assuredly a national treasure. More than 245 different species of birds thrive, and migratory bird populations are a constant. As per the U.S., Fish and Wildlife Service, the refuge has more than 6,400 acres of mangrove forest, submerged seagrass beds, cordgrass mashes, and West Indian hardwood hammocks.

The wildlife refuge is historically significant in terms of early conservation efforts. J.N. “Ding” Darling, Ding, a reporter, political cartoonist, and leading conservationist, worked to preserve the island from development, and urged President Truman to establish the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge in 1945. The refuge was renamed in Jay Norwood Darling’s honor and officially dedicated to him in 1967. Darling was instrumental in the formation of the National Wildlife Federation and established the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission. In 1934, he became the chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey, a predecessor to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in his stead securing more than 17 million dollars for habitat restoration.  

Darling also created the “blue goose,” now used comprehensively throughout the National Wildlife Refuge system (as of 1999) to mark refuge boundaries and on entrance signs, and within the National Wildlife Refuge passbook. First recorded in 1934; early versions used black ink. You can read a bit more about the history of the blue goose symbol here.

Image courtesy of Department of the Interior.

Image courtesy of Department of the Interior.

Darling designed the nation’s first “Duck Stamp,” following Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act (or Duck Stamp Act) in 1934. Duck Stamps are the federal license required for hunting migratory waterfowl, and an annual art contest is still sponsored by the USFWS for each year’s stamp. More than 1.5 million stamps are sold each year, and ninety-eight cents of every dollar is designated for the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund.

Conservation efforts have established a thriving sanctuary on Sanibel Island, particularly for the migratory waterfowl that Darling, both a hunter, fisherman, and conservationist, fought to protect. On our recent trip, we also spotted mullet jumping out of the water, crabs, mangroves, starfish, jellyfish, and dolphins. At the Sanibel Lighthouse, we spied a gopher tortoise, and at the Captiva Marina, two inquisitive manatees swam at the surface.

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Dozens of tourists, including yours truly, immediately flock to take photos of the alligator eating his lunch. My sister-in-law, Vivian, nearly faints as a family of four pauses five feet away from the alligator to take photos on their smartphones. The only thing protecting the family was a smattering of tall grass. A few minutes later, more tourists showed up. One 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.

Equally interesting was the alligator’s meal. Horseshoe crabs are one of the oldest animals on the planet. Often called “living fossils,” horseshoe crab ancestors can be traced back through the geologic record 445 million years— 200 million years before dinosaurs existed!

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We park our car on Wildlife Drive and see a small wooden bridge leading into sea of mangroves. As we walk over the low bridge, we are immediately drawn to the hundreds (no, check that, thousands) of mangroves growing in pungent, murky water. They grow in every direction, some as high as 12 feet. Some branches are broken, others are strong and thick. One realizes how magnificent and resilient these small trees are. They live where water and land meet. They live in hot, muddy conditions, flooded by ocean tides. They should not exist—other trees wouldn’t live a day under those conditions.

Mangroves, however, are indefatigable. Despite all odds, they thrive here in Sanibel and coastlines all over the world. As we study the scenery, my wife points out tiny black crabs living off a mangrove. They are so small that we have to lean over the bridge to inspect them; we realize there are black crabs on most of the mangroves.

My daughters, three and six, smile at these tiny creatures. I ask if they want to see them closer, to which my oldest immediately replies, “Nooooooooo!” Mangrove tree crab (Aratus pisonii) are small and live on mangrove tree roots. They 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.

Later, we park further along on Wildlife Drive, and traverse a half-mile walkway. My daughters run along the dirt path. My mother-in-law pays special attention to a group of crabs and crustaceans living amongst bushes a few feet from the trail. Finally, we come across a bench, which faces miles and miles of undisturbed water. No boats. No buildings. No development. The only noise is insects singing and buzzing and chirping.  

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We pause at Sanibel Island’s Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. Now in its 21st year, the Bailey-Matthews is the only museum in the United States that is solely devoted to shells, and the mollusks that make them. We learn that scallops have eyes and can move. We talk with a marine biologist, and learn how mollusks make their shells. We see four world-record-size shells—the Goliath conch, the lightning whelk, the Atlantic trumpet triton, and the horse conch. The museum has a special exhibit that allows you to make shell jewelry or shell critters with free shells provided by Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. Different shells of different sizes are grouped in respective bins. Museum-goers can choose up to 10 shells and then head to a nearby table to make their critter. Each table is equipped with glue guns.

Image courtesy of the author.

Image courtesy of the author.

We sat next to families from all over the country and laughed as we created our shell critters. At the end of the day, we left with a one-of-a-kind shell critter family we have on display at our home. There’s a bunny shell (crafted by my wife), a mouse shell (my oldest daughter), a fish shell (my youngest daughter) and a butterfly shell (my mother-in-law).

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Our visits to Sanibel’s National Shell Museum and Ding Darling showed us the beauty and power of animals small and large. Those tiny black crabs living off indefatigable mangrove trees imparted the power of symbiotic relationships, and demonstrated how our ecosystems need other organisms to thrive. White ibis birds flying over Ding Darling waters and undisturbed greenery showcased Earth’s innate beauty.

And, of course, the Ding Darling alligator left us with a sound and a feeling we won't forget. Watching that eight-foot alligator devour that horseshoe crab exhilarated and chilled me. Upon hearing the "crunch,, my first thought was for my family, and on tracking the proximity of that gator. It was a lesson: nature’s food chain is unwavering. 

Chris Umpierre grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in Miami, where he works in public relations. He covered the UCLA men's basketball team as a UCLA student, spent 13 years as a journalist and currently writes about sports, real estate and travel. Find him online at www.chrisumpierre.com or on Twitter at @ChrisUmpierre