Historic Beach Near FMB
“There is always a lot to talk about here at the San Carlos Bay – Bunche Beach Preserve,” said Trudy Sampson, an 8-year Lee County nature walk volunteer veteran about the 718-acre parcel managed by Lee County Parks & Recreation. “Since Bunche Beach is a preserve, we never take away anything that falls from the vegetation or comes up on shore, so on these weekly walks, we stop and talk about whatever we find. The great thing about a living beach like this is it changes all the time, meaning no two walks are ever the same.”
Bunche Beach acts like a barrier island, as it stretches out along San Carlos Bay between Sanibel and Bowditch Point, even though it is on the mainland. “Much like a typical barrier island, it is wider at the ends and narrower in the center, forming its own crescent shape,” explained Trudy. “This became even more pronounced once Fort Myers Beach underwent its significant renourishment several years back, as there is even more sand now to shift back over in this direction. The beach is where the water meets the land, and it is a most lively place, full of interesting critters and all kinds of birds, like spoonbills, egrets and plovers.”
Lee County originally founded this natural outpost in 1949, when it acquired the first half-acre, right where you enter the beach from John Morris Road, with the original parking lot where the beach is today, to have a water recreation area for its African-American residents, as Southwest Florida was still deep into segregation at that time and a year later, named it after Dr. Ralph Bunche. Dr. Bunche and not Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was the first person of color to win the Nobel Peace Prize, for his successful mediation of the first war between Israel and the Arab States. When Lee County dedicated Bunche Beach, 3,000 to 5,000 people attended the event! It was a thriving beach for African-Americans, with barbeque shacks and live music.
“In 1964, the United States passed the Civil Rights Act, opening all Lee County beaches to everyone, with Bunche becoming forgotten and falling into disrepair,” explained Trudy. “It received a rejuvenation when Lee County, through the ‘Conservation 20/20 Fund,’ expanded it by acquiring over 700 acres for $6.4 million in 2001, then in 2006 added the final five, bringing it to its current 718 acres and back into the public consciousness, though its usage today is still near the bottom of all area beaches, so if you want to avoid crowds, especially in season, this is the place for you!”
The start of our walk began at the very lowest tide, exposing broad expanses of beach. We see little plumed worm “houses” all over, with the plumed worms in the tidal area taking in water at one end, then releasing it from the other, and they ooze a slimy and sticky substances to accumulate sand and shells for protection, so that they don’t look like a worm, as the various birds love to feed on them. There are thousands of parchment worms out this morning: “Their casings are their house, and they live inside that under the water, where they filter through water to consume nutrients,” said Trudy. “Bunche Beach tends to be full of worms, and that explains why it is such a favorite spots for birds, especially right after high tide when it is awash in food and not so with people, because there is so much easy-to-access food here, but not so much on this morning for whatever reason.”
The shoreline is full of “green sea lettuce” that is a seaweed. “Green sea lettuce looks like it has been in your refrigerator for about two weeks too long,” said Trudy with a laugh. There are also a lot of oyster shells, “and this is common,” she explained, “as this was a community oyster fishery back in the day.” Wrack lines, where the water leaves debris at high tide, are full of food for wildlife, and are among the most interesting areas on the entire beach.
Trudy showed us the sea grapes that grow new leaves that are bright red, but as they get higher up they turn brown and fall off. “People used to take the dried dead leaves, write messages on them, and then mail them up north,” Trudy related. “They were known as ‘Florida postcards!’ Sea grapes have cute little purple grapes that are ideal for jelly, but you hardly ever find them because the birds devour them so quickly.”
Along the way, we encountered Blue swimming crabs that paddle on their backs, “with something that looks like a miniature ‘Washington Monument’ on their back,” said Trudy, along with seeing ghost, box and horseshoe crabs. There are Sea Oxeye Daisies “that bloom mostly in the summer but some do all winter as well, like these here.” Nickerbeans, “with thorns all the way out to its seed pods. They are a native that is also an invasive, meaning nickerbeans are the ultimate example of ‘Nature Behaving Badly!’ We try to control it because if you brush up against it, it will cut you.”
The defining characteristic of Bunche Beach, besides the sand, of course, are the mangroves that compose the vast preserve, with Red mangroves closest to the water. “These are hearty plants with deep roots, traits necessary to survive on the beach, so that is why these are on the shoreline. Black mangroves are a bit more inland, as they grow higher and drier, then come the Whites that are the highest and driest! Mangroves are crucial to Florida because they help to prevent storm surge and high wind damage in hurricanes and major storms because they are so thick and dense, as well as their roots that provide a safe habitat for roughly 85% of all fish populations, along with snakes, birds, raccoons, oysters and crabs, so they are very creative! It is no wonder that the State of Florida legally protects all mangroves.”
To reach Bunche Beach from Fort Myers Beach, take San Carlos Boulevard to Summerlin Road and turn left, as if going to Sanibel. The first major intersection is John Morris Road; turn left, with the roughly one-mile road dead-ending into the beach and parking area. There are no trails, nor dogs allowed, as Bunche is a protected birding habitat.
While Bunche Beach is open every day of the year from 7 a.m. to dusk, the nature walks that begin at the sign at the end of the parking area are every Wednesday through the end of season on April 24. The nature program is free, but parking is $2-per-hour; plan on two hours as the walk lasts from 9 until roughly 10:30 a.m. Absolutely wear shoes that you can get wet, with sunglasses, camera and sunscreen recommended. You walk approximately one mile, but at a slow casual pace – “dawdling,” said Trudy laughing – and stop frequently to discuss what the group finds on the beach, so drinking water is optional. Reservations are not necessary; for information call 239-533-7275 or see firstname.lastname@example.org.