Segregated to Spectacular
“Bunche Beach is still the most unknown beach in all of Southwest Florida,” says Pat Feinstein, a three-year volunteer for Lee County Parks & Recreation on a recent foggy Monday morning to our group of roughly 15 people on a “Life Along the Shore” nature walk. “The funny thing is, it hides in plain sight, because so many people see it from across the way at Bowditch Park but no one knows that from this side this is Bunche Beach. It is every bit as gorgeous as the barrier islands, but here you don’t have to fight the traffic and construction, or pay $6 to cross a bridge!”
Bunche Beach acts like a barrier island, as it stretches out along San Carlos Bay between Sanibel and Bowditch Point, even though it is part of the mainland. The beach is where the water meets the land, and it is a most lively place; as all you have to do is to dig down a bit to find many interesting critters.
Although everyone just calls it Bunche Beach, its formal title is San Carlos Bay – Bunche Beach Preserve, a 718-acre parcel managed by Lee County Parks & Recreation. “We have been doing these programs for about three years,” Pat explained. “We will walk along the beach to see whatever washes up, then will stop and talk about it. If you see something twitching, it is still alive so leave it alone; if it is motionless and has a bad smell, it is mostly likely dead and something you can keep.
We follow a drop & rot policy on the beach, to play out the cycle of life; what washes up and dies here becomes food for other types of life. The only exceptions are the removal of exotic species such as Australian Pine trees and Brazilian Peppers that drown out the rest of the foliage and have shallow roots that prevent turtles from nesting.”
Nobel Peace Prize for $100
Lee County originally acquired this natural outpost in 1949, when it was just the half-acre where you enter the beach from John Morris Road, to have a water recreation area for its African-American residents, as Southwest Florida was still deeply segregated at that time. A year later it was named after Ralph Bunche. “The true answer to a ‘Jeopardy’ question,” relates Pat. “Who was the first person of color to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and it was not Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior, but Ralph Bunche, 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 attended the event! This 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. It received a rejuvenation when the Conservation 20/20 Fund expanded it by acquiring 703 acres for $6.4-million in 2001, then in 2006 the final five brought it to its current 718 acres.
The start of our walk began at the very lowest tide, exposing broad expanses of the beach. We see little plumed worm “houses” all over, with the plumed worms taking in water at one end, then releasing waste from the other, and they ooze a slimy substance for protection, as birds love to feed on them.
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! There are also Buttonwood trees, often called the fourth mangrove.”
Pat shows us mango snails all over the Red mangroves: “When the tide rises, they need refuge, so they get up in the Red mangroves and attach themselves so completely they actually look like a natural part of the tree; you will only find mangrove snails in mangrove trees.” She pointed out that between the shoreline and Red mangrove strands are large dead mangrove stumps all along the beach: “This used to be the water line” she explains, then she takes us to a patch of White mangroves near the water, meaning that at one time these were more inland.
As for shelling, Pat relates that “there are over 350 different identified species, but all fall into two basic groups: snails or clams and oysters. You can tell if a shell is alive because it will be brown and furry, as opposed to the white color it turns when it dies. You can often tell how the animal inside met its demise just by looking at the shell; you can see where predators ooze acids that make a hole in the shell, then sucks it right out. Shells with a lot of perforations means the animal got sucked out by a sponge.”
Pat shows 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,” she relates. “They were known as ‘Florida postcards!’ Sea grapes have cute little purple grapes that are delicious and ideal for jelly, but you hardly ever find them because the birds devour them so quickly.”
Boring and finger sponges, salt meadow cord grass that has deep roots to stabilize the beach, sand fleas, ghost crabs that are two inches long and white or yellow, sea grasses, a plethora of small brown shorebirds, nickerbeans that are small, grey, hard, and excellent for jewelry because they shine up really well; so many worm mounds that they resemble a little village, tape and shoal grass that are excellent food for manatees, and angel wing shells are some of the other natural treasures we encounter along the way: “After a while you become conscious of all this stuff,” marvels Pat.
She says that “the beach’s fabulous dune system began after Hurricanes Charley and Wilma in 2004 and 2005 respectively; prior to that, it was totally flat. These dunes may not seem big, but for Florida, where we measure elevation in inches, they are massive!”
Bunche Beach is a spectacular spot for birding, especially right after high tide when it is awash in food and not so with people. As for how Southwest Florida acquired its pristine cool white sand that sparkles in the sun, it is in reality two-thirds quartz and one-third calcium carbonate that are firmly ground down to make our soft beaches. There are no trails, nor dogs allowed, as Bunche is a protected birding habitat.
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. The program is free, but parking is $2-per-hour; plan on two hours as the walk lasts from 9:30 to 11 a.m. Absolutely wear shoes that you can get wet, with sunglasses recommended. While Bunche Beach is open every day of the year from 7 a.m. to dusk, the “Life Along the Shoreline” walks end for the season on Monday, April 24. For more information call 239-533-7275 or see email@example.com.
“I invite you to come back in a different season,” concludes Pat, “like after heavy summer rains, when the beach will be completely different, as the wind and water drives the sand in different directions, losing some in the middle while accumulating it at each end. Bunche Beach is alive, and this is the liveliest part of the beach!”
Photos by Michele Kalka