When the calendar turns to May, Fort Myers Beach transitions from tourist season to off season. While the Lee County Parks & Recreation Nature Walks are officially over until December, there are still programs available to marvel at the natural side of Estero Island. One such activity is the free Guided Beach Walk offered each Tuesday at Newton Beach Park at 9 a.m.
Town volunteers Gayle and Gloria lead the Guided Beach Walk, but don’t let their amateur status fool you! They are knowledgeable and informative, with just the right blend of conversation and sense of humor. The Guided Beach Walk has a simple premise – walk roughly a half-mile down the beach and back, discussing whatever they find that particular morning, so no two are ever the same. “The wind and waves dictate what comes up each day, and what does not,” explained Gayle. On the Tuesday I joined them, our group of eight left Newton Beach Park, but before long beachgoers discover us and tag along, more than doubling our number.
Even before we began our stroll, we study the off-shore waves from Newton Beach Park, watching the caps turn from a white to brown just before striking the shore. “We think they are turning up Matanzas Pass dredging material from a few years ago that the current drew down here,” said Gayle, prompting a member of the group to quip, “or from a Nestlé’s Quik freighter!” “Wow,” laughed Gayle, “we are already having a great day!”
We step off the seawall and head down to the shoreline, where we encounter a thick assemblage of Red Drift Algae. “The good news,” Gayle informed us, “is it is not toxic or unhealthy at all. The bad news is it just does not look good and it can really smell. Town of Fort Myers Beach employees can remove it, but it is full of food for birds and helps form dunes that protect the beach from storm damage, so it is a mixed bag.”
Gifts from the Gulf
On this particular morning, parchment worm tubes litter the beach; in their midst, we find a Calico crab, with Gayle exclaiming, “the Gulf brings gifts! How do you tell the sex of a Calico crab? Turn it over to see if you discover a marking that looks more like the ‘Washington Monument’ or ‘The Capitol Building.’ This one has the ‘Washington Monument’ so he is a boy!” “That is a big ‘Washington Monument,’” added a walk participant to loud laughter: “He must be a popular crab!”
Gloria picks up an excellent example of a Jingle shell, explaining that they are also known as “a mermaid’s toenail. They get their name from a Jingle Bell, and a mollusk snail lived in here at one time.” She then shows us several different colors of Sea Pork – “The other white meat! This one is emerald green, but they can be grey, pink or white. Most animals cannot eat them because they are so dense, but sea turtles, with their big strong beaks, love them. Sea Pork have the beginnings of a spinal cord so we classify them as a vertebrate.” She shows us another example that actually grew around a soft sea coral.
Another common sight on this day are fairly large Florida fighting conch shells: “Some days we find billions of them,” smiled Gayle; “some days only a few – this is one of those billion days! The animal itself has a muscular foot, and when they wash up on the beach, they are already in the process of dying. People will often pick them up and return them to the water, in an attempt to save them, but don’t hurry in trying to do that, as this is the circle of life. When you come across other shells with critters still alive in them, do not pick them up and throw them back into the Gulf, as all you do is bang them around inside their hard shells and hurt them, like when a person is in a car accident; instead pick them up and gently place them back in the water.”
Gloria discovered a giant Heart cockle, with the animal inside still alive, saying “he might stick his foot out, or perhaps blow a little water at us,” while Gayle sings a line from the British nursery rhyme: “cockles and mussels: alive, alive-oh!” Gloria placed it on the sand, stating that “he may grace us with an opening.” The Heart cockle in fact cranks open his shell, but just for a peak, preferring the remain safely inside. Gayle asks the group, “are we having fun yet,” with everyone enthusiastic in response!
We find three different types of Pen shells “that theoretically look like a writing tool,” said Gayle. “They have a very strong fiber that anchors it to the sea floor, where it filters and cleans water, and other animals, like oysters, attach onto it for stability. While that fiber is very strong, it is smooth as silk.” She shows us a Red mangrove seedling “that drops off, and then can bob up-&-down in the water for over a year, until it finds something on the shore to attach itself to and grow – isn’t that cool?”
There are thousands of snail shells all over the beach, with Gayle showing us a Murex, relating that “around the Jerusalem area, they are a very bright blue, so people there harvested them for centuries, so much so that they nearly became extinct in that part of the world.” We find Blood Ark shells “the Calusa Indians used to weigh down their fishing nets,” she added, along with “shipworms that gets their name because they stick themselves to the hulls of wooden ships, then eats them away.”
Newton Beach Park is the site of the former 1953 Seven Seas Cottage of Jim and Ellie Newton. Jim (1905-1999) gained notoriety through his book, “Uncommon Friends,” detailing his personal relationships with key 20th Century figures such as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Charles Lindbergh and Dr. Alexis Carrel. Due to its significant history, Fort Myers Beach secured it in 2003 and it became the first Town-owned public park in 2010. In addition to the Seven Seas Cottage and beach frontage, it has a tiki hut, paid parking, nature and educational programs, recreational opportunities, and historic and environmental signage, among other amenities.
In addition to the Town’s Guided Beach Walk, Lovers Key State Park, at the very southern end of Fort Myers Beach at 8700 Estero Boulevard, hosts year-round nature walks and programs free with park admission on Fridays and select days at 10 a.m. For programs & reservations call 239-463-4588 or see www.floridastateparks.org/loverskey.
The free 90-minute “Guided Beach Walk” at Newton Beach Park, located mid-island at 4650 Estero Boulevard, is every Tuesday year-round, weather permitting, at 9 a.m. Meet at the thatched hut and wear sunscreen, shoes to get wet, sunglasses and a hat if necessary. While the walk is free, parking is $3-per-hour; plan on two hours. No reservations necessary; for details call 239-765-0865 or see www.moundhouse.org. Discover a different side of Fort Myers Beach on these nature walks and programs!
By Gary Mooney