On Fort Myers Beach, overlooking the Gulf, and almost in the center of the Island, Newton Park and its little grey cottage are a symbol of days long gone. Built as a private residence in 1953, this modest wooden structure is now owned by the Town, and carefully landscaped with a wide variety of plants and trees, native species that once were common throughout the dunes and coastal hammocks of Estero Island. Without these types of vegetation, tough and salt tolerant, there may have never been an Estero Island at all. Barrier islands such as ours here on the Gulf Coast of Florida are often initially formed from sandbars where wave action forms shell ridges, capturing and accruing fine wind-driven sand and becoming sand dunes, built and expanded over time and stabilized by the interwoven root systems of dune vegetation whose seeds have found a home there. As they become established, these plants stabilize the dunes and help prevent wind and water erosion.
If you look in back of the old cottage, on the beach side landward of the sea wall there, you will see tall stands of sea oats. Along natural coastal dunes, and just landward of the waves on a high tide, sea oats are often the first line of defense against the erosion of storm waves. They are highly salt tolerant and capable of thriving in nutrient poor sand where few other plants can grow. The light, flat seeds of the sea oat float on the waves or scatter in the breeze. Tide and strong winds will sweep the sea oat seeds to new shorelines to become established. Their tough, fibrous root systems help hold the sand in place against the waves of a spring high tide or the breakers of a storm. When the waves of a windy day wash inland, the most waterward root masses are coiled back upon themselves as wave action exposes them. This forms a natural barricade resembling bundled rolls of twine when the waters recede. Evolved perfectly for life on the beach! The dune sunflower, sand cordgrass, buttonwoods, cabbage palms and sea grapes that you find at Newton Park are all representative of the tough, hardy native plants that grow along our coast.
The little cottage sits alone surrounded by its lush vegetation and is flanked for miles on either side by high rise condominiums and ever more modern, strong and expansive concrete homes- built to the edges of their lot setback lines, as close to the Gulf as they can get, and as high as the law allows. It was not always this way. In the post war prosperity of the late 1940s, modest beach cottages sprang up throughout the island, serving as vacation homes and winter residences for people escaping the snow up north, and family summer cottages for the residents of Lee County to enjoy that Gulf breeze and escape the stifling inland heat back in the days before air conditioning. Time and termites, hurricanes and real estate offers just too good to refuse have changed the face of the Island and the simple, wooden cottages have become a rarity.
However, only steps away from the back porch of the Newton cottage and you are standing in the water on the sandy edge of the vast Gulf of Mexico, where life goes on as it always has, and long before this Island ever formed.
“Tide: A force created by the earth as it rotates on its axis, caused by the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon.”
“Syzygy: When three or more astronomical bodies lie in roughly a straight line.”
Newton Park is quiet and almost empty if you get there early, coffee in hand. An early spring windless morning walk along the shore or wading through the shallows of an extremely low, low tide will reveal a vast array of sea life. The sun, moon and earth have aligned themselves and gravity draws the morning tides much lower than usual to reveal who lives under the surface, and normally just out of sight. Fish and crabs, sponges and tunicates. The shellfish: gastropods with their pointed and spiraled shells slowly sliding along the sand beneath the waves. Among the gastropods out this morning are the predatory lightning whelk and horse conch, both hunting for the clams they will pry open with their powerful foot and devour. The bivalves, the coquinas, ark shells and sunray venus clams whose elaborate filter feeding systems draw in seawater, sifting out microorganisms, organic detritus and even bacteria as nutrients.
Engine of Estuary Life
Predators and prey. Crawling and wriggling, swimming and scuttling. Hidden in the sand filter feeding or stalking their next meal, all right there in front of your toes in that shallow, clear water. During the previous evening and before sunrise, a strong falling tide drew the waters of Estero Bay out through Matanzas and Big Carlos Pass from either end of the island leaving the mud flats, sea grass beds and oyster bars exposed to the rising sun and the wading birds who feed there. The falling tide swept the leaves, seeds and seaweed, microscopic plankton and a host of juvenile fish, crabs and shrimp – hiding in and amongst the floating debris – out into the Gulf and ultimately onto our beach. The rising tide will bring the offshore waters back into the estuary to cover the flats and immerse the barnacles and crested oysters growing on the exposed prop roots of mangrove forests. Tide is the eternal engine of life for an estuary.
As the tide comes in and the wind picks up, the shallows just off the beach deepen, becoming murky. The curtain is drawn closed. Time to walk the shoreline and see what the tide and the waves have brought ashore.
The shells we find on the beach are the exoskeletons of the once living, soft bodied marine creature that lived inside. The more recently they have washed ashore, the more colorful. On this morning, there in the wrack line of the last high tide is the seaweed. Green flat bladed turtle grass and slender Cuban shoal weed from the sea grass beds in the back bays. Sponges and sea fans separated from the hard limestone bottom far offshore. Live crown conchs have emerged from their hiding places just under the surface of the sand and crawl over the wet sand to feed and wait for the tide to cover them. You can see the foot prints of the ghost crabs who in the evening will pop out of their burrows on the higher edge of the beach to pick through the seaweed and washed ashore debris for their meals. Your beach walk is their buffet table.
The Mound House museum is the place to learn more about our Island’s unique environment and rich history. Currently closed due to public health concerns related to the COVID-19 coronavirus, the Mound House museum at 451 Connecticut Street, Fort Myers Beach, offers a unique view of Calusa history, early settlers and the natural environment of Estero Island through cultural and environmental programs, including guided tours, kayak and eco-tours. Also closed now, Newton Park is located at 4650 Estero Boulevard and when it reopens, offers Newton Park Beach Walks free of charge on Tuesday and Thursday at 9:00 am and will continue through April. For information on programs and reopening plans visit Moundhouse.org or call (239) 765-0865.
by Parke Lewis