Eco-Lessons at Sea School

At the new Sea School on Florida's Sanibel Island, kids chase fiddler crabs and conchs and learn a lesson in sustainability. A writer and her family combine education and indulgence.

It’s nighttime as we start to drive across the three-mile causeway that connects the southwest coast of Florida to Sanibel Island. We are leaving behind a strip mall-lit sky and heading into a darkness so deep we can’t really make out where we are. Our three kids, ages seven, five and two, are tired from traveling and fill the rental car with their complaints. Turning onto Periwinkle Way, the main drag through Sanibel, we switch off the AC, reduce our speed to the wildlife-friendly limit of 25 miles an hour and roll down the windows. "Wow," I say to my husband, Peter. "It’s dark here."

"And quiet," he replies, quietly.

"I like it," murmurs a dreamy voice from the back seat. Yeah, I think. Me too. But why? What’s out there?

Barely a half-day’s drive from the man-made pleasures of Miami Beach or Disney World, the slender barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva offer an alternative take on tropical life, at once old-fashioned and wild. Sanibel, 16 miles long and four miles wide, and the even smaller Captiva are joined by a short bridge. A remarkable 65 percent of Sanibel Island is nature preserve, and the community has enacted strict zoning restrictions designed to protect the millions of birds that reside here during the year, as well as the sea turtles that crawl ashore to lay their eggs. There are no street lights at all, and local laws regulate the brightness of commercial and landscape lights.

For those interested in getting a handle on the environmental issues affecting marine habitats—a matter of vital importance to anyone who eats seafood and is concerned about sustainability—this part of Florida is becoming an unmissable destination. The Sanibel area has beautiful wildlife refuges and ecologically minded outdoor outfitters that provide world-class birding, kayaking and shelling opportunities. And last June, marine biologist Bruce Neill and his wife, Evelyn Neill, founded the innovative Sanibel Sea School to fill a conspicuous gap in the ecotourism world: educating kids through fun, hands-on activities about the importance of preserving the ecosystem.

Though Sanibel and Captiva have a dressed-down, rustic sensibility, there’s no shortage of more civilized pleasures here too, like the plush South Seas Island Resort, where we’re staying.

Occupying a 330-acre spit of land at the far northern end of Captiva, South Seas is on property that was once a key lime plantation, and the spirit of this former life lives on in the hotel’s manicured lawns, wide verandas decorated with rattan furniture and crisp white staff uniforms.

It’s worth requesting rooms in either the harbor area or at land’s end; both are near the heart of the resort, which has been completely renovated since Hurricane Charley swept through here in 2004. On our first night, we fall asleep immediately as we listen to the waves crashing beyond our porch.

The following morning, we make the short drive to the Sanibel Sea School, where George, our seven-year-old, is signed up for the day’s session. The school looks disappointingly plain from the outside—but to George, this humble place is about to become a window onto the universe.

Evelyn tells me that when she and Bruce were deciding where to open the school, they quickly realized Sanibel was the obvious choice. "The area has this amazing shore-based ecosystem," Evelyn explains, "and you don’t have to get in water over your head to experience it." In other words, armed with nothing more than water shoes, sunscreen and a bucket, kids can interact up close with some of the world’s most astonishing life forms.

Grown-ups are welcome, too—either on Saturdays for the adult-geared field trips, or on the weekday, kid-focused excursions. On a sunny morning, I climb aboard a bus to tag along with George and a small gaggle of children. Bruce drives us out to an estuary, then leads everyone along its sandy, muddy shore. Scooting through the shallows at our feet are dozens of king crown conchs, seeking safe spots to release their long, milky streams of eggs into the water.

Further along the shore, Bruce waves everyone to a standstill. Ahead is a seemingly empty mudflat pocked with several hundred holes, each just large enough to drop a marble in. Within seconds, the whole expanse begins to quiver: A fiddler crab has scurried out of each hole, and they are all waving their claws in the air, trying to attract a mate. Then someone moves, and just as quickly, the crabs scramble back into hiding.

Bruce gently digs a crab from its hole and passes it from palm to outstretched palm. George, a city kid to the core, is nervous. "Does it bite?" he asks, eyeing the oversize front claw.

"Of course," says Bruce. "Crabs are a favorite meal for a lot of the creatures who live here. You’d learn to fight back, too, if you were that tasty. But if you hold still, it won’t mistake you for a raccoon, and it will probably relax and hang out."

George offers a quivering palm, and Bruce rests the feisty little creature in the middle of it. "He’s just sitting there!" George shrieks. Before the day is over, he will also hold a snake (his first), catch fish in a net then gingerly let them go, make sand art, eat fresh coconut and get within three feet of a great blue heron.

George will also learn that mangrove forests, which are so prevalent around here, are the primary energy source for the gulf’s entire ecosystem; their leaves take energy from the sun, then fall into the water and biodegrade, feeding the creatures that feed the creatures that eventually feed us. I’m not sure whether George follows all this, but he definitely understands the mangroves’ snorkel-like roots, poking up out of the water to help the trees breathe. He points them out for the rest of the trip: "Look! Snorkel roots!"

"Our goal," said Bruce, "is for kids to have a bond to the marine environment that is visceral. That’s how we want to promote conservation, not just intellectually, but intuitively." Judging by George’s response, the plan works.

Meanwhile, back at the South Seas, Peter and our other kids, Henry and Sidonie, have found their own bliss in the form of a remarkably kid-friendly swimming pool. Its floor gradually slopes down, like a beach; little ones can toddle in and out of the water safely, and sit and splash where it’s six inches deep; older kids can paddle around in water up to their chests. Peter eyes the golf course longingly but rents bikes instead and zips with Henry along the resort’s sleepy lanes.

We reconvene for supper at the Mucky Duck, a restaurant spectacularly set on the beach in Captiva. Our table isn’t ready, so we stroll toward the water to watch the sunset. By the time we sit down, the kids’ cuffs are soaked, their pockets are filled with shells and they couldn’t be happier. The Mucky Duck is modeled after a British gastropub, so it’s no surprise that the fish-and-chips is delicious (nor that it’s made with New England cod). I order locally caught grouper, in a buttery preparation called Café de Paris. Peter declares his crab cakes the best he’s ever had.

The next morning, we drive into Sanibel’s astonishing 6,400-acre J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, the second-most-visited refuge of its kind in the United States. A one-way road cuts through a vast network of lakes and estuaries, home to thousands of wild birds. We see giant white pelicans, snowy egrets and even some breathtaking, cotton candy-pink roseate spoonbills.

For lunch, we head over to Amy’s Over Easy Café, a laid-back local hangout, and have what we all agree is the best lunch of the trip. The kids order grilled cheese sandwiches and bowls of wonderful tomato bisque to dip them in. Peter has a Reuben; I have a BLT. A sweet contentment settles over us, due in part to the satisfying food, but also to the cool breeze and the groovy ’70s music on the sound system.

Our last morning in Florida, we rent kayaks at Tarpon Bay Explorers. Clouds rolled in overnight, and the water is choppy as we push off into the bay. I’m sure we’ll have to turn back, but then we enter a thick, twisting mangrove forest; the water grows calm, the air stills. Peter says, "We should have done this on day one." I nod but don’t reply, because an exquisite bird, perched on a branch barely an arm’s-length away, has just come into view. The children gaze at it with a kind of prayerful reverence. It’s the first of dozens of birds that we see.

Between staring at all the birds, we paddle on, spying raccoons snuffling through mangrove roots. All the while, George regales us with lessons from sea school. It’s hard to believe he’s retained so much. Two days earlier, as we were returning by bus from the estuary, George had whispered to me, "Mommy? Can I come back to sea school tomorrow?"

"No, honey," I replied. "Tomorrow is Saturday. They’re only having a class for grown-ups."

"That’s not fair!" he said, slumping away from me. We rode on in silence. Then another idea perked him up. "Mommy? Can we move here so I can go to sea school every day?" •

Celia Barbour is a contributing editor at O, the Oprah Magazine, and has written for the New York Times and Parenting.

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