Good morning. This picture was taken along Wildlife Drive at J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Sanibel, Florida, in March 2019.
Sanibel is really a unique place within Florida and the United States. In a different universe, developers covered the island in high rises, chain restaurants, and waterparks, all taking advantage of the unbelievable beaches and world-renowned shelling. But it isn’t. There are a few larger condo buildings and resorts, sure, but they’re low and spread out. By and large, the island remains gloriously unspoiled. There are no stoplights, almost all local stores and restaurants, and a vast amount of preserved nature. Ding Darling is part of this.
What Is Ding Darling?
The whimsical-sounding refuge actually gets its name from Jay Norwood Darling, better known as “Ding.” Darling was a passionate conservationist and served as head of the U.S. Biological Survey for FDR, the precursor to today’s Fish and Wildlife Service. Ding also had a winter home on nearby Captiva and helped rally locals to preserve the unique, unspoiled areas of the island home to tens of thousands of birds, fish, and other creatures. Through his efforts, the federal government created the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge in 1945. It would be rechristened in Darling’s honor 22 years later.
Ding Darling is best known for its bird watching, and for good reason. If you look closely in the photo above, you can see two groups of roseate spoonbills, one of the refuge’s most common inhabitants. More than 245 species of birds call the area home in total. But most birders come to see the so-called “Big 5.” These are the American white pelican, the Mangrove cuckoo, the reddish egret, the roseate spoonbill, and the yellow-crowned night-heron.
But there are plenty of creatures in Ding Darling without wings, too – and they’re worth your attention. Both American alligators and crocodiles live in the warm, protected waters of the refuge. The refuge is also a crucial habitat for endangered species like manatees, loggerhead sea turtles, and wood storks.
What To Do At Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge
For just $10 per car (or $1 per walker/biker,) you’ll have access to this serene place. Drive, bike, or hike the 4-mile Wildlife Drive, or walk or bike the side trails accessible from the road. There are two canoe and paddleboard launch spots along Wildlife Drive for those looking to get out on the water. Fishing and boating (in accordance with Florida law) is also a common activity. There’s even a 90-minute tram tour that provides a much more in-depth look at the preserve and the many creatures that call it home.
Sanibel is a really, truly special place. It’s a place close to my heart, as it’s been part of my family for decades. Unfortunately, tourists can almost completely overrun the island during peak season these days, causing major traffic and parking headaches for locals. But thanks to the huge swathes of protected land, you can always be sure the nature and character that make this place so incredible will be here waiting when you return.