Sanibel Island with kids: Sun, seashells, and saving the animals

Shells on Bowman's Beach Sanibel Island

Sanibel Island is one of those places where I could easily spend a month puttering, biking, and getting to know every glorious corner, especially in the fall when the humidity starts to drop a bit and the winter tourists haven’t yet arrived. But since all we had was a day, we definitely made the most of it.

After spending the morning at the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge we were ready for a little beach time in the afternoon. We had our choice of beaches (there are five open to the public) but on the advice of our guide from Tarpon Bay Explorers we decided to check out Bowman’s Beach, reputed to have some of the best shelling on the island.

Travel-with-kids tip: Bowman’s Beach has a parking lot with meters that accept credit cards. It costs two dollars an hour to park during the day. It’s a good quarter mile walk from the parking lot to the beach, but on the way you’ll find bathrooms, showers, and a shaded playground.

We weren’t disappointed with the beach, which wasn’t crowded (ah, the joys of traveling off season!) and provided a swath of gorgeous white sand and more of that warm Gulf of Mexico water. Sanibel is famous for its number and variety of seashells, which apparently collect in such great numbers because of the island’s orientation from east to west as well as its location in the Gulf. I was eager to see what treasures awaited us, and assumed that the boys would be too. But the allure of that ocean water was too great for them and I couldn’t get them out of it for more than a few minutes! So while I looked for shells:

Shells from Sanibel Island

The boys played in the waves, which were just rough enough to be exciting, but not really dangerous, especially since Tommy discovered a sandbar some distance out from the shore that allowed them to stand in water that was only up to their waists:

Playing at Bowman's Beach Sanibel Island

Travel-with-kids tip: You might want to bring an umbrella with you for the beach – the sun is pretty powerful on that white sand. Island Rental Service can provide you with beach umbrellas, as well as chairs, coolers, and other beach equipment.

Even I got warm after a while, so once we’d all had a nice swim (happily avoiding the jellyfish that began appearing soon after we arrived) and a little sand castle building we brushed that silky sand from our toes and headed up the road to the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (C.R.O.W.) Healing Winds Educational Center. I had been under the mistaken impression that we would actually be visiting with the sick and injured animals rescued by this nonprofit organization and treated in the clinic, but as we learned, the public is not allowed into the hospital in order to minimize the injured animals’ exposure to humans, since the entire purpose is to release them back into the wild when they recover.

But C.R.O.W. does have an excellent education center full of interactive displays and an amazing amount of information about what the clinic does. It started over 40 years ago in the backyard of one of Sanibel’s residents; now more than 4000 animals are treated every year. Injuries range from poisoning to broken limbs caused by cars to cuts from fishing line and share one thing in common: Most were caused by people. What’s really fascinating is that the veterinarians take a holistic approach to treating the animals using not only traditional Western medicines and surgery but herbal remedies and acupuncture as well.

Travel-with-kids tip: If you’ve got an especially sensitive child, you might want to prepare him or her before a visit to C.R.O.W. The message there is ultimately positive, but they do share information about the serious nature of the animals’ injuries and also the fact that some of their patients don’t make it. Everything is presented in a way that is kid-appropriate but also honest. The more graphic images aren’t up on the walls for display and are clearly marked so you know what you’re getting before you pull them out.

The education center has videos of the animals, live cams that show the treatment area, and interactive exhibits that are designed to teach visitors about diagnosis and treatment of the animals including details about their injuries and what caused them:

Case files at C.R.O.W. Sanibel

Great Blue Heron rescue at C.R.O.W. Sanibel

Actual patient X-rays:

X-rays at C.R.O.W. Sanibel

Information about treatment:

Treatment display at C.R.O.W. Sanibel

A game that let’s children determine what is wrong and choose treatment for a variety of animals:

Interactive treatment game at C.R.O.W. Sanibel

And lots of visual stories of the animals that have been treated there like this orphaned baby otter:

Baby otter  at C.R.O.W. Sanibel

I was so glad that we took the time to stop by C.R.O.W. and would recommend it to anyone who visits Sanibel and wants a deeper understanding of this lovely and special place. It was very moving to see the work they do there and I think it helped us to appreciate the fragile beauty of the region. By visiting both the “Ding” Darling refuge and C.R.O.W., we got a fuller picture of the kind of impact that we as humans have on wild animals and the places they live than we would have had we simply taken the tour of the refuge. We were all amazed by how many different kinds of animals live in that one small place and also by how small actions like being careless with our garbage can affect them (Of note to me is that according to their data, only 0.4 percent of the injuries at C.R.O.W. were caused by “intentional human injury” – yet look at all of the unintentional harm done).

And I fell absolutely in love with the baby deer in this video:

Video display at C.R.O.W. Sanibel

Travel-with-kids tip: If you wanted to spend a day just as we did, it would be possible to do so using bikes rather than a car to get around. The “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, Bowman’s Beach, and C.R.O.W. are all located in the same part of the island off of Sanibel-Captiva Road.

Between the animals and the beach, it’s hard to say what we liked best about Sanibel Island. But one thing is for certain – we’d all like to go back.

Many thanks to the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau for covering most of the costs of our trip and to C.R.O.W. for hosting us. The clinic does all its work with the help of volunteers and donations – if you’re interested in donating money or time, learn how here.

Reader Responses

4 fellow travelers had this to say

  1. If you can “add water” to any kid vacation, they seem to be deliriously happy. But shells and rescued animals too? Sounds like a winning combo for sure!

  2. It’s as if I can smell the salt air via your photos! I’m ready to return…

  3. I’m with Lisa – you can’t go wrong with water + shells + rescued animals! Sounds like an amazing place.

  4. I love this article, what a great resource for first time parents on the road with their kids! I especially appreciate all of the “Travel-with-kids” tips, they are so helpful. Can’t wait to read more!
    -Amy

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