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SANDY LESSONS: Beach walk offers free insight to ecology

July 31, 2013
By BOB PETCHER ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Want to learn about the beachfront and its inhabitants instead of just sitting on the sand and staring ahead?

The Town of Fort Myers Beach is offering free instructional morning beach walks each Wednesday this summer. Called "Treasures of the Sea," Town Environment Educator Parke Lewis will inform you about Beach ecology, the nature of the barrier island and whatever shells and other beach inhabitants are found along the walk.

Lewis began his dialogue with interested participants by speaking about Ponce DeLeon's battle with the Calusa Indians in 1513, the sites where the encounters were believed to take place, such as Mound Key and Mound House, and the composition of Estero Island.

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Town Environment Educator Parke Lewis conducts a tour of the beachfront in front of Newton Park. The free morning beach walk instructs participants interested in Beach ecology.

"This classic barrier island is only about 6,000 years old. In geological terms, it is very young. This used to be a sand bar," he said, pointing to the beachfront. "Barrier islands are naturally formed islands that accrue tidal action and wind-driven waves. Once you get that little bit of high dry ground, there are certain species of vegetation that hack it. When they can get established, they catch the sand and build the dunes that make your island. If you build up that barrier from the saltwater, it allows all those freshwater species farther inland to get established."

Lewis pointed out sea oats, dune sunflowers and coconut palms -plant life that can withstand salty conditions, grow and prosper. He then spoke about natural impact from the tropical storms that struck the dynamic island last summer.

"During the first storm, we had a high tide coinciding with strong onshore winds. After one day, all the sand was gone near the sea wall and you were about eye level with the seawall," he said. "Two months later, in August, we had another tropical storm. During that one, we had an extreme low-tide event and it took all of that sand right back where we are now."

Fact Box


What: "Treasures of the Sea" Guided Beach Walk

When: Wednesdays at 9 a.m.

Where: Newton Park (4650 Estero Blvd.)

Lewis then discussed wrack lines, which contains marine castaways such as seaweeds and seagrasses that form protective dunes and allow the grouping of a unique natural community that brings life to the beach.

"This vegetative debris comes to us from the Back Bay, such as seaweed, seagrasses, turtle grass and red mangrove propagules. Red mangroves are very, very important to our eco-system," he said. "Propagules are more than a seed; they are an energy packet. This is the time of the year that you'll see zillions of them on the beachfront or floating along in the water. They provide a food source and break down organic material, things like fungus mold and bacteria, and are known as filter feeders."

Lewis encouraged everyone to pick up anything of interest so that he may name and explain during the approximately one-hour walk. Participants identified clam shells, coquinas, oyster shells, cockle shells, gastropods, jingles, ark shells, calico scallops, sand dollars, moon snails, slipper shells, algae beards and sea pork (jelly-like blob that acts as a filter feeder) along the water's edge. The Town biologist explained the functions of each.

"Today, all live shellfish are protected by law," he said. "If you find an empty shell you are welcome to it, but if somebody is home you have to let him go."

Lewis explained why Gulf beaches are white and sandy compared to other sites that are darker and have more course sand. He also told of the benefits of sand dunes to protect upland properties.

"If you go to Hawaii or Costa Rica, they have black sand. The reason they have black sand in those parts of the world is because the sand is made from volcanic rock," he said. "Here, our white, sandy beaches are primarily quartz left over from ancient mountain ranges. One of the reasons we have great beaches here is because quartz and calcium carbonate is broken down into really fine grains."

On the return trip, more shells were discovered as well as fiddler crab holes, ghost crab holes, laughing gulls (black-headed seagulls) and sea grapes on the sand nearby sea grape trees.

"These grapes are not going to be ripe until September or October. The fruit is tasty. You can eat them just like this or you can pick up some sea grape jelly from the ladies at the Estero Island Historical Museum about a mile down the road," he said. "Sea grapes are one of the trees that we can use as landscaping right up against the edge of the surf. The wildlife around here also likes the seeds."

After the walk, visitors are welcome to tour the 1950s era Seven Seas cottage at Newton Park and view the extensive seashell collection inside.

So, get your coffee or bottled water and join the host biologist on Wednesday mornings to uncover shells, sea life and whatever nature washes ashore with each new tide as you learn about the ecology of how the "living beach" works. You never know what the Gulf will bring each trip.

More cultural experiences

Visit Mound House at 451 Connecticut St. this summer and experience Old Florida at its finest.

Each Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday until Sept. 30, knowledgable volunteers will offer free tours (donations accepted) of the property grounds and underground walk-in shell mound exhibit from 9 a.m. to noon.

Mound House is Estero Island's oldest standing structure and sits on an ancient Calusa Indian mound. The tour reveals archaeology and history, including 2,000 years of island life through the educational program.

The former William H. Case House is currently being restored to its 1921 grandeur by the Town of Fort Myers Beach.

The tours last roughly one hour with the last one set for 11:30 a.m.



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