Sanibel Island is, hands down, my favorite place to vacation. It’s a beautiful little island which has no high-rise buildings or traffic lights, with stunning tropical vegetation and tons of small-town charm. I can always count on seeing lots of natural wildlife, possibly due to the nature preserve that takes up about a quarter of the island. My husband and I first visited the island almost thirty years ago, when I was six months pregnant with my daughter, and despite having to wear a maternity swim suit that looked like a circus tent, I fell in love with Sanibel.
I have so many great memories of our family vacations on the island, where we walked the beach, collected shells, rode the miles of bike trails, and lounged by the swimming pool together. Once, I was sitting on the screened-in patio of our condo, reading a book and sipping on my wine, when my young son came up from the pool and stood in the doorway, dripping wet and calling out for me to bring him his camera. I asked him why, and he said there was an alligator on the beach, and he wanted to get a picture. I told him alligators don’t go on the beach, but he assured me that some people at the pool had told him there really was an alligator down there, and could I please hurry with the camera.
So I fetched his camera and wandered back out to the patio. I had actually picked up both my book and my glass of wine before the full implication of our conversation sunk in; that’s how relaxed I am when I’m on Sanibel. And then of course, I ran down to beach as fast as my chubby little legs would carry me, frantically yelling “Stay away from that alligator!” Which was a good thing, because as it turned out, there really was an alligator on the beach.
Even though our kids are grown up, my husband and I still enjoy Sanibel, and we just returned from a week-long visit there. We had a wonderful time, right up to the very last day, when we noticed what looked like a thin brown line on the eastern horizon, right where the ocean meets the sky. As we watched, the line of dark, murky water grew larger and larger, spreading across the bay toward the Sanibel beaches.
It turned out to be the result of the release of flood waters (Florida has been hit with record rainfalls recently) that had been “back pumped” into Lake Okeechobee and which were now being redirected into the Caloosahatchee River and carried into the Gulf of Mexico. When the massive amounts of fresh water, polluted with flood debris, meets the ocean water, it causes all kinds of environmental problems such as killing fish and marine life, increasing red tide, and temporarily turning miles and miles of beautiful ocean water a dark, oily brown.
I know that this has been a problem for many years, and that environmentalists and the government agencies who authorize the massive release of the lake water into the rivers and ocean are at odds with each other. As a rule, I try not to take sides in a dispute when I don’t know all the facts, and I definitely do not know all the facts about this issue. I am not a Florida resident and I know almost nothing about marine biology or water resource management.
But I know what I saw, and what I saw was ugly and unnatural, and deeply disturbing. I know that the destruction of the Earth’s natural beauty and delicate ecosystem is a wide-spread problem, and that we need to do a better job of caring for our fragile planet. And nothing brought that home to me more than witnessing first-hand the pollution of the waters of my beloved Sanibel Island.