Captiva’s Younger Sibling: Born of Wind and Water, North Captiva is Still UnspoiledMay 10, 2022 01:06PM ● By GLENN V. OSTLE
On October 17, 1921, a low-pressure weather system slipped quietly into the western Caribbean. It soon grew into an unnamed category 1 hurricane with winds up to 140 mph, and a week later swept across Southwest Florida, covering Sanibel, Captiva, and Estero islands with water. In the process it neatly sliced Captiva Island in two, carving out a wide channel today known as Redfish Pass and creating a brand-new barrier island, North Captiva.
Today, 101 years later, little has changed on this 700-acre, 4.5-mile-long island of lush greenery and sand. Nestled just off the Gulf Coast with Cayo Costa to the north, Pine Island to the east, and Captiva and Sanibel islands to the south, North Captiva is still wild and remote. It can be reached only by water taxi, private boat, or a small airplane landing on a private 1,800-foot grass airstrip built in the 1960s. There are no paved roads, only bicycles and electric golf carts for transportation, and supplies must be brought in by shallow draft barge.
For a Florida island, North Captiva, sometimes referred to as Upper Captiva, is surprisingly underdeveloped mainly because a 500-acre section in the center of the island is owned by the state of Florida and protected as part of Cayo Costa State Park.
North of the state park are 300 homes—mostly rentals—and 40-50 full-time residents. To the south are 11 homes, most of which are second homes and powered by either generators or solar devices, as the electric lines, brought to the island along with phone lines in the 1980s, do not extend far enough south.
In the past, there have been attempts to make the island more accessible. When the Sanibel Causeway was completed in 1963, a bridge was proposed to link Captiva and North Captiva, which created a brief real estate boom. The state’s purchase of the large tract of land for the state park in the late 1970s effectively put an end to any attempts at overdevelopment.
Untethered from its larger sibling, North Captiva is an unspoiled paradise, close to but apart from bustling civilization. And that is just the way the few residents, as well as all the nature-loving tourists who visit there, like it.
LOTS TO SEE AND DO
“This remote island has been an unexpected escape for decades,” says Captain Brian Holaway, a Master Naturalist who has been a shelling and ecotour guide in the area since 1995. He operates boat charters around the islands of Pine Island Sound, including Cayo Costa, Cabbage Key, Pine Island, and North Captiva. According to Holaway, despite North Captiva’s remoteness, there is a lot to see and do for those who like their islands a little less crowded.
First, there’s the appeal of a place that is the very definition of a tropical paradise, with palm trees, bright white sands, and turquoise waters. The subtropical climate makes it the perfect place for a winter getaway.
“The island’s shorelines are among the best places in the country for shelling, and the fishing is first-rate,” says Holaway. “There is also a trail that runs from the north end of the island to the middle of the state park, where occasionally bald eagles can be spotted. And of course, there are the many types of shorebirds to see, including willets and oystercatchers.”
Some visitors are drawn by the chance to spot local protected wildlife such as the long-lived gopher tortoises that dig deep burrows for shelter and forage on low-growing plants. Occasionally it is possible to find dolphins playing in the blue waters and manatees floating in quiet coves.
One highlight is the North Captiva Sea Turtle Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization established to protect the many loggerhead turtles that arrive here each year. According to Pam West, one of the foundation’s four founders, “Each hatchling is important, as only one out of a thousand will survive. So, we monitor the beaches daily looking for new crawls, marking nests, and recording data for the FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission). After a nest has hatched, we evaluate it and occasionally discover a hatchling left behind. It is always fun to see a new baby scurry off to the gulf and swim away.”
Newly arrived turtles float out in the gulf to pick out their nesting spots on the beach, so the foundation encourages visitors and homeowners to keep the beach clean and flat, fill up any holes, remove trash and furniture, and turn off all lights in the evening, including flashlights. In 2021, 166 turtles nested on North Captiva, which West calls “a great success.”
For those looking to stay for a while on this virtually deserted island, vacation rentals are available, ranging from quaint cottages to luxurious beachfront homes, so it is easy to find a beachy getaway. Three local restaurants provide full fare. One of the favorites is the Mainstay North Captiva Restaurant & Bar, which has a long history, starting years ago as the iconic Barnacle Phil’s. There is also Mango’s restaurant, as well as Over the Waterfront, which is private and part of the Safety Harbor Club.
But for many visitors, the main attraction on North Captiva is the chance to walk pristine beaches and play in its clear waters. Holaway cautions that sandbars tend to form on the north end of the island and visitors need to be aware of currents and tides that can change quickly.
“The beauty of these islands is that they are always changing,” says Holaway. “This usually occurs at a slow rate and most islanders prefer that compared to the fast changes on the mainland. Over the years, a lot of the ‘old-timers’ have left, and things have certainly been difficult during the pandemic. But that too is changing. This is normally a busy time of year, but recently it has been busier than I’ve ever seen it. It seems more people than ever are coming to visit this beautiful island.”
Glenn Ostle is a long-time contributor to TOTI publications. He resides in Charlotte, North Carolina. He and his partner, Pam Hadfield, travel the world writing and taking photos of wildlife and underwater. To see more of his photos, go to featherandfins.smugmug.com.