Sanibel is an island and city in Lee County, Florida, United States. The population was 6,469 at the 2010 census, with an estimated 2012 population of 6,741. It is part of the Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Florida Metropolitan Statistical Area. The island, also known as Sanibel Island, constitutes the entire city. It is a barrier island – a collection of sand on the leeward side of the more solid coral-rock of Pine Island.
Most of the city proper is at the east end of the island. After the Sanibel causeway was built to replace the ferry in May 1963, the city was incorporated in 1974 and the residents asserted control over development by establishing the Sanibel Comprehensive Land Use Plan, helping to maintain a balance between development and preservation of the island’s ecology.
Due to easy causeway access, Sanibel is a popular tourist destination known for its shell beaches and wildlife refuges. More than half of the island is made up of wildlife refuges, the largest being J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The Island hosts the Sanibel Historical Village and a variety of other museums and theaters, as well as many non-profit organizations like the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, and the Sanibel Sea School.
The main town is located on the eastern end of the island. The city was formed in 1974, as a direct result of the main causeway being built in 1963 to replace the ferry, and the rampant construction and development that occurred afterward. Developers sued over the new restrictions, but the city and citizens prevailed in their quest to protect the island. The only buildings above two to three stories now on the barrier island were built during that period.
A short bridge over Blind Pass links Sanibel to Captiva Island. More than half of the two islands are preserved in its natural state as wildlife refuges. Visitors can drive, walk, bike, or kayak through the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The island’s most famous landmark, the Sanibel Lighthouse, is located at the eastern end of the island, adjacent to the fishing pier. The main thoroughfare, Periwinkle Way, is where the majority of stores and restaurants are located, while the Gulf Drives (East, Middle and West) play host to most of the accommodations.
The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, a not-for-profit organization, has also been a key player in helping to curb uncontrolled commercial growth and development on the island. Since 1967, SCCF has been dedicated to the preservation of natural resources on and around Sanibel and Captiva and has led efforts to acquire and preserve environmentally sensitive land on the islands including critical wildlife habitats, rare and unique subtropical plant communities, tidal wetlands, and freshwater wetlands along the Sanibel River.
Sanibel beaches attract visitors from all around the world, partly because of the large quantities of seashells that frequently wash up there. Many sand dollars can be found as well. One of the reasons for these large accumulations of shells is the fact that Sanibel is a barrier island which is “part of a large plateau that extends out into the Gulf of Mexico for miles. It is this plateau that acts like a shelf for seashells to gather.” Sanibel also has an “east-west orientation when most islands are north-south. Hence, the island is gifted with great sandy beaches and an abundance of shells.”
Lighthouse Beach is named after the famous Sanibel Lighthouse, which includes a popular fishing pier and nature trails. The most secluded beach on the island is Bowman’s Beach; there are no hotels in sight and the beach has a “pristine and quiet” atmosphere.