The “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1945 as the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge and renamed for “Ding” Darling in 1967. It occupies about half of the island and is one of the great things to do on Sanibel. It is described by some as one of the finest wildlife refuges in the country. It is one of the nation’s largest mangrove ecosystems and an internationally renowned birding destination. It also provides a safe, managed environment for island critters such as otters, raccoons, bobcats, turtles, alligators and one crocodile. There are several ways to experience the Refuge – The Visitor Center, by Wildlife Drive or by boat – and several electronic accesses.
The Visitor Center
Accessing the Visitor Center is free and is located off Sanibel-Captiva Road at 1 Wildlife Drive. It is open all year from 9 AM till 5 PM November through April and 4 PM during the summer months. It includes many interesting displays and educational programs and materials. There are frequent daily showings of a film that explains the purpose of the refuge and a preview of what you might see. The Center is manned by volunteers who can answer any questions you have. There is a gift shop that offers the usual T-shirt, caps, jewelry etc. but also has a significant collection of good journals, books and artwork featuring various local wildlife.
Wildlife Drive is a road through the Refuge. It’s open every day except Fridays. The hours are 7 AM to 5:30 or 8:00 PM depending on the time of year. It starts at the Visitor Center and is 4 miles long. You can travel it by foot, bike, car or tram with fees associated with each — $5 per car or $1 per person for walkers, bikers or boaters and $13 for the tram for adults, $8 for children. There is an expert interpreter on the tram and a reservation is advisable. Volunteers with scopes and binoculars are present at various sites along the drive who are expert and will point out and explain any unusual activity.
You can launch your own canoe or kayak from Wildlife Drive and explore the refuge from that perspective. Be sure you launch at high tide to avoid getting grounded. You can also rent a boat, kayak or paddle board from the refuge concession – The Tarpon Bay Explorers – at 900 Tarpon Bay Road. Also, check that there are no temporary restrictions on launching. Rates are $33 for 2 hours for double seated boats or $25 for single seats.
There is a phone app called “Discover Ding” which is compatible with the iPhone and Android devices. It will let you view real-time wildlife sightings and provide general refuge information. If you have or download a QR reader you can stop at any panel along the drive with a QR code and hear an explanation of where you are and what you’re seeing.
Visiting the refuge is a one-of-a-kind experience — a wildlife refuge in the middle of a community. It is unusual and on top of the list of things to do for the vacationers staying in the rental condos or homes. For additional information about the refuge call them at 239 472 1100 or go to www.fws.gov/dingdarling.