I’m 60 feet under water and floating above a sunken culvert at Sherman’s Reef, an artificial reef off the coast of southwest Florida. Below me, a school of angelfish circles lazily, barely noticing as I swim overhead.
I dive deeper and come face to face with a goliath grouper, its oversized mouth moving open and closed. These massive fish can grow up to eight feet long and weigh 800 pounds. He stares at me, unimpressed, and moves away.
Goliath grouper, snapper, amberjack, and snook are just some of the fish found in the waters near Fort Myers and Sanibel Island, Florida. Diving here is unique. Since the Gulf of Mexico is so shallow and the sea bottom is sandy, most divers take a 15- to 20-mile boat ride to a network of artificial reefs managed by Lee County. The reefs are an odd assortment of sunken steel ships, concrete slabs, culverts, shrimp boats, and even an old cell phone tower. They create a haven for fish, and opportunities for divers.
Though Lee County has provided a helpful map and guidebook of the reef system, our dive master from Dean’s Dive Shop knows these waters well, and we’re able to visit three artificial reefs in one day.
Deep Sea Fishing
These are also prime waters for deep sea fishing. My husband and I see this first-hand when our boat captain, Scott Lavis of Fish-n-Tales, drops in a few fishing lines. Within minutes, he pulls up grouper and red snapper. Later that evening, we take some of the catch to Fish-Tale Waterfront Dining, where they make one of the tastiest fish dinners I’ve ever eaten. Many restaurants here offer “Cook Your Catch” options and I can see why.
Deep sea fishing is just one of the many draws to this part of southwest Florida. Others come for the 50 miles of wide beaches along Fort Myers and nearby Sanibel Island. Connected by a causeway, Fort Myers has a quirky, laid-back beach town vibe, while 15-mile-long Sanibel Island has a more refined, natural feel.
With average annual temperatures of 75 degrees, both are popular destinations year-round, especially with families. Accommodations in Fort Myers and Sanibel Island range from beach cottages to small inns and luxury resorts. The closest airport is Southwest Florida International Airport, and the region is a 3.5-hour drive from Orlando, and 2.5-hours from Miami or Tampa.
Shelling on Sanibel Island
Sanibel Island is well-known for shelling, with more varieties of shells found here than anywhere else in the country, including the coveted speckled junonia, sculpted lion’s paw, golden olive, and golden tulip.
Shelling is such a popular pastime, that there’s even a name—the Sanibel Stoop—for the often-seen posture on the beaches. The Sanibel Shell Festival, which is now in its 82nd year, celebrates shelling each March.
J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge
A visit to J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is on our Florida bucket list. This protected gem on Sanibel Island is home to manatees, alligators, dolphins, gopher tortoises, and many species of birds.
Stand up paddling and kayaking are popular ways to see the area, so we join a guided kayaking tour with Tarpon Bay Explorers. It’s still early as we paddle through the mangrove forest along the Commodore Creek Water Trail. Our guide, Ty, is an experienced naturalist and points out wildlife that we would otherwise miss, including birds, alligators, and even tiny snails climbing the roots of the mangroves.
After an hour, we’re left to explore the water trail on our own. We paddle into hidden bays and spend moments floating in silence. It’s a relaxing way to spend the morning.
Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille
Life here revolves around the sea. At dinner that evening, we sit outside at Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille Ft. Myers Beach, which is somewhat of a local institution. The restaurant is named for the fictional Doc Ford, the hero of a best-selling series of mystery novels by former Sanibel Island fishing guide, Randy Wayne White. White once lived in a stilt house along the shrimp docks here and eventually set his tales in the marina life along these shores. Today, White can sometimes be seen writing at the restaurant.
Listening to live music and enjoying our cool drinks on the patio, we watch some of the largest shrimp boat fleets in the United States head out into the Gulf. Shrimpers fish at night, when pink shrimp are active. We’re so mesmerized by the scene that even when it starts sprinkling, we don’t want to go inside. Happily, the storm quickly passes, and we watch the sun set across Estero Bay.
On our last night in Florida, we have one more opportunity to see the local wildlife on a Sunset Dolphin Wildlife Cruise on Estero Bay, the first aquatic preserve in Florida. The waters are as still as glass as we move across the sea. As we head into the boat channel, we notice a cownose stingray feeding near the top of the water. Then we pass an array of birds—pink spoonbills, white egrets, and great blue herons—wading and fishing along the sandbank.
Finally, we see a pod of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins playing in the distance.
“Maybe they’ll surf behind our boat wake,” our guide says.
Sure enough, as the boat picks up speed, five dolphins swim up behind us. The playful animals take turns jumping and cavorting in our wake. We laugh, watching their antics. Eventually, they grow tired of us, and in the rays of the setting sun, I watch them as they swim away.
The writer was a guest of The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel.
Janna Graber has covered travel in more than 45 countries. She is the editor of three travel anthologies, including “A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel,” and is the managing editor of Go World Travel Magazine.