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Take a Hike: Discover the Hidden Treasures of Sand Dollar Island

Exploring a Pristine Ecosystem in Southwest Florida

By Nancy Richie

If you’re up for an adventure, why not take a hike and explore one of the most stunning ecosystems in southwest Florida? Start your journey at the Tigertail Beach Park parking lot, where a new boardwalk awaits. From there, venture through a mesmerizing tunnel of mangroves, meandering around the southern end of the Tigertail Lagoon. Finally, make your way north to the tip of Sand Dollar Island, the enchanting “spit” that gracefully curves towards Hideaway Beach. Take your time on this moderate three-hour hike, pausing to admire the abundant wildlife you’re bound to encounter.

Sand Dollar Island: A Natural Wonder

Once you set foot on the “spit,” you’ll be stepping onto an officially designated area known as the “Big Marco Pass Critical Wildlife Area.” However, locals affectionately refer to it as Sand Dollar Island. In the past, this island was actually a sandbar that paralleled the beach off north Marco Island. Boaters flocked to this popular destination during the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, collecting buckets full of sand dollars and giving the place its name.

Around 1999, due to natural processes such as currents, storms, and sand deposits, the Big Marco Pass filled in and connected Sand Dollar Island’s southern end with Marco Island’s main beach. Since then, this connected island, now a “spit,” has added miles of pristine beach for curious beachcombers to explore, photographers to capture, and shell enthusiasts to enjoy. A select few have discovered the secret charm of this jewel on Marco Island. It’s time for you to take a hike and see what makes this place so special.

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A Shell Collector’s Paradise

As you stroll along the shoreline, you’ll come across an array of shell species. From the familiar scallops, fighting conchs, and pen shells to the more exotic lettered olives, moon snails, and lightning whelks, you’ll be amazed at the diversity. Keep in mind, when collecting shells, always check inside to ensure there is no living mollusk. If the shell is empty, feel free to add it to your collection. However, if it’s occupied, please leave it on the beach. And of course, sand dollars can be found in abundance—sometimes more than you can count.

Traversing Mangroves and Remote Paradises

Due to shoreline erosion, you may encounter a few barren mangroves and sea grapes. These trees, now adorned with shells and messages left by beach walkers, have become autograph trees—a special spot for creating memories. Around a mile up the “spit,” you’ll find a pathway that leads you into a cluster of red mangroves. This momentary immersion in a remote paradise will transport you to an adventurous setting. Suddenly, the path opens up to a vast stretch of beach nestled between the Gulf of Mexico and Tigertail Lagoon. Keep your eyes peeled for the abundant birdlife both in the water and on the sandy beach. You have now arrived at the heart of the Critical Wildlife Area.

A Sanctuary for Nesting Sea Turtles and Shorebirds

If you visit in May, you might witness the thrill of discovery. Our dedicated sea turtle guardian, Mary Nelson, and her team have already protected the first two sea turtle nests of the season. In approximately 60 days, around 100 hatchlings will emerge from each nest. Sand Dollar Island will always be their natal beach—a place they will one day return to and lay their own eggs. Last season, Sand Dollar Island’s “spit” hosted more than one-third of Marco Island’s sea turtle nests.

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From April through August, the large sandy expanse between the lagoon and Gulf becomes a nesting ground for Least Terns and Black Skimmers. These charismatic shorebirds form large colonies, creating a cacophony of chirps and calls. Unfortunately, their nesting requirements are becoming increasingly scarce along the Southeast coast due to habitat loss caused by upland development. However, Sand Dollar Island offers the perfect conditions for their nesting needs. The expansive sandy areas, combined with some vegetation for shelter and an ample supply of bait fish in the lagoon and Gulf, attract a growing number of Least Terns and Black Skimmers each year. The upcoming season promises another productive year for these magnificent birds.

Protecting Nesting Shorebirds

When these birds nest, they simply create a shallow depression in the sand, making their eggs incredibly hard to spot. To safeguard these delicate nests, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation biologists mark the nesting areas each spring. It’s crucial to avoid disturbing the birds (known as flushing) during your hike. They need to remain calm and on their eggs until they hatch and their chicks are ready to fend for themselves. Flushed birds, along with their fragile eggs and vulnerable chicks, become easy prey for other shorebirds, crows, and ghost crabs. Additionally, the scorching sun can quickly prove fatal to exposed eggs and chicks. Hence, it’s imperative to keep a respectful distance from the posted areas. If you’re lucky, you may even meet one of our friendly Shorebird Stewards. These local volunteers spend a few hours near the nesting areas, providing valuable information and offering the chance to observe the birds and chicks through a scope.

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The Ever-Expanding Sandy Tip

As you continue your hike, heading towards the very tip of the “spit,” you’ll notice that the shoreline seems to stretch closer and closer to Hideaway Beach. It’s almost as if you could walk straight there. Along the way, keep your eyes peeled for dolphins and manatees, who frequently grace these waters with their presence. This area is a sought-after boating destination and holds historical significance as the site of “Coconut Island.” On some Saturday afternoons, you might even find dozens of boats dotting the tip, with their passengers enjoying the crystal-clear, warm waters. However, please remember that dogs are not permitted on Marco Island’s beaches, Sand Dollar Island included. Keep your furry friends onboard your boat and help preserve this fragile and diverse ecosystem that we know and love as Sand Dollar Island.

Enjoy the Wonders of Sand Dollar Island

Ready to embark on an unforgettable adventure through the captivating ecosystem of Sand Dollar Island? Remember, as you explore, leave nothing behind but your footprints in the sand. Take any trash or beach equipment with you when you depart. If you would like more information about Marco Island’s breathtaking beach and wildlife or are interested in volunteering as a Collier County Shorebird Steward, feel free to contact Nancy Richie, the city of Marco Island’s environmental specialist, at [email protected] or 239-389-5003.

Sand Dollar Island

For more beach and bird information, please contact Nancy Richie, City of Marco Island, at 239-389-5003 or [email protected].

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