provided to The Santiva Chronicle
Tarpon Bay Explorers, the recreation concession for the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, reopened with limited services on Feb. 1. The Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce honored the occasion on Tuesday, Feb. 21, with an official ribbon-cutting at the Tarpon Bay Recreation Area.
Having suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Ian – including the loss of most of its paddlecraft and all of its pontoon boats, rental bikes, and trams – Tarpon Bay Explorers opens in gradual phases. On Feb. 1, its popular Gift & Nature Store was back up and running, along with kayak and paddleboard rentals. The ramp also opened for nonmotorized vessel launching.
On Feb. 13, staff naturalists began offering kayak tours of Commodore Trail Creek every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 10 a.m. Call 239-472-8900 to reserve or book ahead online at tarponbayexplorers.com. Current business hours are Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with last rentals of the day at 3 p.m.
“As soon as we can generate enough revenue to pay additional staff, we will be able to expand how many days we are open,” said co-owner Wendy Schnapp. “Right now, there are just three of us working. We will add more kayak tours once we have the demand…. We will add the tram tours once Wildlife Drive opens.”
Boat cruises and other services that require a major investment will depend on island visitation numbers and accommodations recovery, she added, but probably will not happen until 2024. In the meantime, islanders and visitors alike are happy to take advantage of available services.
“Locals have been out to shop and some out to take a break from working on their own home repairs and get out on the water, which they miss so much,” said Schnapp. “Visitors and snowbirds who normally stay on Sanibel and have found rentals in Fort Myers, Estero, etc., have come out to the island just because they saw we were open and wanted to support us.”
“We are so thrilled to take this exciting first step toward refuge recovery,” said Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland. She and Schnapp are pleased to see people finding relief from the mental and physical effects of the storm and its aftermath with a dose of nature at Tarpon Bay.
“Whether people want to just come over and watch the manatees and birds from the deck or actually get out and paddle, our facility opening is able to provide that much-needed release,” said Schnapp. “A big thank you to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the ‘Ding’ Darling Wildlife Society for all they have done to help us recover and open.”
“As the islands’ main attraction, along with our beaches, ‘Ding’ Darling’s recovery benefits us all,” said John Lai, chamber president and CEO. “We join everyone in sending up a big cheer of encouragement as Tarpon Bay Explorers forges ahead.”
“The chamber continues to market our destination and will be key to rebuilding business for us and all the other members as we work towards full recovery,” said Schnapp.