2009-04-15 / Outdoors

Cayo Pelau: a short trip to uninhabited splendor

We're moving toward mosquito season, when a relatively unknown island ringed by mangroves and covered with a tidal swamp will become a magnet for blood-sucking bugs.

So go now. Get in your powerboat and launch from the tip of Pine Island into Charlotte Harbor. Head six miles northwest to this forgotten isle with a funny name — Cayo Pelau.

The place is now a 126-acre Conservation 20/20 preserve. Its 2.8 miles of shoreline include three sugar-sand beaches, slender white oasises banked up against the dense mangroves and lush vegetation that bursts with renewal. It's as if Hurricane Charley were ages ago instead of 4½ years in the past.

The preserve is surrounded by Cape Haze, Charlotte Harbor and Gasparilla Sound. The northern most tip of the island is located in and owned by Charlotte County. But Lee County has the good part. On a clear spring day, the place doesn't seem far. And if you've been to Cayo Costa lately and watched tourists work its shores like fire ants swarming a mound, you may be ready to discover something new in your estuary of a backyard.

The day I headed out, Charlotte Harbor was angry, spitting whitecaps at the wind and burping up swells were more than just salt spray in the face. (Think of scenes from "A Perfect Storm," on occasion. Or maybe it just felt that way.)

BETSY CLAYTON/ FLORIDA WEEKLY Cayo Pelau BETSY CLAYTON/ FLORIDA WEEKLY Cayo Pelau But once the coves of Cayo Pelau caressed our craft, we anchored in calm water and broke out sandwiches. A reddish egret gracefully danced in the shadows, scaring up tiny silver fish it speared for its lunch. An osprey cried overhead. A pelican plunged into the green-blue water.

Not a soul was on the shore or near the island, which is waiting for people to hike, bird watch and come study its peculiar plants or photograph its creatures. (No camping permitted for you kayakers; sorry.)

Find out more at www.Conservation2020. org. Plan a trip today — before the mosquitoes take over in June.

In other outdoors news:

Get smart at wildlife meeting: Fido retrieving a Frisbee, fitness lovers playing volleyball and even watersports fans kiteboarding all are potential trouble for nesting birds along the shores of Estero Island. But beach-goers don't always understand the conflict — or the birds' tendencies to take flight and abandon nests. Even if it's for a short time, the chicks and eggs are vulnerable to predators or dehydration.

A public workshop is set for 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday, April 15, at the Fort Myers Beach Holiday Inn for property owners and seasonal residents. It's about the habitats found at the sliver-of-an-island's beach and dunes, and it's free with limited space. More details are available by calling 765-0202, ext. 139.

Summer on Florida's shores means time for renewal for birds such as least terns, skimmers and plovers, not to mention sea turtles. Specifically, you can learn about the Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area, at the southern end of Fort Myers Beach. It's one of the few state-owned wildlife areas in Lee County that provides nesting habitat for endangered shorebirds and sea turtles.

Remember, posted nesting areas are off-limits to beachgoers and their pets between the time of posting and Aug. 31, when chicks fledge. People can get to the water's edge by walking around posted areas or using marked thoroughfares between them.

Spring Fling: Mark your calendar now for the May 7 Spring Fling, the annual fundraiser for the Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium. "It has never been more important to our very survival as it is this time around," director Sanders Lewallen told me via e-mail.

The guest speaker is Jungle Jack Hanna, known for his service to the Columbus Zoo and his appearances on television shows such as "The Late Show with David Letterman," "Larry King Live," "Ellen DeGeneres Show," "The Maury Show," and "Entertainment Tonight" and as a wildlife correspondent for Fox and CNN News.

It's the biggest fundraiser of the year for the center, which sits near Colonial Boulevard and Six Mile Cypress Parkway/ Ortiz Avenue. But the event is 6 to 9 p.m. at Harborside Event Center. It's $75 per adult or $25 per child. There's dinner, a silent auction and a children's program. Call 275-3435 for reservations.

— Betsy Clayton is a freelancer based on Pine Island and also is Lee County Parks & Recreation's waterways coordinator. Contact her at boatingbybetsy@yahoo.com.

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