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Cayo Costa shows off its past and present May 3

April 16, 2014
By ED FRANKS ( , Pine Island Eagle

The Friends of Cayo Costa State Park will host its 3rd annual Cayo Costa Heritage Day Saturday, May 3. The event will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

"This is a chance for visitors of all ages to see the unique qualities of this pristine barrier island and enjoy a variety of activities planned especially for this Heritage Day," said Norm Meshaw, chairman of the event.

The island of Cayo Costa, which means "Key by the Coast," is a barrier island located south of Boca Grande and west of Pine Island. It is only accessible by passenger ferry or private boat.

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Cayo Costa was inhabited for over 10,000 years by the Calusa Indians and today several of their shell mounds remain on the island. The first recorded contact between the Calusa and Europeans was by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513. However, within 300 years, the Calusa had disappeared.

In the early 1800s, Spanish fishermen from Cuba established "fishing ranchos" on the island. Fish were caught, dried and then transported to Cuba to be sold. In the late 1800s, a quarantine station was established on the north end of the island to "screen" immigrants entering the U.S. through Boca Grande Pass. In the early 1900s, there were about 20 fishing families living on Cayo Costa. Today there are no full-time island residents.

The state park was established in 1976 with a 19 acre acquisition funded by the Environmentally Endangered Lands Program. The Department of Recreation and Parks currently manages 2,416 acres as Cayo Costa State Park.

On Heritage Day, the trip to the island will begin with a ferry ride. Ferrys leave from Pine Island, Punta Gorda, Captiva and Boca Grande. The ride will take slightly less than an hour and passengers are likely to see dolphin, sea turtles, pelicans and all types of other birds native to the area. The ferry ride alone is worth the price of admission.

Once visitors arrive on the island, Heritage Day will feature a full day of activities celebrating the heritage of Cayo Costa State park. There will be nature tours of the island where visitors may see great egrets, piping plovers, snowy egrets, gopher tortoise and even bald eagles. Beach tours and kayak tours offer the opportunity to explore the 9 miles of beaches on the island. These beaches offer unlimited fishing, shelling, picnicking and swimming. There will be palm weavers, live music, a turtle nesting lecture and plenty of activities for the kids.

History tours will travel the trails of the island: Quarantine Trail takes visitors to the site of the old quarantine dock and station. These facilities were used by the U.S. military in the early 20th century to inspect men on board ships for yellow fever and other known communicable diseases. Cemetery Trail takes visitors to the site of a small graveyard dating back to the early 1900s and contains the grave of Capt. Peter Nelson, who died in 1919. Nelson moved to Lee County from Denmark in 1887 when cattle were shipped from Lee County to Cuba. Nelson died in September 1919. His stone reads, "After Life's Fitful Fever He Sleeps Well."

For those adventurers who wish to explore on their own, there are 6 miles of hiking and off-road bicycle trails on the island (bicycle rentals available). Trails to the beach, interior trails and trails from the mangrove forests to oceanfront palms. There is even an old village to explore.

Cayo Costa Heritage Day is a rare opportunity to visit the state park and help the Friends of Cayo Costa raise funds.

"These funds are used to enhance visitor services, raise awareness and protect the park's unique natural resources for future generations, provide educational opportunities for visitors and meet the long-term goal of building a permanent interpretive/nature center," Meshaw said.

Tickets are $35 for adults and $25 for children under the age of 12. Lunch is included in the ticket price and additional food will be available for purchase.

Visitors must reserve a ticket in advance from one the following four locations: Pine Island Tropic Star Cruises 239-283-0015; Punta Gorda Kingfisher 941-639-0969; Captiva Captiva Cruises 239-472-5300; or Boca Grande Captiva Cruises 239-472-5300

"Tickets are limited due to the ferry passenger restrictions so order early," Meshaw said. "Private boating parties are welcome to attend however there is limited docking space and available on a first come first served basis."

Sponsors of this year's event are Tropic Star Cruises, Captiva Cruises, Tarpon Lodge, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Jug Creek Marina.

Also, thanks to the volunteers from the Calusa Blueway, Gulf Coast Kayak, Randell Research Center, Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserve, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, FloridaShorebird Alliance, Manatee Park and Palm Art Playshop.

The Friends of Cayo Costa State Park is based in Pine Island. FCC is a division of Barrier Island Park Society, a 501C3 organization which is the official Citizens Support Organization for Cayo Costa, Don Pedro, Gasparilla, Stump Pass Beach State Parks and Boca Grande Lighthouse Museum. All funds raised by FCC will be used exclusively for Cayo Costa State Park.

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